Chop Suey Nation: new Canadians follow their dreams to rural communities

Written by Lauren R. Korn on July 8, 2019

The misspelled “Canadian and Chinise Cuisine” sign at the Legion Café, with Ann Hui’s mother, father, and family friend. Photo and cover image courtesy of Douglas & McIntyre.

In Nackawic, New Brunswick, a Chinese restaurant called Saigon’s Garden rests at the end of a rural dirt road. According to Ann Hui’s Chop Suey Nation, it’s a “squat-looking brick building with a dusty blue roof. Except for a small sign above the window, there was no indication that it was a restaurant and not, say, an auto parts shop. Down the road was a pharmacy and an old farmhouse. Otherwise it was surrounded by shrub and forest.”

Because chop suey cuisine is at the heart of her book, Hui focuses on small towns and rural communities. “I was fascinated with these places, because these restaurants, and the lives of these people who are living in these small communities, were so different from what I was used to. I was used to living in environments with a certain amount of diversity. With these small communities and restaurants, there was…a want to understand that experience.”

Saigon’s Garden is operated by the Le siblings. Their parents took over the restaurant in 2006. Although the family is ethnically Vietnamese, they decided that serving Chinese food made more sense in Nackawic. As Gen Le says in the book, “nobody knows what Vietnamese food is.”

A chapter about Nackawic is one of two dozen that set out to determine why chop suey cuisine is a staple in small towns and rural communities across Canada. “Chop suey,” or dsap sooy, is a Chinese term that means “bits and pieces” or “scraps” and is used to describe a type of Chinese cuisine that combines Chinese and Western flavours.

Hui’s journey, originally chronicled in a two-part feature for The Globe and Mail, allowed her to interview chop suey restaurant owners from Victoria, British Columbia, to—yes, Nackawic, New Brunswick. She also discovered along the way that her own parents were once the owners of a Canadian and Chinese restaurant, the Legion Café. In the book, the story of her father’s childhood in China and her parents’ home-making in Canada create the backbone around which her visits to chop suey restaurants like her parents’ are wound.

Fogo Island, Newfoundland—where a woman, living alone, is operating a Chinese restaurant—is one of the inspirations for Hui’s cross-country restaurant tour. In the book, Hui writes, “I wanted to understand what would compel someone to live a life like hers. […] It was a question I would repeat over and over as I made my way from coast to coast, visiting the many restaurants and explaining the purpose of my visit. The question was this: How did you wind up here? What brought you here?”

“The vast majority of people who come here and run these restaurants are coming here,” says Hui, “because they’re looking for new opportunities and looking to build a new life. ‘Gold Mountain’ is the dream—the idea that they’re going to strike it rich, or be better off for coming [to Canada].” Gold Mountain, or Gum San, was to many “a land paved with gold.” In China, people viewed Gold Mountain as the place that would allow them to escape their very humble everydays.

“These restaurants,” says Hui, “particularity in rural communities, became their vehicles for doing that. In Canada, the food industry is an industry whose experiences a newcomer can pick up without having to speak English and without a formal education. For a lot of these restauranteurs, small towns make the most sense, because there’s too much competition in the larger cities.”

“Over the course of decades,” reads one chapter in the book, “tens of thousands of young men had left this tiny part of China for Gold Mountain. These four siyup counties were so poor that the villages could only feed their sons by sending them away. Some villages were so poor they sent away all their young men. Gum San wasn’t just one place. It could be Canada, or the United States, or Australia, or Holland. It just meant ‘away.’”

While much of the book is devoted to her family and to the chop suey restaurants of the book’s title, Hui is generous with Canada’s history of Chinese immigration and labour.

The book’s introduction informs us that Victoria’s Chinatown (at the Gate of Harmonious Interest) is the space “where Chinese immigration first began in Canada.” In the late nineteenth century, many immigrants turned west for the gold rush or to work on the country’s burgeoning railroad system. Working conditions and wages were poor for Chinese immigrants, and one can’t help but be reminded of the country’s current Temporary Foreign Worker Program, with its equally unsettling conditions, low wages, and systemic racism. But for Canada’s Chinese immigrants, their time in Canada wasn’t temporary, or seasonal.

When mining and railroad jobs became scarce, and because laws at the time prohibited Chinese men from securing professional job titles, many were forced into professions considered only by women at the time: operating laundromats, convenience stories, and restaurants. Chinatowns, too, were spaces Chinese immigrants were forced into. “For my parents and grandparents,” says Hui, “Vancouver’s Chinatown wasn’t a place where they chose to be. It was simply the only place where they felt comfortable or the only place they were able to make a living. Chinatown wasn’t a choice. For my great grandparents, Chinatown was the only place they were allowed to be, to run their business, and the only place they felt safe.”

Small towns and rural communities seem to be the contemporary (and chosen) alternatives to those nineteenth century Chinatowns. “People I spoke with…enjoy their place in these smaller communities. Some of these restaurant owners grew up in urban areas in China and were used to noise and crowded conditions. So the opportunity to live in a small town, where the pace is more comfortable—many enjoy that. This idea actually challenged me to question some of my biases, too. I’ve only ever lived in large cities. But people are different, and people are looking for different lifestyles.”

At the risk of neglecting my responsibilities as an environmental researcher, I also asked Hui about her parents’ reluctance to throw anything away. In the book, she writes about her insistence that her mother get new dishcloths (advice her mother ignores) and her curiosity about a blanket her father had kept since he arrived in the country 40 years prior. “It puzzled me how my parents were so extremely focused on not wasting anything,” she says. “And it made sense; they both came from very poor upbringings. Now that I’m older, and now that we as a society have evolved a little bit in our understanding of the impacts we have on the environment and the repercussions of not changing our ways, I’m starting to move closer to the direction that my parents had always been in. They were just ahead of their time. People like my parents were, perhaps, wiser than I gave them credit for.”

Chop Suey Nation is, I think, Hui’s own attempt at giving credit to her parents, not only by conceding that Clorox wipes may not be the most sustainable path to cleanliness, but also by acknowledging their history and the histories of Chinese immigrants in Canada. It’s a book that gives Hui’s parents and chop suey restaurant owners across Canada the paginated platform to tell their stories.

Ultimately, read Chop Suey Nation not only for its window into this familiar cuisine, but also because reading it means understanding that these small, family-run restaurants are an integral part of Chinese immigration in this country. That these families, Hui’s included, survived and established a sense of community amidst racial tensions and cultural discomfort. That these small town and rural restaurants are at the heart of Canada’s relationship to itself, to its identity.

And visit Saigon’s Garden in Nackawic. When you take a bite of a crispy egg roll or lather a slice of pork in sweet and sour sauce, take a moment to think about how, as Hui states, “many dishes are the results of people moving from one part of the world to another, of cultures coming up against one another, bringing together dishes and cultures, and blending them with places from other regions.” These dishes are the bits and pieces of Canada’s story.

Author’s Note: Readers can take a look at my full interview with Ann Hui over at The Adroit Journal that was published September 3, when Chop Suey Nation was released in the U.S.

Lauren R. Korn is a research assistant for the RAVEN project Summer Institute and an M.A. student of Creative Writing at the University of New Brunswick.

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