Chop Suey Nation

Our local library here responded to recent events by curating and promoting a list of books by Asian authors. One of which stood out to me because it was about an author’s quest and journey to visit “Chinese” restaurants in small towns across Canada, so I checked out Chop Suey Nation by Ann Hui. Ann Hui is a food journalist at the Globe and Mail, and her words really bring out the imagery and significance of food and shared meals in the Chinese culture.

The book surprised me on so many levels. Not only did it speak to my observations on “chop suey” and the popularity of Canadian Chinese restaurants, but it also brought back a great sense of nostalgia, mixed with a better understanding of the history of MY family and my identity as a second-generation Chinese[1]I was the person who, during university, while supposedly studying in the school library, … Continue reading. She seamlessly interweaves her story and her family’s story, along with those she interviews throughout the book, while unraveling the history of Canadian Chinese cuisine. If you’ve read the newspaper article, it may sound familiar, but this was my first exposure to her work, and despite it being five years old, it still felt very relevant.[2]Admittedly, I don’t know many Asian journalists; the only other Canadian Chinese journalist … Continue reading

Discoveries

Starting from the very first page, I discovered that I wasn’t alone in eating lunch at home in my early years of elementary school[3]I definitely did go home for lunch in Grade 1, as I recall someone pointing out that my shirt was … Continue reading and on the following page: “Chinese families didn’t do sleepovers.What? So, it’s not because my mom was being overprotective? It’s normal? And then, on the same page further down, she mentioned “Fido Dido” – a generational reference! Why did that name sound so familiar? I had to Google it but soon realized it was because I practiced drawing his hair and face when he was the 7Up mascot.

I ended up searching on Facebook for this Ann Hui to find out more about her: did she live in Burnaby? Did she go to a school with friends I knew? Turns out, YES. She went to the school that I wanted to be at had I lived in Burnaby (because my high school self seemed to know many people that went there), and yes, she was in the same year as a friend of mine. Although I have not, I nodded along with her description of her high school, the student lot filled with cars belonging to “satellite kid” families, while the staff lot was filled with regular Toyotas and Hondas. Furthermore, the author moved from Vancouver to Ontario and started a new life (t)here, while her parents remained behind.

As I read further into the book, I soon learned that her parents also owned and ran a restaurant, serving soup, sandwiches, and a catering business, and on occasion, would feature an Asian item on the menu. For us, it became wonton soup and California rolls; they were quite popular, especially among our school teachers.

I found out about a grand Chinese restaurant in Vancouver’s Chinatown, Golden Crown, popular in the 1970s, which made me wonder if my parents had heard of it. I discovered a piece of my own family history as a result: they held their wedding banquet at this very restaurant.

I see her description of family-run Chinese restaurants reflected in our friends’ lives, where they have grown up helping their parents run a restaurant day in and day out, where they have missed social gatherings and fellowship times because they needed to work, and only sitting down to eat a family meal after closing (late, like 9 PM), after a long workday.

Lastly, I’m relieved that it wasn’t only me that wondered about the popularity of these Chinese restaurants and what makes chicken balls in deep-fried batter drenched in bright red sauce so appealing. I often wonder if people realize that “chop suey” is a Cantonese transliteration that simply means “a random assortment of minced bits” (ie. whatever they have), but now I realize that the original innovators of these dishes needed to cater to the local palette, like thick cornstarch sauce is akin to gravy. I also have enjoyed certain Canadianized items, items I hadn’t ever heard of or tasted in my mother’s kitchen, like “ginger beef”, “orange beef” (both at a fairly unassuming Szechuan place in Langley that have since closed), or “sesame chicken” (our friends’ parents’ restaurant before they retired) when done correctly. While the restaurants may not be “authentic” Chinese restaurants, they are authentically run by families who work hard and are authentically Canadian Chinese. Should I continue to qualify people’s questions when they ask what the best local Chinese restaurant is? I then think, are my favourite Indian or Vietnamese or Korean restaurants authentic, or do they share similar stories like the ones that Ann Hui beautifully retells?

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