Chicken Balls and Baymen: A documentary about Chinese immigration
How an old photo album held a missing key to the Chinese experience in Newfoundland
My grandfather, William Seto Ping Sr., immigrated to Newfoundland from China in the 1930s.
I'm named after him and there are photos of us watching TV together. But I don't remember Pop. I was only three years old when he passed away and even though I'm named after him, he's been a mysterious presence in my life.
As my dad, Bill Ping, explains it, Pop travelled alone to Newfoundland in 1932. It's difficult for me, a graduate student at Memorial University, to imagine how much has changed in just three generations.
His mom said he had to help out his uncle, who owned a laundry in St. John's.
One day, sorting through junk in my grandfather's basement, I found an old photo album that deepened that mystery.
The album was full of images of takeouts and restaurants. Oddly cropped snaps of places with names like "the Seven Seas," "Gaye's Confectionery" or "the Oriental Drive-In."
Sometimes, unnamed people are posing stiffly in front of the establishments, other images feature gravel parking lots, cars, but no people.
I asked my dad about the album and he shrugged.
But I couldn't let it go. Maybe this album would offer a key to the man I've long wondered about. Why would my grandfather keep photos of restaurants?
Why would they warrant a photo album? Who were the people in the photos and what does it have to do with my family?
My investigation of this photo album became the subject of Chicken Balls and Baymen, a new documentary from CBC Radio's Atlantic Voice and a learning opportunity about my grandfather, myself and the experience of Chinese immigrants to Canada.
Maybe like me, Grandfather was something of a foodie? Dad said everybody who knew Pop always bragged about his food and his cooking. "He loved to cook for people. His passion was always cooking."
Like many, Pop dreamed of opening his own restaurant and the dream came true for a short time.
Dad remembers helping out after school at the spot on Harvey Road in St. John's in the 1970s.
"It was called the Seven A Restaurant and it was pretty fancy," he said. "He had a guy in a corner playing the organ while you were eating. So it was a pretty upscale place."
From what I've heard about Pop he could've run any kind of business, but he worked in a laundromat and dreamed of opening a restaurant. Why did so many Chinese immigrants own and operate restaurants?
I reached out to Ann Hui, Globe and Mail food critic and the author of Chop Suey Nation.
She said once the pan-Canadian railway was completed, the Chinese workers hired to build it were shut out of the general workforce.
"There were concerns that these Chinese men were going to take jobs away from the locals. As a result, they put in place a whole series of measures, including actual laws, that prohibited these Chinese men from working in any industry outside of what was considered 'women's work' at the time, So they were allowed to work in laundromats, in convenience stores, or in restaurants. So, for a lot of these very first Chinese men, Chinese restaurants, and restaurants in general, weren't necessarily a choice, they were just all that was left available to them."
I owe it all to my grandfather whose struggles in Canada were done with the hopes of providing a better life for his offspring.
In seeking to understand more about Pop and the photo album, I met up with my cousin Ken Pittman, the chef and owner of Seto Kitchen and Bar, a restaurant in downtown St. John's named after and inspired by Pop's cooking.
"There's a ton of memories. From his breakfast where he'd flour the bacon and cook it in fat," he said.
"There was always burned rice, cooking jasmine rice and making the tea from it. He'd always make me fried rice and then the big occasions like Chinese New Year and stuff like that. And even little things like, when he'd eat his steak, he'd always eat it with a tomato and mayonnaise you know? And be it like, steak fries right? It's just simple memories like that."
Ken shared one of pop's recipes with me for this article.
Seto Fried Rice
2 cups cooked Jasmine rice (day old if possible)
1/2 thinly sliced onion
2 cloves thinly sliced garlic
1/2 Thai chilli, minced
1 Egg, whisked with 1 tbsp soy sauce
1/2 cup of your favourite stir-fry vegetables.
This recipe works best with a carbon wok! Heat wok with a tbsp of vegetable oil until smoking, quickly add rice and vegetables to wok. Constantly toss and stir, until there is a nice char on the vegetables. Move everything to one side of the wok and then add the egg mixture. Cook egg to desired doneness and mix through rice. Plate in your favourite bowl and add scallions. Enjoy!
Making a Chinese business directory
Out of curiosity, Dad came along with me while I was recording some of the interviews with restaurant owners for this documentary. My quest to learn more about my grandfather gave us a chance to talk about his life and between interviews, I listened in to the small talk and got some new insights into my own father. I heard stories about his career as a sailor that I'd never heard before and ultimately, all the talking and eating jogged his memory about grandfather's photo album.
He remembered that the album was part of Pop's attempt to make a Chinese business directory. He drove across the province to make a record of all the Chinese restaurants. He was trying to solidify the Chinese community to help establish the Chinese Association of Newfoundland.
The restaurant owners in that photo album are distant to me not just because I don't know them and not just because the pictures are over 40 years old. I, as a third generation Chinese-Canadian, have had a world of opportunities and privileges that the older generations never had. And really, I owe it all to my grandfather whose struggles in Canada were done with the hopes of providing a better life for his offspring.