Not long after she turned 90, I had the opportunity to interview Mary Mohammed. She shared her fascinating life story.
Her mother was born in China and sold to a rich family that took her to Vancouver with them, where she became a servant.
Mary’s father, How Ling, had immigrated to Nova Scotia and began seeking a Chinese woman to marry. He couldn’t find one in the province, so he went to British Columbia where he married Mary’s mother. She was 19 and he was in his 30s.
They returned to Halifax and had seven children, including Mary in 1931.
Today, Mary has vivid memories of her family’s life on a rented farm where pigs had once been slaughtered. It was near the end of Gottingen Street, adjacent to Rockhead Prison
She recalls the passersby who were obviously very poor, who would ask for a drink of water or some vegetables from her family. “I am sure helping those desperate people is why I have always been so anxious to offer sincere human kindness,” she says.
During her youth, the Chinese language and culture completely dominated life. Upset because she was forbidden to speak English at home, she found consolation Richmond School, where she recalls the kindness of the teachers.
She faced racism in the community, though. During her first school year, she went to a classmate’s house, intending to see a play together. “When her mother opened the door and saw me, she slammed it in my face,” Mary says, still feeling the pain decades later.
But her school years were largely happy, including studies at Queen Elizabeth High School and the Nova Scotia College of Art. Although she confesses to being a poor typist, Mary graduated from business school, and was soon hired to operate a book keeping machine at an office in the Victoria General hospital.
A few years later, she received a telephone call from Donald McKay, who was the president of the art college. He told her about a drafting job at the Naval Research Establishment in Dartmouth, which he was convinced suited her perfectly.
She got the job and while working there, met Auyuab Mohammed (“Mo” to his friends). He had been born in Trinidad.
They soon fell in love and married, facing racism again. Many in the local Chinese community were upset she married a Black man, ostracizing Mary and her parents. She says it’s only recently that they’ve been welcomed back into the community.
They briefly moved away, as Mo earned his PhD. As soon as his studies were complete, they returned to the National Research Establishment in Dartmouth.
They each brought unique talents with them. Mo was a dedicated table tennis player, doing much to grow the sport in the province.
Meanwhile, Mary was a gifted baker, and as word spread, people clamoured to buy her creations. Her kitchen soon got a visit from a government inspector.
“He told me if I continued to sell anything made from my kitchen without a licence, I would be fined $200 or go to jail!” Mary says.
To stay law-abiding, so found a space, secured financing, and opened Mary’s Bread Basket shop at the Brewery Market on Hollis Street. From 1983 to 2004, it was famous for it its long weekend lines for her cinnamon buns, widely considered the best around.
These days, Mary is retired and still bakes a little. But her current passion is her Little Free Library (learn more about them in this earlier Halifax Magazine story). Hers is in her back yard and offers books, candy, treats, puddings, etc. and often knitted toques. Lately, she has added face masks.
Recently, the Chinese Immigrants Oral History Preservation Organization marked the anniversary of Canada’s founding with interviews with 155 Chinese immigrants and descendants of Chinese immigrants to Canada. Mary is one of 45 Atlantic Canadians interviewed for the project.