The Next Chapter

Why Ann Hui documented the history of Chinese restaurant owners in small-town Canada

Choy Suey Nation looks at the solutions of Chinese Canadian restaurateurs and the unique cuisine that has helped shape our country.
Ann Hui is a Toronto-based author and journalist. (CBC)

This interview originally aired on April 6, 2019.

Historically, dishes like ginger beef, egg rolls and spare ribs have been staples on many Chinese food menus across the country. But in reality, these dishes aren't authentically Chinese.

It's a fact that journalist Ann Hui explores in Chop Suey Nation. The food reporter set out to find out more about these small town Chinese Canadian restaurateurs and in the process she discovered her own personal connection to the popular cuisine. 

Chop Suey shorthand 

"Until relatively recently, a lot of people didn't realize that chop suey wasn't authentically Chinese. 'Chop suey cuisine' is just a shorthand that I've adopted to describe this whole genre. This whole repertoire of dishes that's often sold as Chinese food here in North America doesn't actually originate from China. Dishes like ginger beef, chicken balls and chop suey — you would have a pretty hard time finding these dishes in China. But elsewhere around the world and especially here in Canada, they're ubiquitous."

Big city versus small town Chinese food

"I grew up in Vancouver eating and seeking out the best kind of most authentic Chinese food. In Vancouver, it's almost like a sport. Any time we left Vancouver and went to smaller towns I would see these chop suey-type restaurants. It's pretty common, especially in major cities where you have access to this amazingly authentic Chinese food, to denigrate this chop suey cuisine. It's seen as, within my own family and within a lot of other Chinese families that I knew, to be fake Chinese."

Authentic tenacity

"This is a cuisine that was born out of nothing and tells a story of struggle, of perseverance, of entrepreneurial-ism. This is food that was developed by early Chinese immigrants and settlers here in North America who faced a long list of barriers including economic discrimination and systemic racism. In a lot of cases, they were specifically prohibited from entering any other professions but restaurants or laundromats.

"These were mostly men who often had never worked in a restaurant before, had no professional cooking experience and who often didn't have access to any kinds of authentic Chinese ingredients but who made up this cuisine out of nothing. I came to understand and realize what an incredible story this was." 

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