British Columbia·First Person

Western-Chinese food is authentic — and isn't white washing our culture

Insecure in my biracial identity, I initially rejected the dishes that represent the legacy of immigrant chefs like my grandparents, writes Kathryn Mannie. Now, I see it as my way home.

Dismissing this cuisine also dismisses the legacy of chefs like my grandparents

Though we can’t gather at our usual dim sum restaurant anymore, my family still gets together every Sunday around noon to share a meal. I join in virtually when I’m in Toronto. (Kathryn Mannie)

This First Person article is the experience of Kathryn Mannie, a third-generation Chinese Canadian from Vancouver. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

"Sik jor fahn mei ah? Have you eaten yet?" 

This common Cantonese greeting indicates just how closely Chinese culture associates food and well-being. My gung gung (maternal grandfather) fiercely proclaims that food and money are the two most important things to possess — in that order.

Like many second- and third-generation Chinese-Canadians, I was partially raised by my grandparents while my parents worked full time. 

And at the centre of their home was the kitchen.

My gung gung would lull my sister and me to sleep with stories about owning restaurants from Liverpool to Vancouver. He chose to work in the restaurant industry because of the food insecurity he faced in rural China. He never wanted anyone in his family to go hungry like he did.

Before school, my gung gung would wake us up with heaping bowls of juk (rice porridge or congee) or one of aunty's homemade joong (rice dumplings or zongzi), steamed straight from the freezer. After-school afternoons meant sharing steamed fish with ginger and scallions or a box of fresh buns from New Town Bakery in Vancouver's Chinatown. 

In the summer, we would pick plump goji berries from the garden to dry in box lids under the sun. Around Lunar New Year, my poh poh (maternal grandmother) would fill plastic buckets full of crispy fried gok jai pastries for us to share with friends. Every Sunday, the whole family would get together in the morning to eat dim sum

When I moved to Toronto for university and wanted to feel close to my family, I turned to food. I would call my gung gung on the weekends and ask how to make bak chit gai (poached chicken) and pai kuat (steamed spareribs with fermented black beans). 

My family’s sweet and sour pork recipe uses tons of ketchup to get that distinct, bright orange colour, writes Kathryn Mannie. Chinese restaurants will often add red food colouring to their sauce to make their dishes look even more appetizing. (Kathryn Mannie)

As a burgeoning Cantonese home cook who wanted to preserve the traditions of her family, I became obsessed with only cooking what I considered to be authentic food. I was raised in Canada but I sought to reject what I saw as encroaching westernization on my distinct Chinese diaspora identity. 

But Chinese food solely from China wasn't the only thing at our table growing up. One of my favourite dishes to this day is my mother's chicken wings drenched in tangy, umami "oriental sauce." I love sticky honey garlic spareribs, egg foo young omelettes, and beef and broccoli stir-fry. 

Like me, these dishes were born in North America.

I grew up in a mixed ethnicity household. My mother emigrated with her parents from Hong Kong and my dad from Portsmouth, England. I have white-passing privilege and don't speak Chinese. I've always felt insecure about my Chinese identity so I began to use my cooking to assert a degree of authenticity I felt was lacking in me, intrinsically, because of my mixed race background.

But how could I deign to carry on my family's deep connection with food if I was disregarding the Western-Chinese cuisine that brought us prosperity in Canada in the first place?

Although the menus changed over time, the mainstays across all my family's restaurants were dishes like chop suey, fried noodles, and sweet and sour sauce.

My family owned the Hub Cafe in Vermilion, Alta., in the 1970s. Angus beef burgers were the bestsellers but we also served Western-Chinese cuisine as we did in all our other restaurants. (Kathryn Mannie)

Despite Western-Chinese food having deep ties in older Chinese diaspora communities — representing early waves of Cantonese immigration — the cuisine has been relegated to the rank of guilty pleasure among younger foodies. It's derided as fake. A watering down of real Chinese cuisine.

And to some, that may be true. Some Chinese Canadians see little familiarity in the Western-Chinese dishes that draw heavily from Cantonese cuisine. Not all Chinese Canadians can say that their family's success in Canada rested on their Western culinary chops.

But mine can. And for me to look down on these dishes, and thus my own history, disrespects the legacy of immigrant chefs like my grandparents.

This was my great-great-grandfather’s head tax certificate when he immigrated to Vancouver with his son — my gung gung’s father — in 1919. When my gung gung was a newborn, his father left their home in Hoiping for the last time. The Chinese Exclusion Act and high cost of travel prevented them from meeting again until nearly 40 years later. (Kathryn Mannie)

Western-Chinese cuisine emerged in an environment of anti-Chinese racism, segregation and federal exclusion. The cuisine served as an ambassador between the two cultures — because despite not wanting us in Canada, our food was just that good. 

Now, Chinese cuisine is the most popular choice for Canadians dining out. 

Just as I cannot separate the West from my identity, so we cannot separate Western-Chinese food from the resilience of Chinese Canadians to prosper in a hostile land — not to mention the talent of Chinese immigrants in creating what is now an internationally beloved cuisine. 

Far from a watering down of Chinese culture, Western-Chinese food is a celebration of Chinese excellence. 

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Kathryn Mannie is an emerging freelance journalist and researcher based in Toronto and Vancouver. She is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto and was the Managing Editor of The Varsity, U of T’s student newspaper.