Two years ago, Globe and Mail journalist Ann Hui set out on a cross-country road trip to write about Chinese restaurants across Canada. As she and her husband, Anthony, made their way from Victoria to St. John’s, they visited restaurant owners in small towns all over the country. The questions she was looking to answer were: Why is there a Chinese restaurant in every small town? Who are the families who run them? What brought them here?
It was only after the story was published that she discovered her own family could have been included – that her parents had run their own Chinese restaurant, the Legion Cafe, before she was born. This discovery set her on a time-sensitive mission: to learn her own family’s story and understand how her parents had wound up in Canada.
Her journeys are detailed in the forthcoming book, Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Cafe and Other Stories from Canada’s Chinese Restaurants. In the passage below, adapted from the book, she explores the notion of authenticity, and explains why the obsession with authenticity in food is often misguided.
On the third night of our trip, Anthony and I had dinner with my family at a Malaysian-Chinese restaurant in East Vancouver. The restaurant was an unfussy spot, with walls painted green and televisions mounted on the walls. My sisters, Anthony and I chatted about our trip so far – about our two days in Victoria, and our plan to drive east for 11 hours straight the next day. They asked about our remaining two weeks on the road, wanting to know which other Chinese restaurants we planned to visit on our way across the country.
As we talked, Mom and Dad studied the menu.
I overheard pieces of their conversation. They were trying to decide which dishes were most economical.
“The rice is on special.”
"This one comes in a huge plate.”
"I've had that one before. It's tiny."
A few moments later, they landed on the Hainanese chicken – whole poached chicken with rice cooked in pandan leaves. It would taste just as good as leftovers with rice the next day.
When the waitress came over, Mom and Dad ordered for us all: char kuey teow, roti canai, Hainanese chicken, satay chicken skewers and steaming bowls of laksa. Soon, our table began to pile up with dishes: Smoky, pan-fried rice noodles, flaky fried flat breads we dipped into golden curry sauce and ate with our hands, and noodles swimming in coconut curry broth.
Dinner in Vancouver with my parents almost always meant Chinese. Still, that almost always meant something different.
The 1980s and 1990s had introduced to Canada a new kind of Chinese. Unlike the previous waves of immigration – the ones who were mostly poor, from rural Guangdong, who had improvised to create this part-Chinese, part-Canadian blend of “chop suey” Chinese – now there were hundreds of thousands of middle-class and wealthy Hong Kongers fleeing to Vancouver and Toronto. Many of them did so out ahead of the looming 1997 China handover.
This group included among it some of Hong Kong’s most highly skilled, highly trained Cantonese chefs. These chefs, together with the affluent newcomers, propelled a boom of excellent Cantonese restaurants in the cities – what might be described as authentic. These cooks helped to earn Vancouver’s reputation for having some of the best Cantonese restaurants in the world – places where glimmering rock cod and spiny king crab were scooped live out of squeaky-clean tanks (not like the cloudy-water Chinatown places), steamed expertly and served on pressed white tablecloths.
This was the Vancouver I grew up in. In high school, it was as common to hear Cantonese or Taiwanese in our cafeteria as English. Many of my classmates were “CBCs” like us – Canadian-Born-Chinese whose parents had come decades earlier from the poor areas of Southern China. But many others were newcomers. Some of these newcomers were wealthy, and so-called “satellite kids” – whose parents set them up with brand-new houses and cars before returning to Taiwan or Hong Kong for work, leaving my classmates on their own. The student parking lot was filled with BMWs and Mercedes, in stark contrast to the Toyotas and Chryslers most commonly found in the teachers’ lot.
The sudden arrival of these new Chinese resulted in tensions, just as they had a century ago. These newcomers weren’t interested in settling in the East Vancouver areas around Chinatown, or working-class south Vancouver. Some of them bought homes in the city’s toniest neighbourhoods, traditionally white areas like Kerrisdale and Shaughnessy. When they moved in, some tore down the existing homes, building new ones in their place. They wanted the types of homes they could never have back in crowded Hong Kong – brand-new houses with lots of space.
This led to ugly stand-offs – racial tensions disguised as complaints about so-called “monster homes.” The concerns, according to some local residents at the time, were nothing to do with race. It was about about real estate and heritage preservation – about the character of the homes, the trees, and bad taste.
