'One extraordinary Calgarian': Normie Kwong's life captured in Heritage Minutes film

Calgarian’s young struggles and championship football efforts the focus of 60-second ride

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Norman Kwong’s 86 years on Earth were filled with many moments of love, success and celebration.

Far too many, really, to jam into a 60-second vignette.

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But Historica Canada did its best to do the Calgarian’s life justice with the production of one of its iconic Heritage Minutes — the short film to be released on YouTube early Tuesday.

“It’s the telling of a very Alberta story,” said former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, board member of Historica Canada. “Norman Kwong — one extraordinary Calgarian, Albertan … community leader, builder, hero.

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“And I’m so excited that we have the opportunity to tell the story of someone whose parents came here — in spite of the ‘head tax’ — and struggled,” continued Nenshi. “I love that we are capturing this story in this iconic Canadian fashion.”

Funded by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and First National Financial, the minute-long look-back at the life of Kwong centres on his trials facing racism growing up in the city, the compassion and support of his parents, who owned Riverside Cash & Carry, and his efforts in running to two touchdowns to help his Canadian Football League team win the 1955 Grey Cup.

It’s a poignant snap-shot of the man who became the first Chinese Canadian professional football player, a four-time Grey Cup king-pin — winning the CFL championship with both the Calgary Stampeders and the Edmonton Eskimos — and Alberta’s 16th lieutenant governor — the first of Chinese heritage — from 2005-10.

“We’re very humbled,” said Kwong’s son Greg, who was joined by about a dozen family members for the launch of the Heritage Minutes film Monday night at the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre. “I mean … at the very least, this doesn’t happen every day. So we’re a bit shocked.

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“I was amazed after we were contracted about a year ago for our permission on this, and it was amazing how much research they did. They asked a bunch of questions, asked for pictures and asked for a lot of the background and anecdotal information, and then they went away for like eight months. And we wondered, ‘Are they still gonna do this?’”

With the help of the family, Historica Canada did just that.

And the final cut was met with deserving praise during Monday’s launch, which was attended by many city officials, including Mayor Jyoti Gondek.

“They hit it on the nose,” said Greg, speaking on behalf of Kwong brothers Marty, Brad and Randy and their families. “It was a good, collaborative effort, but they did all the work — they assembled everything. We just gave them all the information.

“My brother, Randy, and I had a chance to actually go and watch some of the production and some of the filming,” continued Greg. “And … yeah … I was brought to tears in a couple of scenes. It was like seeing your dad at 18 years old. Very strange.”

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Actor Patrick Kwok-Choon, known for his role in the ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ television series, played the young Kwong in the project.

“Definitely challenging for the first day, because it wasn’t sure what I was in for,” Kwok-Choon said. “Especially because we were playing with actual ex-CFL, college, high school and pro football players. And … yeah … I got tossed around a little bit, and it was amazing.

“By the end of the eight-hour day, not only I but even the CFL players there were beat. I went to bed in my hotel at three o’clock in the afternoon, and I only woke up at about 10 a.m.”

The recreation was filmed primarily in the community of Ramsay and at Shouldice Athletic Park

The film is co-produced by Brent Kawchuck and Michelle Wong of Calgary’s Danny Rocket Productions and directed by Yung Chang, of This Is Not a Movie fame.

“Yung and I hadn’t heard about Normie Kwong, maybe because we’re East Coasters,” Kwok-Choon said. “But the more I did research on this part, the more I was blown away by what he accomplished. First Chinese Canadian CFL player, he won several championships, moved on to become owner of the Calgary Flames and then gave back to his community after that — and being lieutenant governor, as well.

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“Of course, he came from humble beginnings and faced such a great amount of adversity — an onslaught of racism growing up. And he pushed through it and made something of himself. I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s great that we’re paying tribute to his life with this Heritage Minutes film. And I’m so thankful that other Asian Canadians and other people of colour can see this representation.”

Kwong was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1969 and — with 73 — remains Edmonton’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns.

The dynamic Calgarian was also named to the Order of Canada in 1998.

“My dad passed away in 2016,” added Greg. “Other than the odd call from a reporter or a story on the Edmonton Elks, we thought he kind of faded into anonymity. And then you get a call like this, and it’s like, ‘Wow, people still remember him.’

“To us, he was just a good father — that’s all we saw. He’s the one that said, ‘Stay in your lane.’”

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