Writer Ann Hui was a young girl in Vancouver when she first encountered “fake” Chinese food.
Six-year-old Hui had been excitedly anticipating Lunar New Year – that was the day her elementary school would serve a Chinese lunch, which her non-Chinese classmates would also get to eat instead of their usual midday sandwiches or Spaghetti-O’s. But when the time came, she didn’t recognize what landed on her plate: “Noodles stained dark with soy sauce … a few pallid bean sprouts” and “some kind of meat … slicked in a fire-truck red sauce.” Whatever this was, Hui knew it wasn’t real Chinese.
Flash forward about 25 years and Hui, now the food reporter for The Globe and Mail newspaper, successfully pitched a series of stories to her editors. She would take a cross-country road trip to investigate why just about every small town from Victoria to Newfoundland and Labrador has its own, family-run “Chinese-Canadian” restaurant, and why they’d all come to serve dishes Hui’s family dismissed as “fake,” like deep-fried, sweet-and-sour chicken balls, honey-garlic spareribs, beef and broccoli, and pork-fried rice. It’s food that millions of Canadians have loved for generations, but which is about as authentically Chinese as poutine.
It wasn’t until Toronto-based Hui completed the newspaper series and was visiting her parents in Vancouver that she was gobsmacked to learn that for years they had owned and operated their own Chinese-Canadian restaurant before she was born. When Hui started to dig into that story, and probed even deeper into the lives of her Chinese-immigrant parents, the touching and revealing memoir Chop Suey Nation was born. Hui will read from and talk about the book – published by Madeira Park’s Douglas & McIntyre – when she appears at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts in Sechelt at a 9 a.m. event on Sunday, Aug. 18.
“My career in Toronto and my life as a journalist was and has always been a bit of a question mark for them,” Hui told Coast Reporter when asked why her parents hadn’t revealed their history, even though they knew what she was writing about. They weren’t keeping anything from her, she said. It was just a case typical of many immigrant parents and their Canadian-born and raised kids: “I don’t think they fully grasped what it is that I do.”
The book is engagingly structured with chapters that divulge what Hui learned on her national restaurant trek, alternating with chapters that unravel her family’s story, which her father recounted to her as he was slowly dying in his mid-60s from cancer. We learn of the literally dirt-poor hardship her parents endured in their youth in China, and the culturally mandated sacrifices they later would make for their children. It wasn’t until the kids were grown and secure that parents would stop working 18 hours a day, heeding the cultural maxim, “bitter first, sweet later.”
In a local twist, it was at the long-standing Chinese-Canadian restaurant Golden City in Sechelt that Coast photographer Christina Symons captured the photo on the cover of Chop Suey Nation, a combo dish of what looks like egg roll, fried rice, chop suey and deep-fried meat in a sweet-and-sour sauce. Not quite “authentic,” but enduring, and tasty.