Alex Mah was pretty busy for the past number of weeks, making lists. Meticulously done, as always, he knew from them exactly who he had invited and what they were going to eat. He even knew where they were going to sit from his seating plan.
It’s like that pretty much every year for the longtime Richmond resident when he organizes a family party. But this year was extra special — the lists were for his birthday party at a local restaurant, held yesterday (March 16), to celebrate turning 100.
“It’s surprising,” Alex told the News a couple of days before the big celebration, when asked how he felt about reaching the century mark
Asked if he had a secret to his longevity, Alex said, “Try to live every day without worry. Take everything easy.”
“He also keeps himself very busy and alert,” said his daughter, Doreen. “He’s on the computer every day.”
“Every morning and every evening, he’s doing paperwork and accounting. He just finished doing his own taxes. He did my taxes,” added his son, Jerry.
“He went to night school 30 years ago to learn how to use a computer and he does spread sheets on everything,” said Leong, Alex’s oldest son. “All the sports, weather, all his gardening stuff, everything. It’s all on the computer.”
“All of his grocery lists are on there, too. Jerry takes him shopping once a week and dad writes the date of when he bought the goods and the price,” Doreen said.
“Well, he used to run grocery stores and is used to taking inventory,” Leong said.
“He’s got a great memory, better than we have,” Doreen added with a smile.
And there’s plenty to remember.
Alex was born in 1917 in Prince Rupert, just the third Chinese-Canadian born in the community where his father — who earlier had come from China to work building the railroad through the Kootenays — located the family.
Growing up during the Great Depression, Alex, along with one of his brothers, opened a grocery store (Sunrise Grocery) that supplied Prince Rupert and adjacent regions. He also bought a bakery.
In 1935, he was match-married to his wife Jessie, who passed away in 2013. Together, they had four children, six grandchildren, six great grandchildren and two great great grandchildren. In total, 100 guests, spanning five generations, were at Alex’s birthday party.
“Dad was always very business-oriented,” Leong said. “I remember when I was a kid, he had two great, big safes. One was for the money, the other was for bookkeeping.”
When the family moved to Vancouver in 1949, Alex taught Leong how to count and be a cashier in the family grocery store on Semlin Drive in East Vancouver, above which the family lived.
“I was so young that I couldn’t even reach the counter, so he gave me a Coke box to stand on,” Leong said.
In October 1955 Alex moved the family and put down roots in Richmond, in the area of Steveston Highway and Number 4 Road, one of the community’s first subdivisions where he still lives in the same house today.
“Despite living outside of Vancouver, Alex still maintained a string of business interests there. In addition to the grocery store he ran a five and 10-pin bowling alley, a pool hall and a barber shop.
“He also had a franchise to sell outboard motors,” Leong said. “But when people started getting TVs, it was time to sell the bowling alley at Hastings and Clark Drive in Vancouver.”
Through it all, Alex maintained a high work ethic.
“He worked seven days a week, with 12-hour days, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.,” Doreen said.
And even when he was past retirement age and sold his businesses, Alex went to work for Cara duty free on Sea Island in 1986.
“He did their inventory at the airport,” Leong said.
“That was pretty much the only time he didn’t have his own job,” Doreen said, adding her father’s dedication to supporting his family has been admirable.
“All of our friends and relatives say he’s an inspiration,” Doreen said. “And that’s not only because of what he’s done in business. He’s also been family-orientated, not only for our immediate family, but others, as well.