Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

History on a plate

Heritage of the Chinese restaurant is both sweet and sour, a mixture of outmoded stereotypes and genuine cultural exchange

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In Chop Suey on the Prairies, a travelling exhibition organized by the Royal Alberta Museum in 2010, the curators make a careful case study of Ginger Beef.

While the dish is now a staple on many Chinese menus, it is generally agreed to have been invented in Calgary in the mid-1970s. George Wong, the Chinese-born chef at The Silver Inn, had trained in the traditional cuisine of northern China and then moved to London. He adapted a beef and orange peel recipe from Hunan province to the pub food of England, offering a sticky, sweet, slightly spicy concoction that paired well with beer.

Moving to Alberta, Wong hoped to serve traditional northern Chinese specialities. Non-Chinese Calgarians weren't quite ready, however, and kept ordering grilled cheese sandwiches and french fries from the other side of the menu. Enter Ginger Beef, a "Chinese" dish assembled from Chinese origins, tossed with Brit inspiration, and mixed with western Canadian expectations of deep-fried goodness.

That's Canadian history on a plate.

Back in the mid-20th century, back before Canada thought of itself as multicultural, the most visible signs of Chinese immigration were restaurants. There were eateries in the crowded Chinatowns of Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto, of course. But there were also hundreds of little cafés in small towns, strung across the country, often along the railway lines. In Manitoba, there were -- and often still are -- Chinese-run cafés in places like Deloraine, Boissevain, Gladstone, Neepawa, Carberry, Elkhorn, Portage la Prairie, Virden, Souris and Melita. Sometimes the Chinese restaurant was the only restaurant in town.

These cafés served "Chinese and Canadian" or "Chinese and Western" cuisine, in what could be seen as an edible metaphor for the immigrant experience. In her book Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada, Lily Cho suggests that for Chinese-Canadians, the heritage of the Chinese restaurant can be both sweet and sour, a mixture of outmoded stereotypes and genuine cultural exchange.

Café decor was often "exotic," a red-and-gold collection of dragons and phoenixes and tasselled lanterns. The food was less so, pragmatically adapted to mainstream Canadian tastes and available ingredients. While the restaurants often became centres of small-town community life, the owners were sometimes kept to the side, through exclusion or casual racism, according to Cho.

These cafés were an adaptable cross-cultural mix of chicken fried rice and Coke. Cantonese was spoken in the kitchen while country music played on the jukebox. The owners often worked hard 12-hour days while their kids did schoolwork at Arborite tables. A unique blend of the "foreign" and the familiar, these Canadian icons have been featured in songs by Sylvia Tyson and Joni Mitchell, poems by Fred Wah and art installations by Karen Tam.

The historical stats are astonishing. Cho, a professor at the University of Western Ontario, looks back at the early 20th century, a period of institutionalized racism and punitive "head taxes" on Chinese immigrants. "According to the 1931 Canadian census," Cho writes, "Chinese people made up less than one per cent of the Canadian population, and yet one out of every five restaurant, café or tavern-keepers was of Chinese origin." Some originally came as railway workers or as labourers for mining operations or fish canneries. In Saskatchewan, 50 per cent of Chinese immigrants worked in restaurants in 1921, rising to 70 per cent by 1931.

After the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1947, Cho suggests, these cafés and their Canadianized versions of Chinese food became a gentle way to familiarize people with Chinese culture as a new wave of Chinese immigration got under way.

For Prairie folk too thrifty to go out for food that could be prepared at home, the Chinese café allowed them to justify the cost of a restaurant meal. They weren't eating "Canadian" dishes, after all.

But then, this wasn't exactly authentic Chinese food, either. Most of the dishes had roots in Cantonese cooking, but the vegetables, the seafood, the complex spices needed for that cuisine just weren't available. Many Canadian favourites focussed on meat -- chicken, beef and pork -- breaded and deep-fried and served with thick, bright sauces. The menus remained remarkably consistent across the provinces and through the decades -- egg foo yong, chow mein, chop suey, lemon chicken, sweet and sour pork.

Nowadays, with another upsurge of Chinese immigration, an increased sophistication in food culture, and a global reach in recipes and ingredients, we can enjoy the extraordinary richness, variety and subtlety of real Chinese cooking. We can get bok choy and star anise at the supermarket. We can eat Chinese food at trendy, upscale urban restaurants.

That's all very well for the foodies, of course. But the "Chinese and Canadian cuisine" developed in small towns across the country will always be a deliciously important part of our history.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 j12

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