CHINESE CAFE ON THE PRAIRIE
Owned and operated by hardworking immigrants for
the betterment of their families, these small-town fixtures
are surviving nicely in an era of rural decline.
By Peter Dalla-Vicenza
The Brandon Sun ~ Sunday, December 3, 2000
As traditional symbols such as grain elevators and train stations disappear from the Prairies, the Chinese cafe remains a refreshing constant.
In nearly every Prairie community over 500 people, these restaurants -- often with fewer than 60 seats and where the owners also serve as waiters, cooks and companions -- have a cherished place among locals and visitors alike.
"They're friendly, they know me, and they know what I like," said Kathy Coutts, a regular at Soo's Restaurant in Brandon.
There are more than 20 Chinese cafes in western Manitoba, some offering a mix of ethnic and Canadian cuisine, some Chinese food alone. This figure does not take into account the seven that currently operate in Brandon, which at 40,000 people is the largest centre in the region.
Souris, with a population of 1,600, is small enough that the funeral director also operates a furniture store. Yet two small family-operated restaurants manage to keep their doors open -- Rio Cafe and Tak Lee Restaurant.
Mayor Jack Denbow, a former restaurant owner himself says Chinese restaurants stay in business because of hard work, good food, excellent service and a close eye on the bottom line. "They work day in, day out. That's the secret of it," said Denbow.
Behind the counters, the woks and daily specials are stories of families that have endured and even thrived despite cultural and linguistic isolation, as well as restrictive and racist immigration policies that existed well into the last century.
Sue-On Hillman, owner of Soo's, and her family have lived one of those stories. Her grandfather, Choy Him, started an 81-year family tradition in the restaurant business when in 1919 he purchased a hotel and cafe in Newdale, located on the Canadian Pacific Railway main line.
"He chose a restaurant because food is universal," said Sue-On, a retired teacher who at 51 operates Soo's Restaurant with her husband Bill. "It was something he could do without any other skill and given the language barrier, and everyone needs to eat."
First coming to Canada in 1911 to work on the railways, Choy saw Canada as the "great gold mountain" where he could seek his fortune. He ran the hotel and cafe until 1928, sold it and moved into a new location which he named The Paris Cafe -- a restaurant which offered a mix of Canadian and improvised Chinese cuisine.
"You had to make do with what you had because ingredients weren't readily available. You couldn't go to the supermarket and get Chinese vegetables and other ingredients," Sue-On said.
While he succeeded, there was little easy about Choy’s life. Immigration laws would not allow Choy to bring his family to his new home. He travelled to his home village of Toisan in southern China as many times as he could to see his wife and children.
He brought Sue-On's father, Soo, to Canada in 1923, at age 15, to help him run the business that was open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. (later on Saturdays to cater to men who wanted a bite to eat after leaving the local tavern).
Soo took over the business full time in 1938, Choy returning home to China. Married, he followed the same path as his father, running his business and returning home periodically to visit his wife and family.
"It was difficult. Every time he came home there would be a new addition to the family," said Sue-On, who has a sister and two brothers.
As his business flourished, he began a long and agonizing process of getting his wife and children into North America, which took until 1969.
Sue-On came to Canada at age 10 with her mother Jade in 1958 after fleeing the Communist revolution, first to Hong Kong and later to Canada.
Despite the language barrier and cultural shock, she said she was subjected to little prejudice from the residents of Newdale -- partially because it was a novelty to have a Chinese girl in town.
"I think there is more of a threat in numbers," she said. "Besides, I was a tomboy and if anyone gave me trouble, I just beat him up."
Her brother Kenny followed in 1959. Brother Gene was adopted by relatives in Seattle, and her sister Sue-Sem and her daughter Ilym came to Canada 10 years later, followed closely by her husband Wai Kai Gin who had to bribe his way out ot China to get here.
During the 1950s and early '60s most Manitoba communities along Highway 16 had their own Chinese restaurant operated by former residents of Toisan. On birthdays, Chinese New Year and other special occasions, restaurant owners would close their shops and gather to celebrate.
"Those events were very important to us," said Sue-On, who didn't speak English when she came to Canada. "They were our only social life."
After some coaxing from son Kenny, Soo relocated to Brandon in 1970. He operated the appropriately named Soo's Restaurant with Kenny, his wife Rebecca, Sue-Sem and Wai Kai until his death in 1984 at age 75.
Soo's children are his legacy. Kenny, trained as a lab technologist, is a successful businessman with investments in everything from strip malls to an indoor miniature golf course. Gene operates restaurants in Seattle, and Sue-On, after graduating with a bachelor of education degree from Brandon University, taught school for three decades before quitting to take over the family business.
The restaurant has blossomed from its Spartan beginnings. It now has 25 people on the payroll, a banquet room and a website operated by Bill, who at 57 is a musician and retired teacher.
But success among restaurant owners is more measured in the progress of their children than the cash in the register.
Suey and Lily Yuen who have operated the Rio Cafe in Souris for 40 years are proud that their five children all achieved academic success (three computer science, one masters of business administration and bachelor of commerce and one diploma in early childhood education).
"That's why we have worked so hard. So our kids would do okay," said Lily.
Less than a block away, Tak Tsun Fung is putting in 12-hour days, six days per week so his children, Sarah (a business and computer science student at Brandon University) and Tommy (enrolled in fashion design at Lethbridge College) won’t have to serve food for a living.
However, Sue-On said it's not so easy to escape the lure of the restaurant trade.
While she vowed never to return after spending her teenage years working in the family business, instead of spending time with friends, Sue-On and Bill have now sunk their life savings into the restaurant -- buying it from the rest of the family in 1992.
Sue-On's mother Yook Hai, now 91, still pitches in with the cooking time to time.
And now the Hillmans' three children -- William Ja-On Campbell, William Robin Lee-Chan Monroe, and China-Li Jade Ma-Ri -- are also being put to work.
"It's all in the genes, I guess," said Sue-On.
Soo Choy, father of Soo's owner Sue-On Hillman, stands in front of the family restaurant in Newdale in the 1950s.
Sue-On and Bill Hillman ham it up in the kitchen of Soo's Restaurant.
B section of the Vancouver Sun on April 1, 2000.
Click here to see the Vancouver Sun version
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