Books·How I Wrote It

Ann Hui pays tribute to Canada's small town Chinese restaurants

In Chop Suey Nation, the journalist talks to the hardworking families bringing Chinese Canadian cuisine to small towns across the country.
Chop Suey Nation by is a nonfiction book by Ann Hui. (Amanda Palmer, Douglas & McIntyre)

Ann Hui grew up in Vancouver where she had access to a cornucopia of authentic Chinese cuisine. Outside the city, Hui's curiosity was piqued by small town Chinese restaurants, all of which had menu items she'd never heard of — ginger beef and sweet and sour pork — and had similar furnishings, paper lanterns and some combination of the terms "garden," "panda" and "fortune" in the name.

While working at the Globe and Mail, Hui pursued her interest for these establishments on a cross-Canada road trip, writing about her experiences for the newspaper.

When Hui returned home, she discovered a surprising secret about her own family history. She has turned this discovery and her adventures in Chinese Canadian cuisine into a book, Chop Suey Nation.

Discovering Chinese Canadian cuisine

"I started the trip feeling that this kind of food was less than the authentic stuff that I had always been told to value. But as I travelled to all of these restaurants and learned about the stories and the struggles behind this food — the opportunities and barriers that the first Chinese cooks had to overcome in building these restaurants and creating the cuisine — it gave me this appreciation for it.

"It's a food that's born out of struggle. It's a food that was created out of discrimination and racism and ingenuity and creativity. It tells such a fascinating part of our history here in Canada. It tells us about who we were and who we are as Canadians."

Thriving small town businesses

"There's been a lot written about disappearing Chinatowns. At least in the cities, we're seeing Chinatown businesses shutting down as the next generation is moving on to do other things. I thought that might be the case with these restaurants. But I was actually surprised to find that these businesses are thriving. There is often second, third, even fourth generation restaurant owners who have taken over the business from their elders, which I thought was very cool. I saw that there are new newcomers who are coming to this country and choosing this life as well.

"William Choy was a very interesting example in Stony Plain. He's the mayor of his Alberta town and is, I think, the third generation Choy to run Bing's #1 Restaurant. He did all of the things that his parents wanted him to do — he studied hard, went to university and earned a degree. But after all of that, he decided that the restaurant life was what he wanted. He wanted to run this business that his family had spent so long building up. Running that restaurant, being a part of it, is still a really important part of his life."

Family connection

"A few months after the road trip, I was back in Vancouver visiting with my parents. My dad was sick. All through 2015 to 2017, I was spending long periods of time in Vancouver. I had been having a lot of conversations with my dad about what his life had been like before he had come to Canada. There were so many gaps, so many questions that had gone unanswered and suddenly we had this very real timeline in which to answer some of those questions. 

"I was asking him a bunch of questions about his restaurant and his career. He ran a couple of restaurants in Vancouver and then had a catering company, which was mainly pasta, roast beef and standard western buffet food at the time. When I asked him about the restaurant that he had run before I was born, he pulled out the menu of the Legion Cafe. I saw chop suey and chow mein all over the menu. I realized that they had gone through the same experience of running a small town Chinese restaurant — the experience that I travelled all over the country to try to document without even thinking to to look at my own backyard."

Write the book you want to read

"Family history tells us so much about who we are. It informs everything. I hadn't realized — until I finally answered these questions and learned about my family's history and how we wound up here — that that piece had been missing. I would read the history books as a kid and I never saw myself in them. I think that, as a child of recent immigrants, we expect that to a certain extent. I had never even thought to question where we fit in these books.

"I basically wrote the book that I wanted to read. I wrote a book that I would have loved to read five or 10 years ago even, probably longer ago. To hear people tell me that they feel seen by this, that they feel like part of their stories is in this book, it's amazing. It's incredible. It's probably been the best part of this entire experience."

Ann Hui's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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