Ann Hui, a well-known writer for the Globe and Mail, wanted to discover more about small-town Chinese restaurants and the histories of the families that run them, so she travelled across Canada in 2016 to understand them better.
She chronicled her stories in a recently released book, Chop Suey Nation, which came to stores this January. Her speech at Calgary’s new downtown public library in late March was one of the many stops along her tour.
Chop Suey Nation is a journal of Hui’s journey from Vancouver, B.C. to Fogo Island, N.L., where she meets many people with fascinating stories and even more interesting recipes.
Some of her most notable discoveries include Newfoundland-style chow mein which uses cabbage for noodles, Quebec’s fried macaroni and cheese and Calgary fan-favourite ginger beef.
Hui even discusses her struggle with acknowledging the authenticity of Western Chinese food, describing how she was taught to look down on it from a young age.
Not only did Hui learn about the background of Western Chinese cuisine, but she gained an understanding of her own family as well. She shared this discovery with the audience at Calgary’s Wordfest.
“I didn’t realize when I went on the initial road trip for the Globe that I had a connection, any real connection to this. I mean, my parents, my dad mostly, had worked in restaurants for most of the time that I was growing up, but he’d always been cooking in what we called western restaurants,” Hui says.
“I didn’t know that this was a story I had such an intimate connection to. It was only when I was visiting my parents a few months after the initial Globe story was published that my dad told me ‘oh no, the restaurant that we had before you guys were born was a Chinese restaurant,’”
This revelation led Hui to ask more questions about her own history.
Chop Suey Nation not only provides insight into a piece of Chinese-Canadian culture but also ignites conversation about the racism that immigrants face.
A member of the crowd at the reading, Winnie W. Y. Chow, immigrated from Hong Kong at the age of nine and felt a connection to the stories that Hui told in her book.
Chow described her experience with what she calls “food bullying” at a young age.
“Shall we say, ‘little Caucasian boys’ in elementary school, they just make fun of you … food is a marker of your culture and your ways so when they want to attack you, like we dress like everybody else, right?
And of course, they attack all the features like what they perceive to be small eyes and then the food. They’ll find something [different] and they’ll attack that,” Chow recalls.
Hui’s presentation also addressed the connection between racism and the Chinese restaurant industry in Canada.
She spoke about how early immigrants were restricted to specific jobs like restaurants and corner stores. Being in Canada rather than China, cooks were limited to what they could make with what they could find for ingredients.
This sparked innovation and creativity. Hence, dishes like cabbage chow mein.
Nattalia Lea was also in the audience. An Asian-Canadian, Lea has several members of her family who worked in restaurants like those described in Chop Suey Nation.
“I think it is important to recognize the contributions that earlier immigrants have made to Canada and they did it by the way of food,” Lea says.
Hui also acknowledges the ability of food to develop relationships between people.
“Over time these places have, in a lot of cases, evolved into so much more than a restaurant,” Hui says.
She describds restaurants being used as makeshift childcare centres, offering bookkeeping services and sometimes even being the only place in town to dine out.
In one case, Hui encountered a town whose courthouse was under renovation and so the local Chinese restaurant did double duty, serving up food and justice.
“They’re very much a part of the local fabric of the community and have really become small town institutions.”
The evening at the Calgary library ended with people eager and willing to wait to meet Hui and have the author sign their copies of her book.
Editor: Emma Stevens | email@example.com