Eating Chinese: A History of Small-town Canadian Chinese Restaurants

I’ve just read a fascinating book titled “Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada” by Lily Cho, who is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Western Ontario. Like a scientist, Cho delves into the history of the many small-town Chinese restaurants that dot the Canadian landscape. She cites a 1931 census that found that Chinese labourers who came to Canada to build the railway had spread out across the country, usually in the many cities and towns along the railway line, and subsequently comprised one-third of all male cooks in Canada although they represented only 0.5 percent of its population.

The Edmonton born-and-raised author scoured public records and cultural artifacts — restaurant menus chief among them — to arrive at some fascinating conclusions about the role of the small-town Chinese restaurant in the shaping of Canadian culture. Cho says the dependable, consistent fare at Chinese restaurants, while not always an accurate representation of “real” Chinese food, helped create a “palatable Chineseness” for Canadians at a critical moment in the nation’s history.

While in the early decades of the 20th century Chinese-owned restaurants would declare the heritage of the proprietors on signs and menus, they featured almost nothing in the way of Chinese cooking. But Cho observed that in the years after the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1947, there was “an explosion of Chinese menu items,” at the restaurants. She says the “Canadianized” Chinese food helped familiarize people with Chinese culture just as a new wave of immigrants began to arrive from China.

An article by Geoff Turne in the London Free Press notes:

At the centre of that food explosion was a perennial menu favourite of dubious cultural authenticity — the sweet and sour spare rib. Cho’s fascination with the singular culinary creation occupies nearly half of the book’s second chapter. “Probably because the look of the dish – this lurid red kind of colour, it has this aura of plasticity. It looks so fake, it’s almost excessive in its fakeness. There’s something so compelling about that,” she says. Compelled by the mysteries of the sticky, day-glo concoction, Cho made a fascinating discovery about its cultural history. She investigated the origins of the Cantonese name for the dish — goo lo yook — which she had always found puzzling in translation. She says “yook,” meaning meat, made sense, but the rest of the phrase did not translate literally. But Cho discovered that many of the Chinese railway workers who formed the early Chinese-Canadian population spoke a regional dialect from which the phrase “goo lo yook” translated comically as “white man meat.” Cho clearly delights in pondering the cultural implications of the discovery. …

One small example of the culinary-cultural gems her research unearthed was the origins of “Chinese” dishes such as ginger beef, which her analysis indicates had its origins in small-town Alberta. Almost no one today would identify the dish as “authentically Chinese.” Indeed, according to Cho, it is in many ways authentically Canadian. The small restaurants that made these dishes were in tiny places where, Cho writes, “They are not in Chinatown. They are sometimes the only restaurants in town.”

In reading about this invisible history, one gets as much as sense of Canada as a country as one gets in reading about the railroad, hockey or voyageurs. Most of all it tells a story even as the physical evidence of that history is beginning to fade away. The family owned, small town Chinese restaurant is slowly vanishing, replaced by the usual chain restaurants and “fusion” cuisines. To be sure some remain, their kitchy-retro look serving as an enticement to younger customers in the same way vinyl records and diners appeal to nostalgia.

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