Mary Mohammed (née Ling) was born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her mother, Mrs. How Ling (née Chong Toy Sing) was born in China and sold in early childhood to a wealthy Chinese merchant family in Vancouver as a mui tsai, or servant girl. When How (George) Ling’s first wife died in childbirth, he chose Chong Toy Sing as a second wife in 1918. The Lings became the second Chinese family to settle in the city of Halifax. They worked a farm on the north end of the city overlooking Africville, and their daughter Mary grew up as her mother’s helper and closest confidante. When their farm was sold to developers, the family opened the Imperial Café in downtown Halifax, which served Western food to the many sailors and soldiers coming through the city during the war. In the 1950s, Mary and her mother assisted new Chinese immigrants adjust to life in Canada. But when Mary became engaged to a Trinidadian scientist, Halifax’s Chinese community ostracized the Ling family. Mary went on to raise four children and opened up the popular Halifax baked-goods business, Mary’s Bread Basket.
From 1939 to 1945, the Imperial Café – located on 7 Upper Water Street in Halifax, Nova Scotia – was open every day except Sunday. This full menu shows the variety of foods the restaurant served, with a few Chinese dishes also available. Chow mein and chop suey were some of the most popular and accessible dishes to non-Chinese customers in this period. Mary Mohammed (née Ling) helped wait on tables in the restaurant, while her mother, Mrs. How Ling, did most of the cooking.