Museum probes link between
Chinese restaurants and small-town Canada
Employees of The Buffalo Cafe in Wainwright, Alta., work in 1937.
The restaurant is one of the many Chinese-Canadian eateries being celebrated as
“iconic institutions” by the Royal Alberta Museum during a new travelling exhibit this fall.
National Post ~ Aug. 5, 2010
Karen Tam still remembers the smell of smoke mixed with chicken balls emanating from her parents’ chop-suey restaurant in east-end Montreal. She sat upstairs alone at six years old, practising piano so her parents could hear her from the baby monitor downstairs in the kitchen, where they worked 14-hour days to support their life in Canada. She recalls the stained-glass lanterns with red tassels that hung from the ceiling, and the egg rolls and won-ton appetizers served to francophone customers in the 1980s at Restaurant Aux Sept Bonheurs.

“You always have certain essentials. Lanterns, red, dragons or phoenixes, all these little clues that tell the customers they’re entering this imaginary China. It’s a bit of exoticization,” the 32-year-old said.

“The old-school, kitschy decor that I love, they’re disappearing. They’re making way for the Pan-Asian, higher-end, trendier restaurant.”

Kitschy restaurants such as the Tams’ are ubiquitous across Canada, a chain of unexpected strongholds of Chinese-Canadian identity stretching across the country. A Chinese restaurant features prominently in CanLit classic Who Has Seen The Wind by W.O. Mitchell. Joni Mitchell wrote Chinese Café/Unchained Melody, singing “Down at the Chinese café/we’d be dreaming on our dimes.”

There’s one in nearly every Canadian city and town. And yet some argue the Chinese landmarks, a mix of Western and Eastern cultures and born from struggle and exclusion, are fading from Canadiana. “A lot of these cafés have closed,” says Victor Wong, executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council. “The old-timers have passed away and their children are off to the cities, where they’re welcomed as young professionals.”

And now, to venerate these “iconic institutions,” an Alberta museum is preparing for a touring exhibit this fall that will ask residents for tales of their Chinese restaurants and examine the role these restaurants play in Alberta’s culture.

Linda Tzang, cultural curator at the Royal Alberta Museum, said the travelling exhibit will encourage its viewers to consider why these restaurants, in the face of widespread racism toward the Chinese, have now grown into an anchor of many communities, not least because of their unique brand of Cantonese “chop suey” cuisine, which is not traditional Chinese, but deliciously deep-fried and sweet.

“When I was looking at Chinese restaurants in Alberta, what struck me was almost every tiny town had at least one and sometimes two,” Ms. Tzang said. “It goes against stereotypes of what a small town is, how Chinese people work socially, how Chinese culture works.”

The industry even supports a magazine called Chinese Restaurant News; in 2005 it reported there were three times as many Chinese restaurants as McDonald’s franchises in the United States. There’s no comparable statistic here but Lily Cho, an associate English professor at the University of Western Ontario and author of Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small-Town Canada, says she’s never visited a Canadian town that didn’t have one.

Many Chinese workers were employed building the Canadian Pacific Rail line into the early 1900s. But in 1923, Parliament passed the Chinese Immigration Act, restricting Chinese immigrants from entering Canada except under the titles of merchant, diplomat or foreign student. Shut out from professional occupations and farming, many dispersed to communities along the CPR line, some opening laundromats and grocery stores, but most realizing that they could support their families running restaurants, particularly in the Prairies, where the cafés often had no competition.

Initially the restaurants served Western-style food (fish and chips, steak, apple pie), not introducing the now-popular Canadianized Chinese food (chop suey, sweet-and-sour chicken balls) until the 1960s.

Edmonton writer Bill Mah recalls his childhood growing up at Eddie’s Café and Confectionary in Alberta, eating family meals in the café kitchen and sleeping below the restaurant owned by his parents. “For me, the little red-brick restaurant on the main street of Killam during the 1970s was the place where my mother and father cooked and served breakfast, lunch and dinner, mostly on their own while raising three young boys,” he wrote in Wednesday's Edmonton Journal.

When the restaurants close, it deeply affects the small communities in which they’ve become such a central part, particularly in the Prairies, Ms. Tzang said. “There’s a great profound sense of sadness about that. It’s the ebb and flow of business but it’s not just ‘a business went away,’ ” she said. “We’ve gone to towns and asked them to remember the old restaurant, the one that’s closed. They have stories of them being kids, not being able to afford to eat in the restaurant. But they remember getting a quarter and being able to buy an ice cream.”

Ms. Tam, an artist who has exhibited installations of Chinese restaurants across Canada and who’s now doing her PhD on the aesthetics of Canadian Chinese restaurants at Goldsmiths College in London, says the Chinese-Canadian community is proud of its culinary contribution, but that pride took time to develop. “I think my parents saw it more as a form of work than a sense of pride. It wasn’t really by choice, it was by necessity,” she said, adding that her parents didn’t take a vacation for 26 years until they sold the restaurant in 2004. “But the restaurants have supported generations of children to higher education so they haven’t had to endure the hardship of their parents.”

Ms. Cho says it’s not the hope of most restaurateurs that their children will carry on the business, so they are no longer passed down generationally. “The greatest family stereotype is that a new immigrant family comes, runs a restaurant and puts a million kids through medical school,” she said. “Really, they’re passed on hoizontally across the community from one family to another. They’re a really important gateway in that sense for new immigrants.”

When Ms. Cho’s father spotted an advertisement in an Edmonton newspaper in the 1970s seeking help at the Shangri-La Restaurant in Whitehorse, he uprooted his family and went, taking over the restaurant from its previous owner. Her father, she said, couldn’t cook.

“When I asked him, ‘How did you know what to cook?,’ he said, ‘We just looked at what other restaurants offered on their menus and copied that,’ ” she said. “There was this wonderful borrowing that happened. The menus are remarkably consistent. They’re the same everywhere.”

And just because the food’s not traditional Chinese doesn’t mean we should like it any less, Ms. Cho says. “These restaurants offer a stable, reliable kind of ‘Chinese-ness’ that people could consume,” she said. “All that food may not be authentically Chinese, whatever that might mean, but it’s certainly wonderfully representative of small-town Chinese culture here.”

Back to