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Food & Wine How my great-grandfather's Chinese-Canadian restaurant changed our lives

My great-grandparents in 1962. As laws relaxed, my great-grandfather was able to bring the rest of the family to Canada.

Cliff Lee/Instagram

I've been visiting Chinese restaurants since I was one month old. Every Chinese person who grew up with old-school traditions becomes the guest of honour at a traditional "full moon" dinner, which is something of a coming-out party. Red-dyed hard-boiled eggs were served for good luck.

But even if my family eschewed such delicious ritual, I'm sure I would have wound up in a Chinese restaurant anyway. The business was my family's gateway to middle-class life in Canada. Today, I've noticed new restaurateurs are taking retro Chinese-Canadian menus and reinventing them. I wonder what my great-grandfather – who ran Restaurant Sam Lee in Quebec City for decades – would think.

He arrived in Quebec City in 1912, and started his new life in that other time-honoured occupation: laundry. (Interestingly, because of the federal government's historical policy of exacting a head tax from Chinese immigrants, I'm technically a first-generation Canadian.)

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Decades later, he came to own a small bar downtown, on Rue Saint-Jean. Time passed, his savings grew – laws relaxed – and eventually my great-grandmother and their son, my great-uncle, arrived. There's a picture from 1962 on my great-uncle's mantle today: The Imperial Bank calendar on the wall reads Dec. 10 and it's hung beside a license from the Régie des alcools du Québec. His parents, stoic looking, are sitting behind the gum-and-cigarette counter, where they probably held court many days and long nights.

In 1970, they sold the bar and opened Restaurant Sam Lee in the borough of Charlesbourg on Boul Henri-Bourassa. If you were going out for dinner in the suburbs of Quebec back then, you would have found yourself at St. Hubert, or my great-uncle and great-grandfather's place for Chinese-Canadian buffet.

It was a quintessentially gaudy place to dine. The roof was done in red-and-green tiles. The inside was a dimly lit pagoda lifted straight from a kung-fu movie. From my family's smiles in pictures taken during that early heyday, the locals ate it up.

I wasn't born nor raised in Quebec, but the 12-hour drives from Toronto are some of my earliest memories. (My father was, and still is, a cautious driver; it's only a 10-hour drive for most people.) I always looked forward to one thing on arrival: nouilles or, as Google now tells me, nouilles Chinoises. Apparently, it's a Chinese-Québécois delicacy made from stir-fried macaroni with beef and onion that I only ever ate on these special road trips.

Chinese-Canadian food, however, didn't resonate as much with the adults. For them, nouilles and chicken balls were their means toward a better future. I fondly remember hours spent running around the kitchen and dining room before the restaurant opened, and developing a love of unlimited fountain pop. Now that I'm older, I realize those memories were a byproduct of what it took to run a restaurant: exhaustive hours prepping, cooking and cleaning. Then doing it again and again. Perhaps it was a blessing that my great-grandfather also owned the house beside his restaurant.

Sam Lee closed in 2003, and the property was sold soon after. I had heard the buyer wanted to open an Italian restaurant. Instead, it sat boarded up for years before being torn down – the house, too. I could blame the demise of Sam Lee on any number of things: changing tastes, more choice, a new place minutes away that promised a Buffet des Continents. It was most likely ennui and inertia after 30 years. I shudder to imagine the reviews had the restaurant survived into the Yelp age: "Dated." "Deserted." "Disgusting." My great-uncle has no photos from Sam Lee on his mantle.

By one measure, all that hard work was worth it. My father's side of the family is all here now, with my grandmother the last to arrive in 1973. I grew up in Thornhill, Ont., as well to do as suburban life gets north of Toronto. We eat out, a lot, but never for chicken balls.

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One of the best meals I've had in the past year was at Patois, the Chinese-Jamaican-Canadian joint in Toronto that serves aggressive food such as "dirty" fried rice and jerk-chicken chow mein. All of it is a celebratory reimagining of classic Chinatown cooking. In his retirement, my great-uncle might wonder what was worth celebrating, and who is paying $11 for a plate of fried rice.

When a new generation of chefs takes inspiration from the past, we should remember they often succeed because those flavours evoke fond memories: of eating out on Spadina Avenue, of enjoying General Tso's on Christmas Day. For the elders of my family, however, there's no nostalgia for sweating over a wok. But because of the sacrifices my family has made over the past 103 years in Canada, I never had to do that for a living. My father is now an engineer by trade, but his immigration papers from 1970 stated "cook."

A few years ago, my aunt and uncle retired from running a food court stall called Tom Lee at the Fleur de Lys mall. When my mother and I visited them in Charlesbourg, Quebec City, they wanted to treat us to dinner, and took us to the place everyone goes: Buffet des Continents. I was the only one who made a beeline for the nouilles.

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