As It Happens

This man has eaten at nearly 8,000 Chinese restaurants — and he's not done yet 

David R. Chan still can’t quite believe that tens of thousands of people follow him online as he documents his excursions to different Chinese restaurants. 

David R. Chan, 72, says he first started his journey in college as a way of connecting with his roots

David R. Chan shows pineapple buns at Top Island Seafood in Los Angeles. The 72-year-old says he's eaten at nearly 8,000 Chinese restaurants. (chandavkl/Instagram)

David R. Chan still can't quite believe that tens of thousands of people follow him online as he documents his excursions to different Chinese restaurants. 

After all, the 72-year-old former tax lawyer isn't a professional food critic. He doesn't consider himself a foodie. And he rarely cooks. 

But Chan claims to have done something that very few other people — if any — have done. By his count, he has eaten at 7,818 Chinese restaurants. 

"I really didn't think anybody would care about it. I was just doing [it] … basically in a way to search for identity," he told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"But also being, you know, a collector of things, once I started rolling, I decided, well, let me see if I can try all these Chinese restaurants as they open up."

Hated Chinese food as a kid

Growing up, Chan had no affinity for Chinese food. While his grandparents immigrated to the United States from China, his mother was U.S.-born and didn't cook traditional Chinese food at home.

Whenever he had Chinese food at a restaurant or an event, he hated it. "The Chinese food I grew up with was pretty terrible," he said. 

He has a couple theories as to why.

Firstly, he says good Chinese food needs good ingredients. And Chinese ingredients simply weren't as readily available in the U.S. when he was a boy. In fact, he says a lot of restaurants simply served canned food imported from China.

"It's like going to a restaurant and getting Campbell soup," he said. 

Secondly, there wasn't a ton of variety in Chinese-American cuisine back then. 

When Chan was a child, the vast majority of Chinese people in the U.S. were Cantonese, the descendants of people who migrated to the U.S. before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

That law, which prohibited immigration from China, was repealed in 1943. But even then, the U.S. had a strict quota on immigration from Asian countries.

The story north of the border is similar. Canada imposed what's known as the "Chinese head tax" on Chinese immigrants in 1885. In 1923, Canada replaced the tax with its own Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigrants from the country altogether until 1947.

But by the time Chan went to college, things were starting to change. In the '60s, the U.S. quota system was lifted, bringing an influx of Chinese immigrants from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and more.

"Since that point in time, then you've seen all the other regional cuisines become present in the United States. And the same thing is happening in Canada," he said. 

"We had all this great new Chinese food being introduced — and it was so much better than the food I was used to eating."

Expanded horizons

The other thing that changed for Chan in the '60s is that he went to college and took a class in Asian-American history. 

"I was totally fascinated by the fact that, you know, Chinese people in the United States had their own history, and it was something that really stuck with me," he said.

"You had changing Chinese food, my growing awareness of being Chinese-American, and I sort of travelled around the country and I thought: Hey, wouldn't it be great when travelling, why don't I drop by a Chinese restaurant and see what it's like being Chinese in Memphis or something like that?"

He hasn't stopped since. Chan says he's been visiting Chinese restaurants around the U.S. — and sometimes the world — for 45 years. He keeps a meticulous record of the restaurants he's been to in a massive Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, which As It Happens has reviewed.

He has a few favourites he likes to return to, "but everything else being equal … if there was a new restaurant that I had not been to, I would choose that over a Chinese restaurant that I had previously eaten at," he said. 

Where's the best Chinese food?

Historically, Chan says the best Chinese food in North America has been in Vancouver — or more specifically, the suburb of Richmond.

"Vancouver, I'd say until the last maybe five to 10 years, was clearly ahead of anything in the United States," he said.

"As Chinese food has diversified in North America, Chinese food in L.A. has actually surpassed Vancouver, at least as far as overall. But the Cantonese food in Vancouver is probably still better than any place in the United States."

Dachen Yeng, owner of the Fortune Terrace restaurant, is pictured inside his restaurant in Richmond, B.C., on April 6, 2020. Chan says Richmond had the best Chinese food in North America until 5 or 10 years ago. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

But the very best cuisine he's sampled is in Hong Kong.

"That's, you know, one of the top culinary centres of the world," he said.

"And I think when you take into account the appreciation of the local population for food, you know, things are highly competitive. So it's not surprising that the best Chinese food — and the best food of any kind — is in Hong Kong."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. 

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