Ann Hui was first exposed to Chinese food outside of her home when her school cafeteria served a Chinese New Year meal. Even at six years old she was confused as to why it did not resemble her parents’ cooking. Years later, as The Globe and Mail food reporter, Hui became obsessed with this Canadianized Chinese food and embarked on an 18-day road trip from British Columbia to Newfoundland to visit small-town Chinese restaurants. Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Café and Other Stories from Canada’s Chinese Restaurants (Douglas & McIntyre, 2019) documents the journey which led her to question “why so many of them seemed to look and feel exactly the same” and to seek out “a single answer that could explain the spread of Chinese restaurants across the country … a single starting point or a single place responsible for the ubiquity and uniformity of these tiny restaurants.”
Chop suey is translated into English as “bits and pieces” and is prepared by throwing together whatever scraps are available to compose a dish. This hodge-podge approach allows recipes to be adaptable to regional variations, such as strips of cabbage being used in chow mein in Newfoundland to replace egg noodles that were hard to come by in such a remote location. Ginger beef was a national mainstay on Chinese menus, invented in the Silver Inn Restaurant in Calgary to combine the customers’ love of deep fried food with some exotic flavours. Even though this style of chop suey cuisine is not authentically Chinese, and was often called “fake” Chinese in Hui’s household, she found out how undeniably popular it was from coast to coast.
Hui’s small-town criteria intentionally put places with higher populations out of reach, but she was compelled to try one local restaurant inside a curling rink in Thunder Bay. The second-generation owner was continuing the legacy of her father — a popular chef who had his own local TV station cooking show after establishing Ling Lee’s Chinese Cuisine, a dining hot spot, to entice people to the curling rink. The restaurants Hui visited were overwhelmingly run by families. Most owners portrayed the exhausting yet satisfying lifestyle of an all-consuming business with long hours. Family homes were often attached to the restaurants, leaving little room for division of family and work; young children would move between residence and restaurant to wash dishes, assemble takeout orders, or do homework at vacant tables. Many restaurants were sold in their entirety — recipes, buildings, equipment, inventory, supplier contracts — as a source of income for new families to make a go of it in Canada. Even beyond being family-oriented, the homey feel extended to the community, with restaurants acting as social hubs of a city. This was most evident in Stony Plain, Alberta where the popularity of the owner of Bing Restaurant No. 1 spurred him on to run for and win the seat of city mayor. More than a venue to serve food to the community, Hui writes, “The restaurant, it had turned out, had been the perfect launching pad for his political career.”
The further Hui investigated the stories of these restaurants, the more it moved beyond the food to explore sweeping cultural issues. Even more poignant than chop suey’s role in Canadian culinary history are the surprise elements of her story that she unearths as she travels back in time through stories of her father’s upbringing. She was able to piece together portions of his childhood in China, so different from her own, and how he became a chef after immigrating to Canada at the age of twenty-four to join his own father. Not only did she surprisingly learn that her family had taken the same path by running its own Chinese restaurant in Abbotsford, BC before she was born, but she was able to bridge generational and cultural issues that were not talked about when she was growing up, to gain a deeper sense of belonging to her heritage and an understanding of how her family came to Canada. As Hui learns from one of the restaurant owners, and what seems to apply to most of them: “Even more so than the food … Chinese restaurants are defined by the families that run them.”