By Dalton Campbell
In 1948, Norman Kwong stepped onto the field with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League (CFL) for the first time. The 18-year-old rookie, and eventual Hall of Famer, was the league’s first Chinese-Canadian player.
Norman (born Lim Kwong Yew) was born in Calgary in 1929, the fifth of six children. His parents, Charles Lim and Lily Lee, operated a grocery store. They had immigrated to Canada from Guangdong, China, several years before Norman was born. His obituary in the Edmonton Journal stated that in the 1920s, there were fewer than 5,000 Chinese Canadians in Alberta. The vast majority were men, in large part because the racist and discriminatory “head tax” kept most men from bringing their wives and children to Canada. Norman’s mother was one of only five married Chinese women in Calgary. In 1923, the government passed the Chinese Immigration Act (commonly known as the “Chinese Exclusion Act”), effectively ending immigration from China. In 1947, the year before Norman began his professional football career, the Act was lifted, and Chinese Canadians gained the right to vote.
In 1950, Norman was traded from Calgary to Edmonton, where he spent the rest of his career. He led the CFL in rushing three times (1951, 1955 and 1956), rushed for over 1,000 yards in four consecutive seasons, and set numerous league and team records. He was a four-time CFL West All-Star (1951, 1953, 1955 and 1956), was twice named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian (1955 and 1956), and received the Lionel Conacher Award as the outstanding Canadian male athlete (1955). In 13 seasons, he played in seven Grey Cup games, winning the championship four times (1948, 1954, 1955 and 1956). He was named to the CFL Hall of Fame in 1969, to Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1975, and as one of the top 50 players in CFL history (by TSN) in 2006.
His Edmonton Journal obituary quotes him as saying, “Sports is life, only it’s distilled into a shorter time. It’s clear-cut. Everything’s out in the open. There’s no way to hide. There’s always a winner and a loser. And I guess that appeals to my competitive nature. Of course, I always want to be the winner.”
Norman retired at the age of 30. He married Mary Lee and entered post-football life, working primarily in commercial real estate. In the 1980s, he returned to sports as an executive with the Calgary Stampeders and was part of the original ownership group of the Calgary Flames of the National Hockey League. When the Flames won the Stanley Cup in 1989, he became one of only five people to have won both the Grey Cup and the Stanley Cup as a player, manager or executive.
Norman Kwong was the National Chair of the Canadian Consultative Council on Multiculturalism (1979–80) and Honorary Chair of the Easter Seals Campaign in Calgary (1982–84). He was named to the Order of Canada (1988) and later served as the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta (2005–10). The Calgary Flames named a bursary for medical students in his honour. He died in Calgary in 2016.
For further research
- Weekend Magazine collection
- Interviews with Norman Kwong: “Crysdale and Company” (CKEY radio show, MIKAN 382973 and MIKAN 382907), “Trans-Canada Sports Review” (CBC program, MIKAN 92205) and “Time Out” (CBUT show, MIKAN 224843 and MIKAN 224842)
- Broadcast of the 1948 Grey Cup game (Calgary 12, Ottawa 7)
- Newsreel story on the 1949 Grey Cup game (Montreal 28, Calgary 15)
- Broadcast of the 1956 Grey Cup game (Edmonton 50, Montreal 27)
- China Clipper: Pro-Football’s First Chinese-Canadian Player, Normie Kwong, by Richard Brignall, 2010 (OCLC 646566566)
- The Albertans: 100 People Who Changed the Province, by Ken Bolton, Ken Davis and Scott Rollans, 2005 (OCLC 60833996)
Dalton Campbell is an archivist in the Science, Environment and Economy Section of the Private Archives Division.
Such fond memories from this essay! I watched “Normie” and Jackie Parker with great admiration and would take on their personas when we played football on the neighbor’s lawn. Great job… thanks!