I grew up on the prairies and fondly remember the seemingly exotic Chinese diners in little towns like Nanton, Vulcan and Drumheller, Alberta. As a kid, Chop Suey and the gooey orange sauce over the Sweet & Sour Chicken were my favourites. It was surprising to learn Chinese diner dishes have little to do with traditional Chinese Cuisine. In fact, the literal translation of Chop Suey is “Assorted scraps. Bits and pieces. This and that.”
In 2016, Globe and Mail reporter Ann Hui (Vancouver born) hit the road to answer two questions: Why is there a Chinese restaurant in every Canadian small town? And who are the families who run them? Driving from sea to sea, Hui discovers the unlikely history behind classics like Ginger Beef, the hard-to-imagine Chinese Perogies of Alberta, and Newfoundland Chow Mein.
Among the many restaurant owners, Hui also finds the re-occurring themes of perseverance, humility, and love for family. There’s the restaurant owner/small-town mayor, the owner of a restaurant in a Thunder Bay curling rink, and the woman in remote Fogo Island who runs a restaurant alone, 365 days a year. While all of them are Chinese, their stories are universal and remind us of the mammoth challenges faced by many immigrants from around the world. Starting new lives in dusty or rocky little Canadian towns is really, really hard, but there’s no looking back.
Every other chapter also reveals intriguing stories and secrets about Hui’s own family. Her father was a baby when left with relatives and his parents immigrated to Canada. By age 10, his school days ended and he cared for pigs. Later, realities force him to work as a low-end cook. As a young man, he immigrates to Canada and reunites with his parents, but the wounds of abandonment never quite heal. That’s all I will say. The details beg to be read.
Hui fully succeeds in showing Chop Suey Cuisine is quintessentially Canadian.
Chop Suey Nation is well worth adding to your summer reading list. The fortune cookie bonus is its availability in Richmond Public Library’s digital collection and there’s no waiting list for this one!