But the subtext was just barely below the surface. “The face of Vancouver is changing far too quickly,” said one letter written to a Vancouver city councillor at the time. “We – the fairly reasonable people – fear the power that the Hong Kong money wields. We resent the fact that because they come here with pats of money they are able to mutilate the areas they choose to settle in,” she wrote. “These people come – with no concern for our past.”
More recently, the influx of Chinese newcomers has been from mainland China. This includes some of the hyper-wealthy fu er dai, a nickname given to a new class of Chinese that translates roughly into “rich next generation”– the children of China’s nouveau riche. These new new Chinese have faced their own backlash – especially the wealthiest ones. Again, the tensions, according to the most vocal complainants, have nothing to do with race. Again, the concerns have been framed around housing, with many locals blaming the wealthy Chinese for skyrocketing real estate prices.
But in fact the new newcomers are a diverse set, including middle-class and poor Chinese too. They arrived in Vancouver from all China’s many cities and regions. Suddenly Mandarin took over from Cantonese as the most-spoken Chinese language in Vancouver, and it became as common to hear Fujianese as Cantonese in Toronto’s restaurant kitchens.
These newcomers brought with them to Canada great, authentic and diverse regional Chinese cuisines. No longer was it only Cantonese or “chop suey” Chinese. In the past two decades, the strip plazas along Highway 7 in Markham, or along Alexandra Road in Richmond, have suddenly seen all kinds of new Chinese restaurants popping up. There are restaurants offering lamb cumin burgers and liang pi, the cold, sesame and chili-drenched wheat noodles I love from the Shanxi province. Or paper-thin xiao long bao, soup dumplings as good as the ones in Shanghai (or so I’ve been told). Or China-based chains like QJD Peking Duck or Dagu Rice Noodle, have opened up Canadian locations too. These companies have an almost entirely Chinese clientele, and don’t feel the need to cater to Western tastes.
At the same time, next-generation Chinese chefs – those who grew up in Canada, like me – were opening restaurants with their own spin on Chinese. Patois restaurant in Toronto tells the story of the Chinese who immigrated elsewhere, in this case, Jamaica, before coming to Canada, with dishes like “dirty fried rice” with lap cheong and the “Cajun trinity” of bell peppers, celery and onion. At Dailo in Toronto, chef Nick Liu riffs off of his Hakkanese ancestry using French techniques, like pumpkin dumplings with soy brown butter sauce and truffles. That dish is topped with a glaze of White Rabbit candies – the milky, chewy candy ubiquitous in every Chinese household. It’s a dish that reminds me of childhood visits to Po Po, my grandmother who used to press the little white candies into my palm with a knowing glance. Our little secret, that glance seemed to say.
In another time, this cuisine might have been described as inauthentic, or worse, dismissed as the f-word, “fusion.“ But for these chefs, the cuisine is authentic to their own experiences. Like chop suey, the cuisine tell the story of a specific place and time and experience.
Still, these cultural mashups were a cuisine my dad could never quite understand. “This isn’t mapo tofu,” he said once, grimacing, after I cooked him the classic Sichuan dish. As a Christmas gift, my sisters had gotten me The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook from the Korean-born, Oklahoma-raised chef Danny Bowien, and I was excited to start cooking from it. The mapo tofu was mostly classic, with lots of the doubanjiang and Sichuan peppercorns. But the sauce was rounded out with a couple teaspoons of tomato paste and liberal heapings of the “angry lady” brand of chili sauce. To my dad, at least on that day, the deviations were a mistake. Authenticity, he seemed to argue, was critical. He knew what it was like before we could find authentic mapo tofu in Vancouver. What it was like before the rest of Canada knew to appreciate it.
Yet here we were now, eating our roti canai and laksa, the coconut curry noodle dish created by Chinese immigrants in southeast Asia. After the Chinese began settling in places like Malaysia, they added local ingredients and traditions – like coconut milk, coriander, cumin and turmeric – into Chinese noodle soup dishes. A new cuisine was born. It may not have been authentically Chinese, but over time it did become authentically Malaysian.
And in that moment, as we slurped the noodles swimming in the golden coconut broth, none of that mattered anyway. Dad didn’t seem to mind, as he reached over to help himself to a second bowl of soup. All that mattered was that the dish was delicious.
Excerpted from Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Cafe and Other Stories from Canada’s Chinese Restaurants, by Ann Hui. ©2019. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.