Norman Kwong: “I always want to be the winner”

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.

A colour studio photograph of a football player in uniform, holding his helmet in the crook of his left arm.

Norman Kwong (1929–2016), photo from August 1957 (e002505702-v6)

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.

A black-and white-photograph of downtown Calgary, looking down at an intersection, with streetcars, cars and people visible on the streets and sidewalks.

8th Avenue, Calgary, Alberta, 1937 (e010862070-v8)

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.

A colour image of a coat of arms. The shield in the centre has three footballs lined up diagonally from the upper left to lower right. There are two dragons, one standing on each side of the shield. The motto reads, “Strive to Excel.”

Coat of Arms of Norman Lim Kwong, courtesy of the Canadian Heraldic Authority (Office of the Secretary to the Governor General). The green and gold are the Edmonton team colours, and the horizontal stripes represent the 10-yard lines from a football field. The horse represents his first team, Calgary. The rose represents his wife, Mary, an avid gardener. The dragons represent his Chinese heritage, and the dragons’ hindquarters are representative of the Albertosaurus dinosaur.

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


Dalton Campbell is an archivist in the Science, Environment and Economy Section of the Private Archives Division.

1 thought on “Norman Kwong: “I always want to be the winner”

  1. 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!

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