This summer, Arts on the Avenue (AOTA) worked on Champions of Alberta Avenue, which showcases stories of immigrant business owners along 118 Avenue. In October-November, the project’s photography, a short film, and written profiles will be released. The Carrot Coffeehouse will host the premier of the photography and written profiles beginning Oct. 1. Over the next several months, look here for condensed profiles of business owners (written by Shirley Serviss) featured in the project.

Downtown Auto: A Source of Pride

Jim (Cua) Nguyen, owner of Downtown Auto, has the business in his blood. | Bruce Patterson

Jim (Cua) Nguyen, owner of Downtown Auto, was raised above his father’s garage in Vietnam, and spent much of his childhood and adolescence working on vehicles. He had his journeyman ticket by the time he was 21.

He also loved chemistry and was in his third year of studying pharmacy at university when the opportunity arose to come to Edmonton. “I always wanted to try living in another country,” he said, “and Canada is a peaceful country.” In 1991, he came with other members of his family to embark on a different career path.

“I made the right choice,” he said.

Nguyen worked in his brother’s garage for a few years before opening Downtown Auto in 1996 at 11765 95 Street. “It’s very, very, very important to be here on 118 Avenue,” he said. “There’s density and lots of traffic.”

What makes it different, he believes, and gives it an advantage, is its multicultural nature and strong, supportive community.

Operating your own business takes “knowledge, passion and commitment,” Nguyen said. “You have to love what you do, make sure you put knowledge behind it, work with others, and don’t give up.”

He’s proud of his accomplishments. “We provide a service based on honesty, fairness, and responsibility, and I’ve achieved what I have pretty much from scratch.” He hopes his eldest son takes over his business some day.

Nguyen is president of the Alberta Avenue Business Association and said giving back to the community feels good. “I appreciate the opportunity and support the community gave me so, to pay back, I want to contribute my time and energy to businesses on the Avenue.”

His contribution extends beyond Alberta Avenue. He’s very involved with the Vietnamese community and plays keyboard in the Downtown Band with his brother. They often play for non-profits. “Not only do I enjoy myself, but we help organizations with fundraising.”

Vietnam will always be Nguyen’s homeland,  but while he thinks of himself as a dual citizen, he said he misses Edmonton when he travels there.

“For the first 10 years, I liked it here, but didn’t feel I belonged,” he said. “After that, I felt like I was born here!”

Kasoa Tropical Food Market

Charity Durowaa advises others to focus on their talents, work hard, and do it well. | Bruce Patterson

Charity Durowaa lives up to her name. The owner of two food markets on Alberta Avenue is a generous woman.

“The spirit of my name carries with me,” she said, explaining Christianity teaches her to “be kind to other people and help the needy.” Growing up with her grandfather, a pastor in Ghana, probably influenced her as well.

Durowaa is a busy woman. She came to Edmonton in 2003 and has established herself as a successful entrepreneur through determination, hard work, and “the blessing of the Lord.”   

She was working as a healthcare aide when she opened Kasoa Tropical Food Market in 2006, working at the store during the day and as a healthcare aide at night. A year later, she moved down the block to the present location at 9320 118  Avenue as she needed more room for the African and Caribbean goods she carries.

One room of the store holds canned products, toiletries, herbs and spices, drinks, and an amazing variety of fish and meats such as cow feet, oxtail, tripe, and beef lungs. A second room has dried goods like rice, beans, various flours and cereals as well as plantains, sweet potatoes, yams, cassava, and taro roots.

She also opened Mama’s Bodega Market, a source for Filipino and Latino Foods at 9340 118 Avenue. “I wanted to explore something different.”

In May 2016, she opened Kasoa’s second location at 9062 51 Avenue to be more convenient for her southside customers. “It’s doing well as I already had a customer base across the river.”

“I’m happy. I’m being blessed. People appreciate having one stop to find everything from West Africa, East Africa, and the Caribbean that they’re looking for,” she said. “I’m proud of what I’ve done.”

Durowaa said many immigrants “come here and end up throwing their talent away” and doing some other kind of work. She believes that whatever your talent is, “if you work hard and do it well, you will succeed.” That said, she cautions it takes time.

“Right now, I would say Edmonton is home. Here is where I am and I have no plans to go anywhere different.”

Lan’s Asian Grill: a Labour of Love

Lan and Sunny Lim have lived in Canada since 1975 and own Lan’s Asian Grill. | Laurice Block

Lan Lim and her husband Sunny Lim came to Edmonton in 1975 with $100 on the recommendation of the one person Lim knew here, who said it was peaceful and people were very friendly.

Lan was born in Laos and met Sunny there, but they moved to Thailand fearing what would happen as communism took over the country. Sunny had already escaped from Cambodia, where many people had been tortured and killed, including his parents. They left Thailand for California, from where they immigrated to Canada.

Hard work was the first order of business in Canada, and they took whatever jobs they could find as they raised their three children.

“We saved money; before we spent a penny, we thought about it,” Lan said.

Sunny worked as a chef’s assistant at the Chateau Lacombe and later started a driving school. Lan sewed the designs and upholstered the insides of caskets until she developed problems with her hands from repetitive use of the stapler, glue gun, and scissors.

In 2008, their grown children suggested Lan start a restaurant to share her wonderful cooking. “If they wanted to do it, I said I’d help. I’d share my recipes and teach them,” Lan said.

They opened Lan’s Asian Grill at 11826 103 Street near NAIT. A true family business, Tom manages the restaurant, Monica does the cooking, and Vinson does the marketing.

“To be a cook, you have to have a heart,” Lan said. “You have to love your customers, keep everything clean, and give good things to your customers. We don’t use MSG or too much oil.”

Tom remembers her teaching him that lesson early in life when she took a head of lettuce, peeled off the outer leaves, and told him that if they were still good, you could eat them yourself. Then she cut open the lettuce and showed him the tender, inner leaves. These, she said, were the ones you would serve to your guests—only the best. It’s that philosophy that guides the restaurant.

“To be successful, you have to do it with your heart. You have to be honest and care about what you’re doing. You have to work hard,” Lan said. “We still miss our country, but I love people here. It is my home now.”

Featured Image: Charity Durowaa operates three successful businesses. | Kaye Ly