Montreal

On this Lunar New Year, Wok N Roll celebrates 61 years in Quebec City's Saint-Roch

On this Lunar New Year — the year of the golden pig in the Chinese zodiac — one of Quebec City's first Chinese families, the Woos, reflects on what their 61-year-old restaurant means to them.

'We are one of the oldest families from back in the day,' say owners of Chinese diner

Napoléon Woo and his daughter, Jamie-Kate, own Wok N Roll restaurant in Quebec City, which has been around for 61 years. (Cassandra Leader/CBC)

Guy Sang Woo left his home in Taishan, China after the Second World War to come to Canada to look for work.

It was the early 1950s, and he travelled across the country, from coast to coast, picking up whatever odd jobs he could find.

When he was ready to set roots, he didn't want to be anywhere else other than Quebec City.

"When my father arrived, he said this was the city [where] he felt the most welcomed and accepted," says Guy Sang's son, Napoléon Woo, co-owner of Wok N Roll restaurant.

Napoléon and his daughter, Jamie-Kate, own one of the city's oldest Chinese restaurants. It's been in the same location on Charest East Boulevard, in the Saint-Roch neighbourhood, for 61 years.

My father … had it built from the ground up.- Napoléon Woo, co-owner of  Wok N Roll

Today, on this Lunar New Year, the Woos can't help but reflect on what the place means to them.

Jamie-Kate is pleased it's the year of the golden pig, which in the Chinese zodiac represents prosperity.

"We've been hanging on for so many years, for three generations. We've been through the ups and downs of running a business," Jamie-Kate says. 

The Woo Family at the restaurant in 1967. Front row: Sue Shang Chan and Guy Sang Woo. Back row, from left: their children Maurice, Benoit, Jacqueline and Napoléon Woo. (Submitted by Napoléon Woo)

The journey began in the late 1950s in the neighbourhood that was then Chinatown.

"My father bought the land and had it built from the ground up because he didn't want anyone to take it away from him," says Napoléon Woo.

When Guy Sang first arrived in Quebec City, Chinatown was small but active, the place where Chinese immigrants had set up businesses — mostly laundromats and restaurants. Chinatown was also where the community lived and socialized. Guy Sang Woo decided he wanted to open a business.

"He had never had restaurant experience before. but he knew he wanted to open a restaurant," says Jamie-Kate.

Guy Sang called the restaurant Woo's House, and it soon became a neighbourhood favourite.

"Saint-Roch was like a working-class, blue-collar neighbourhood. The people worked hard. And when they wanted good food, and a lot of it, they came to the Chinese restaurants," says Napoléon.

The menu at the time looked very different from what it looks like today.

"He had spaghetti, hamburgers, and hot chicken sandwiches on the menu," says Jamie-Kate. "He even had a five-cent breakfast."

Customers could also choose from Chinese-Canadian dishes, such as spare ribs, chicken balls and macaroni noodles.

It wasn't long before Woo's House become a neighbourhood cornerstone.

Napoléon Woo's mother, Sue Shang Chan, centre, stands alongside chefs of the family restaurant Woo's House in 1981. (Submitted by Napoléon Woo)

As more families began to move into the area, Guy Sang became a community leader and opened his doors to anyone who needed help.

After his death in 1976, Jamie-Kate's grandmother, Sue Shang Chan, took over and also stepped in to lead community events.

"My grandmother used to organize trips to Montreal; she would get the community together, rent a school bus, and go to Montreal for the day, and go to Chinatown in Montreal, and they would eat and go shopping and come back," says Jamie-Kate.

Chan was a workaholic and ran the business tirelessly until she died in 1995. Her death brought some uncertainty to the future of the family business, which at that point had been around for almost 40 years.

Baby Jamie-Kate with her grandmother, right, Sue Shang Chan, and great-grandmother, Ho Gam Yee Chan (Submitted by Jamie-Kate Woo)

At the time, Napoléon was working as a hairdresser and had no plans of running the business.

Chinatown was also going through a lot of changes.

Part of the area had been bulldozed in previous years, to make room for the construction of the Dufferin–Montmorency Highway.

Many Chinese families had left, in the wake of two politically charged referendums for Quebec independence, moving to Toronto or Vancouver. Those who remained no longer lived in Saint-Roch, moving out to Quebec City's suburbs.

The family made the difficult decision to close the restaurant.

But that didn't last long. After 18 months, Napoléon decided he wanted to re-open the family business.

Jamie-Kate was willing to join him but on one condition: "If I work full-time, there needs to be a rehaul," she told him.

That meant new menus, extensive renovations and a name change.

"Woo's House was too English-sounding. I didn't want to upset the Office [québécois] de la langue française," says Napoléon.

That's when Wok N Roll was born.

Wok N Roll's neon sign has been revamped, but is originally from 1958. (Submitted by Napoléon Woo)

'One of the oldest families'

Today Napoleon and Jamie-Kate run the family business together. They say being in a father-daughter partnership comes with its challenges.

"My dad has a soul of an artist. He's not as organized as I would like," Jamie-Kate says, laughing.

While Chinatown no longer exists, they continue to carry on the legacy of the family of reaching out to Chinese newcomers.

"It happened a few times where a Chinese person shows up, or a family or a couple, and they just arrived, and they heard about our family and they come to meet us," Jamie-Kate says.

"They know that we are one of the oldest families from back in the day."

The main dining room in Wok N Roll was updated a few years ago. (Cassandra Leader/CBC)

Today the restaurant remains a popular fixture in Saint-Roch. Many of the new generation of customers come for the food, but they also come because it brings them some nostalgia.

Napoléon says it's like going down memory lane.

"Some people say, 'My father used to eat here,' or, 'My mother celebrated a wedding here.'"

Jamie-Kate hopes the Lunar New Year brings more good fortune to the restaurant.

"What's most important always is to have my health and for my family to be healthy so that we can continue to be prosperous."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cassandra Leader is a journalist at CBC.

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