This about us section was written by Linda Tzang, curator of cultural communities at the Royal Alberta Museum, as part of the Chop Suey on The Prairies exhibit.
The Gee family has owned and operated the Commodore Restaurant on Jasper Avenue since 1942. It is arguably one of the only old-time, café style Chinese restaurants left in Edmonton. It certainly is the only one left in the city centre.
The Commodore has a wide mix of regular customers, from street people to businessmen. Even Mayor Mandel eats there. Lunch and brunch are the busiest times at the Commodore, and this is reflected in their eclectic opening hours: 7:00am to 4:00pm Monday and Tuesday, 7:00am to 7:00pm Wednesday to Friday, and 9:00am to 3:00pm on the weekend. Current owner David Gee has noticed an increase in business over the past few years, thanks to residential development in the area and new customers drawn to the restaurant by nostalgia and low prices. Where else downtown can you get a complete breakfast for less than $6 or jello for dessert served with a side of cream?
The Gee family has a long history in Edmonton. Jun Gee owned the city’s first Chinese laundry. He was one of the first Chinese men in the city, arriving sometime in the 1890s. Jun’s son, Chun Fong, arrived in 1920 and worked in his father’s laundry, located off Jasper between 105th and 106th Streets. Chun Fong eventually went to work in the restaurant business and owned a number of restaurants in partnership with others. Family history has it that he was one of Vic Mah’s original partners in the Pan American before it became the Blue Willow.
The Early Years
In 1942, the city wanted to expropriate a river lot that Chun Fong owned at the foot of 97th Street. Chun Fong traded the city for a foreclosed lot on Jasper Avenue. While the new property was in a worse commercial area, it came with a two-storey building that housed the Commodore Restaurant. Chun Fong inherited the restaurant’s name from the Greek family that had been operating the restaurant. For years, the Gee’s lived upstairs and rented out rooms.
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Chun Fong also operated the Come and Eat restaurant on 118th Avenue. The Come and Eat was a busy restaurant because it was by the Edmonton City Airport but, because he had no family to help run the two businesses, Chun Fong sold it. While the Come and Eat was the more profitable restaurant, Chun Fong decided to keep the Commodore because he already owned the building.
Chun Fong’s wife and son, Ting and Wally, finally joined him in Canada in1956. Wally began working for his father at once. Together, they made ice cream and did all the baking for the restaurant. They even made their own dishwashing soap from lye. Wally took over the restaurant in 1963 when Chun Fong died.
Things were largely unchanged at the Commodore until 1969, when an electrical fire severely damaged the building. The building was torn down and a one storey building was built in 1971. The Commodore moved one storefront east. The restaurant’s interior changed, too, although it was still based on the original 1940s design. The biggest alteration was replacement of the booths with tables and chairs. The newly reopened Commodore also made a big change to the menu: for the first time, Chinese food was served.
Wally and his wife Sun Hee operated the restaurant until 1997, when their son David took over. David and his wife Willy (Wilma) operate the restaurant, but his parents still come in daily to do shifts in the kitchen and dining room. Even though David has been working in the Commodore since he was 11, there was never any expectation that he would take over the business. He went to the University of Alberta before deciding that it would be more practical to study air conditioning and refrigeration at NAIT. David worked in the industry for a few years until he was laid off in the economic downturn of the 1980s. He then went back to the restaurant business and has been there ever since.
According to David, the Commodore’s non-Chinese menu is largely unchanged from the 1960s. Interestingly, one of the newer items is the ‘loaded’ omelette. Omelettes used to be simpler and have just one or two fillings. The newest item on the menu is a breakfast burrito, added in 2008-2009. While the Commodore makes two soups from scratch, customers can also order Campbell’s soups from cans displayed over the counter. In 2010-2011, David initiated an art program in which local artists hang their pieces in the restaurant. David helps sell the art and does not charge commission. He does it because it adds colour to the restaurant.