May 1, 2024

Hall: Norman Kwong’s story resonates in Heritage Minute

The Canadian Press

Anthony Wilson-Smith is a master storyteller, with a resume featuring more than two decades as a journalist at Maclean’s, including a four-year stint as the magazine’s editor.

He reported from more than 35 countries — from Afghanistan to Haiti to Indonesia— and even served as Moscow bureau chief when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

So, Wilson-Smith knows the makings of a captivating yarn. And he jumped at the opportunity to make the late Norman Kwong the subject of a Heritage Minute documentary.

“Everybody loves the underdog story,” said Wilson-Smith, president of Historica Canada, the non-profit that produces Heritage Minutes, funded principally by the federal Department of Canadian Heritage. “It’s almost like a Rocky thing — a guy who comes up from nothing and meets much harder odds than the average person. Not only does he get to the top end, but he really becomes a star.”

» Diversity is Strength: Catch up on videos, podcasts, and stories
» Hall: How I learned to embrace being a female reporter
» Hall: Pinball reflects on opportunity during Black History Month
» In My Words | Bo Lokombo: Why I work with an anti-racism program
Listen: Diversity is Strength Conversations podcast

Released in February,  the 60-second Kwong video has already broken the million-view mark and the numbers keep climbing for the tale of the Canadian sporting legend who died in 2016 at age 86.

“We’re trying to make minutes that at some point, almost everyone in the country can look and say, `Hey,  you know, I see myself in that,’” Wilson-Smith said on the eve of Asian Heritage Month. “So, this one was a step towards that on two counts.

“It’s a prominent, inspirational story involving a Chinese Canadian and remarkably, we’ve never done one specifically on the CFL before. And, of course, if there’s one great Canadian institution, it’s the CFL.”

Born in Calgary in 1929 to Chinese immigrant grocers, the late Kwong blazed many trails to stardom in his life – both on and off the field.

In 1948, Kwong became the first Chinese Canadian to play professional football.

Kwong joined the CFL one year after Chinese Canadians won the right to vote and a year after Ottawa lifted what amounted to a 24-year ban on immigration from China.

“Canada was almost entirely made up of people from the United Kingdom who had come over,” said Wilson-Smith. “And in the West, some Eastern Europeans, like Ukrainians, would come. But it was otherwise a very white country.”

It was also a country hostile to those of Asian descent.

“Very open racism,” said Wilson-Smith.

Due to his poor eyesight and small stature, the five-foot-nine, 170-pound Kwong was an unlikely professional football player. Suiting up for his hometown Stampeders, the 18-year-old fullback became the youngest player to  win the Grey Cup in 1948 when Calgary beat the Ottawa Rough Riders 12-7 at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium.

Kwong won Grey Cups with both Calgary and Edmonton in his playing career, establishing himself as a record-setting star in the CFL ((The Associated Press))

But in truth, Kwong already possessed a lifetime of experience in battling those who sought to flatten his dreams and prevent him from making any forward progress.

For proof, look no further than the 1939 scene in the Heritage Minute that shows a sign on a brick wall that reads, “No Dogs Allowed.”

In white block letters, someone had added, “Or Chinese.”

“He wanted to go swimming at the public pool, and he wasn’t allowed,” said director Yung Chang, who wrote the script for the video funded principally by Heritage Canada. “And there was the bullying he faced.

“He was someone who didn’t turn away from that kind of stuff. He would definitely fight back.”

Heritage Minutes are, by definition, true to history. The research is exhaustive. The plot is not based on a true story. It is a true story.

Tiny details matter, right down to the football cleats of the era, the jerseys, and even the football itself.

“In my interviews with Normie’s family, I was able to isolate certain anecdotes that came directly from the family that were told to them by their father,” Chang said. “That was really important to make sure we weren’t just pulling things out of the air.”

That included the offensive words on the brick wall.

“The other one was that he had to hide his football career from his parents, because they didn’t approve of it,” Chang said. “They were worried he was going to get hurt.

“I don’t think at the time that his parents had the knowledge that he could turn this into something that was a viable career.”

That changed once word got out about Kwong’s immense potential and the path forward as a professional football player.

“I had so much material to work with,” Chang said. “And then you realize when you’re making it, `Oh, I’ve actually only got one minute.’”

Seen here with Queen Elizabeth II in 2005, Kwong became Alberta’s first lieutenant governor of Chinese descent (The Canadian Press)

After three seasons in Calgary, Kwong moved on to play 10 years for the rival Edmonton football club. He won Grey Cup championships on behalf of the Alberta capital in 1954, 1955 and 1956.

“Anybody who can be beloved, in both Edmonton and Calgary, is doing something pretty good,” Wilson-Smith said. “Especially in sports.”

Before retiring from football in 1960, Kwong was twice named the CFL’s most outstanding Canadian player. He won Canada’s athlete of the year in 1955 over the legendary Edmonton quarterback Jackie Parker and NHL stars Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Gordie Howe.

Kwong’s star only grew brighter after hanging up his cleats. He was part of the ownership group that helped bring the NHL Flames to Calgary from Atlanta in 1980 and won the Stanley Cup in 1989.

From 1988-1992, Kwong served as the Stampeders’ president and general manager.

In 2005, he made history again – this time for being named Alberta’s first lieutenant governor of Chinese descent.

“It’s a very uplifting story,” Wilson-Smith said. “If you live in Calgary today, you live in a very multicultural city. If you’re a young person in Calgary, it’s hard to understand that there was once a time where it was not like that.

“So, this tells a story of who we were, where we were and who and what we are now.”

The comment system on this website is now powered by the Forums. We'd love for you to be part of the conversation; click the Start Discussion button below to register an account and join the community!