Karen Tam's 
Chinese Restaurant Exhibit
at the
Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba
1. Welcome
2. Entrance
3. Dining Room
4. Kitchen & Prep
5. Recreation
6. Wall Art & Photos

In North America, food plays a key role in constructing cultural identity, and restaurants often become a site for the formulation of ideas about race. Through her installation recreating the typical Chinese restaurant, Montreal-based artist Karen Tam investigates how these spaces come to represent China and Chinese culture. Tam sees the Chinese restaurant as "a metaphor for an imaginary China, imagined by the West and as a place recreated by the Chinese in the West." By engaging local Chinese community members, Tam has created an installation that examines Chinese immigrant experiences, the localization of culture, racism and otherness. 

Karen Tam arrived in Manitoba after a three-hour flight from Montreal on April 10th, 2006. Her voyage from the East was part of a quest to explore her personal past and conquer our collective present through the re-creation of a (non-functioning) Chinese restaurant placed within an art gallery setting. 

The first three weeks of her residency at the AGSM were spent scouring the city for pieces and props to make up her made-up restaurant. She connected with local cafes, members of the Chinese community, artists and the everyman. They all came together to celebrate the opening of the restaurant exhibition on April 27, 2006. For the following two weeks, Tam was the proprietor of a restaurant that served a steaming helping of ideas on nostalgia, racism, identity, culture, fantasy, society, history, and the art of making a living in Canada.

Karen Tam's art project involves installation work that uses humour and familiarity to investigate a specific cultural phenomenon, the Chinese restaurant. That is, the "Westernized," "Americanized," "Canadianized" Chinese restaurant, primarily catering to non-Chinese customers in the New World. These are often smaller establishments specializing in take-out, falling uncelebrated amongst the current popularity of Pan-Asian quick service dining and the seemingly more "authentic" restaurant within North American Chinatowns. The smaller establishment is the restaurant style that Karen knows best. This is the one that she grew up in and this is the kind that her relatives owned. The ongoing existence of these establishments across the country belies the ongoing existence of a Chinese culture of Toishanese speakers, more numerous outside of China than within.

Karen Tam is the descendant of Chinese sojourners and restaurateurs. Her great-grandfather, her aunt, her grandparents, her father and his remaining siblings came to Canada from the district of Toishan in the province of Guagdong/Canton, and all wound up working in the restaurant business. Karen's parents owned a restaurant called Aux Sept Bonheurs in the Montreal neighbourhood of Rosemont and the family lived in an apartment above the restaurant for several years. In 2001, while Tam was working on her MFA at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, her parents were thinking about retiring from the business. Tam began to document the space through drawings, photographs, videos, the recreation of objects, and so on. Aux Sept Bonheurs was sold to new owners in 2004. 

Text adapted from TAM TIMES, 
an AGSW publication commemorating the opening of Karen Tam's exhibit ~ April 27-June 10, 2006
Karen Tam Website
Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba ~ Brandon
Gold Mountain Restaurant: Karen Tam
Karen Tam in the Brandon Sun
Rice Paper Online: Tam's Gold Mountain Book Launch
Concordia Grad: Karen Tam Karen Tam Review

First contact: Jenny Weston - February 22, 2006-06-14 asking if Sue-On would be interested in working with an artist from Montreal:

“Karen Tam is Chinese and will be the artist in residence at the Southwestern Manitoba Art Gallery. Her project is an installation of a non-working Chinese restaurant. Karen's MO is to work in partnership with the local Chinese community.”

 Intrigued, Sue-On agreed to be the Brandon Connection.

Initial e-mail exchanges between Karen and Sue-On revealed that both women are descendants of the early immigrants who all came from the Toisan, Canton area of China.

Although they are of different generations, their similar backgrounds made the partnership for the collation of information and artifacts for Karen's installation at the art gallery a logical one.

Through networking with Sue-On, Karen spent many days and evenings visiting and interviewing various families in the Chinese community. The initial contact was through a "drop-in" with the elders coffee groups: Wednesday and Saturday afternoons with the ladies, and the daily morning coffee with the men.

Karen grew up in the family restaurant, as did Sue-On. Because of this background, Karen was most adept in her interviews with the former and present Chinese restaurateurs in Brandon. 


Family Odyssey
SOO'S ~ 1970-2002
Thanks for the Memories 
Virtual Tour of 
SOO'S Restaurant
Choy Family
Photo Archive
Chinese New Year Celebration
Traditional Chinese cafes endure
as a constant throughout Prairies
Vancouver Sun Feature Article
The Hillmans Host 
The Chinese Pavilion ~ 2008 | 2009 | 2010 
Lieutenant-Governor's WinterFest
Museum: Chinese restaurants and small-town Canada
National Post Article



1. Welcome
2. Entrance
3. Dining Room
4. Kitchen & Prep
5. Recreation
6. Wall Art & Photos

National Post Article~ Aug. 5, 2010

Photos & Web Design by Bill Hillman
Caption text by Sue-On Hillman
Bill & Sue-On Hillman Eclectic Studio

Copyright 2006/2018 Bill & Sue-On Hillman