I will freely confess that I am a Chinese food snob. I’m obviously not Chinese but I was born in Hong Kong and I grew up in Vancouver, a city filled with Chinese people and amazing Chinese restaurants. My family ate Chinese food quite frequently and we were careful to choose restaurants with “authentic” Chinese food. We didn’t eat chop suey or ginger beef. Basically, if you got a fortune cookie at the end, it wasn’t really Chinese.
Hui, who grew up in Vancouver, the child of Chinese immigrants, shared my sentiments. But she grew curious about the prevalence of these “chop suey Chinese” restaurants across Canada, especially their frequency in small towns. Why would there be a Chinese restaurant in the town of Vulcan, Alberta (population 1900) when there were hardly any Chinese people living there? Why did it have similar (fake Chinese) menu items as a Chinese restaurant in Saskatchewan? How did this Chinese menu begin and how did it spread? What motivated the owners of these restaurants?
Hui and her husband begin in Victoria and drive across Canada to Newfoundland, visiting Chinese restaurants in small towns along the way. (You could definitely make the argument that Victoria is not a small town but it does have Canada’s oldest Chinatown so it makes sense to begin there.)
In amongst the stories of their travels and their glimpses into the people and histories behind these Chinese restaurants, Hui weaves her own family’s story, particularly her father’s. She learns of his family’s poverty in mainland China and how he arrived in Vancouver as a young man. And she learns of his own experience cooking in restuaurants and owning his own Chinese-Canadian restaurant in Abbotsford.
What really drives this story isn’t the food so much as the relationships represented by the food. Which, incidentally, is the conclusion that Hui comes to as she hears the stories of Chinese restauranteurs across Canada. I most enjoyed Hui’s re-telling of her father’s history as here her storytelling shines with empathy and interest. When she details the stories of the various restaurant owners there seems to be a greater distance and we don’t get the same feeling of closeness. Whether this was because many of them were reluctant to speak with a journalist or because of Hui’s desire to not reveal too much, I’m not sure. It did leave me feeling like I wanted more but I’m glad she chose to balance the book the way she did.
This was one of my books for my Writers Fest Challenge. I had been planning to read Chop Suey Nation even before I decided to embark on the challenge but now I’m looking forward even more to hearing Hui speak.