The Unexpected History of Chinese Restaurants in Canada

Explaining how chop suey cuisine became a staple across the country

The Unexpected History of Chinese Restaurants in Canada

Food, family and immigration history are explored over the course of a cross-country road trip in Ann Hui’s new book, Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Café and Other Stories from Canada’s Chinese Restaurants.

Hui, who’s the national food reporter for the Globe and Mail and whose father ran the titular Legion Café, interviewed Chinese restaurant owners from Victoria, B.C., to Fogo Island, N.L., for the book. She spoke with us about why chop suey is here to stay, how many spring rolls she ate on her trip and the time a perfect stranger loaned her his car.

CAA: The book answers the question of why every town in Canada has a Chinese restaurant. Did you get the answer you were hoping for?

AH: Yes, I did. The answer ended up being more complicated than what I had set out looking for. I read a book [The Fortune Cookie Chronicles] by Jennifer 8. Lee, who produced the documentary The Search for General Tso, that had a fantastic description of a bus depot in New York City that had job postings for all of the Chinese restaurants on the east coast.

I was hoping there would be something like that here in Canada, but it turned out to be more complicated. It was more about these webs of restaurants that spread out from each other.

CAA: In the book, you talk about how the first restaurants served what became known as chop suey cuisine—dishes that aren’t found in China, but were adapted to the ingredients available and the taste buds of their mostly white customers. Do you think these restaurants will eventually shift to more traditional dishes and ingredients?

AH: I started this trip thinking these restaurants are disappearing, but I found that they are thriving and being passed from one generation to another.

The bigger idea of these Chinese restaurants is the family-restaurant model. Restaurants are still seen as a viable way for newcomer families to start here in Canada, and that isn’t going away anytime soon.

CAA: You also talk about how a local you met at the Fogo Island airport loaned you his car when you were stranded. Did you encounter any other acts of kindness on your trip?

AH: Every one of those restaurant owners’ stopping and taking the time to talk to us was a kindness. There was just such a tremendous generosity that we encountered.

CAA: You ordered a spring roll in each restaurant you visited. How many do you think you ate on your trip?

AH: A lot! We visited two to three restaurants a day for 18 days.

CAA: What’s the main thing you hope people take away from the book?

AH: I hope that this book helps shift people’s perception of this cuisine. It’s so common to dismiss chop suey as greasy Chinese or whatever else you want to call it.

I hope that reading the book will shed light on its incredible history, and the story of endurance and struggle. It really tells such an important part of Canada’s history and who we are as Canadians.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Want another serving of Canada’s thriving food scene?

Check out our interview with homegrown chef David Rocco or our conversation with the authors of Feast: Recipes and Stories From a Canadian Road Trip.

Image credit: Amanda Palmer

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