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Calgary football pioneer Norman Kwong to be remembered in new Heritage Minute

The life and legacy of Calgary’s Norman Kwong are the focus of a new Heritage Minute documentary, 75 years after he became the first Chinese Canadian professional football player. 

After winning four Grey Cups with the Stampeders and Edmonton, Kwong became Alberta’s 16th lieutenant-governor — the first of Chinese heritage. 

The short film will explore the racism Kwong faced in his youth, with actors recreating the 1955 championship game in which Kwong ran for two touchdowns. It’s expected to be released in February, 2024.

Kwong’s oldest son Greg said spending time on the film set during production this week made him emotional. 

a man wearing a green football shirt looks at the camera
Actor Patrick Kwok-Choon is playing Kwong in a recreation for the documentary. He said he feels a deep connection to the character. (David Mercer/CBC)

“As a kid, all I’ve ever seen is black and white film, black and white pictures … it was just as if I was thrown back in time,” he said. 

“I’m not a crier. But it just hit right here, and just everything came out.”

Each Heritage Minute, produced by non-profit Historica Canada, is a 60-second short film that depicts a person, event or story from Canadian history.

Previous mini-docs in the series include a profile of Joseph Tyrrell, who discovered dinosaur bones in the Alberta Badlands, and the town of Myrnam, Alberta’s non-denominational hospital, described as “an early effort at universal healthcare.”

Kwong's Edmonton Eskimos defeated my grandfather Tex Coulter's Montreal Alouettes in the 1955 Grey Cup. Film crews are recreating the game for the Heritage Minute video.
Norman Kwong’s Edmonton team defeated the Montreal Alouettes in the Grey Cup final in 1955. Film crews are recreating that game for the Heritage Minute video. (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)

Historica Canada president and CEO Anthony Wilson-Smith said the videos typically reach eight or nine million viewers within a month of release.

“We like to tell stories about people and events who, in one way or another, help shape the Canada in which we live today,” he said.

“Normie Kwong did that, of course, in breaking through some barriers and establishing a name.”

Kwong’s parents immigrated to Canada from southeast China, eventually settling in Calgary, where they opened a small grocery shop. 

He debuted in Canadian professional football for the Calgary Stampeders in 1948, one year after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed.

Before the policy was scrapped, Chinese immigrants often faced segregation from other Canadians, per the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

“My father was always one that said ‘Listen, let’s just be people, let’s give people credit where credit is due. Who cares what skin colour is,'” said Kwong’s son, Greg.

“He just wanted people to be equal. He just wanted to be a guy from Bridgeland in Calgary playing football.”

Greg also said his father was called names and got into fights at school because of his Chinese heritage. 

Actor Patrick Kwok-Choon is playing Kwong in the recreation. 

Kwok-Choon, known for his role in the Star Trek: Discovery television series, said he recognizes similarities between his upbringing and that of his character. 

“My parents immigrated to Canada. Our ancestors are from the same province in China,” he said. “I faced a lot of racial slurs, adversity growing up, so I know what he lived through.”

Kwong was named to the Order of Canada in 1998. 

He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1969, and is still Edmonton’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns. 

Greg hopes recent immigrants will watch the film and appreciate life in Canada.

“Work hard, be a good citizen, contribute to society, and things will play out,” he said. “You might not make the CFL Hall of Fame, but [Canada is] a great place to be relative to other countries.”

The film is being co-produced by Brent Kawchuck and Michelle Wong of Calgary’s Danny Rocket Productions.

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