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Chinese Food and the Canadian Experience

by Dorothy Duncan

Chinese Food in Canada

Summer Volume: 1998 Issue: 5(2) page(s): 11, 12, and 16

Gold! The dream of one lucky strike and an instant fortune lured thousands of prospectors and miners to the goal fields of British Columbia in 1858. Among them was Ah Hung, merchant and agent for a San Francisco company, prospecting not for gold, but for new business. He wrote about his experiences in San Francisco's Daily Globe on May 16, 1858 and described a job offer as a cook for twenty dollars a day! Drawn by enthusiastic reports like this of Gum San, this Land of Gold, as Canada was briefly known, three hundred Chinese men arrived two months later from San Francisco by ship and after a few months more, the first arrivals came directly from Hong Kong.

The Victoria Daily Colonist estimated that four thousand Chinese arrived in 1860 and many went to the gold fields to earn wages of a dollar a day while those with a little capital began small businesses to serve the growing population of single men. These included restaurants, laundries, market gardens and fishing companies, where the fish were caught by rod and line, salted, dried and shipped inland to the protein hungry miners.

Import firms such as Kwong Lee (also from San Francisco), established their headquarters in Victoria and used pack trains of mules and horses to move their goods to the 'instant' communities springing up in the gold fields. One of the most famous was Barkerville, that suddenly became, in 1862, the largest community north of San Francisco and west of Chicago.

Three thousand of those new arrivals were Chinese. Most of the newcomers were miners, but there were sixteen Chinese businesses, eight of them restaurants serving western style food. Wages had increased to ten dollars a day, but the miners paid thrity-five dollars a week for board, usually sleeping on the floor of a cabin, wrapped in their own blanket.

A traveller describes an encounter with the Chinese miners saying: "I reached camp where a few Chinese were mining. It was situated on a narrow shelf of rock about six feet in width and twenty feet in length. The Chinamen received me kindly and made me some tea and mixed some flour and water and made thick cakes of dough which they cut into strips about an inch in width and boiled."

As the gold fields were depleted, the Chinese turned to coal mining, prospecting for jade, fishing, gardening, transporting goods, working in the food industries, and in domestic service. By the late 1870s, there were four hundred Chinese cooks and servants in Victoria providing domestic service available to the well-to-do. A drift eastward began, as the Toronto City Directory for 1877-78 confirms with two laundries, Sam Ching and Company and Wo Kee, followed by seven more in the next five years.

Meanwhile, in the 1880's, tens of thousands of Chinese were to find employment on the construction of the western end of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Eventually they were supplemented by new arrivals directly from China "paid less than non-Chinese workers and some had usually to live on rice and stale ground salmon while their white counterparts ate fresh meat and vegetables."

A report dated November 1, 1884, confirms the size of the Chinese construction crews: "On Kamloops Lake Section, I have in all about 1600 Chinese besides a good force of whites...Above Kamloops...we have...about 650 Chinamen and 200 whites...Each camp has its Chinese cook paid by the gang, who prepares all the meals. I saw one cooking rice in large tin pans and it looked to me both white and good. Another was chopping meat for a stew."

With the completion of the railway, the Chinese who had been recruited to work on it faced not only unemployment, but a severe depression, and a rising tide of discrimination. Those with money returned home while the rest travelled east on the new railway to scout for work.

The tradition continued of opening, or working in service industries (either individually or in partnerships): laundries, restaurants, market gardens, greenhouses, boarding houses, and grocery stores. They were in modest rented premises and always assisted by family members or fellow countrymen. White women were forbidden by law to work in Chinese restaurants in a number of provinces. Owners and workers alike slept above or behind the establishments, putting in long hours to survive, so their entire lives revolved around the business.

Chinese districts began to emerge in provinces other than British Columbia. For example in the early 1890's, Wing Lee and Chung Gee arrived in Edmonton, Alberta and opened laundries. By 1899, two Chinese restaurants opened nearby, where Chinatown was eventually to develop. These restaurants and those that followed were often difficult to identify as Chinese both because of their names--Alberta, Criterion, Grand Pacific, Victoria, New York Cafe--but also because they usually served western food.

The first Cantonese restaurant in Montreal was opened by Hung Fung in 1900, and the first Chinese restaurant in Toronto was opened the following year by Sing Tom under the name The Sing Wing Restaurant, and later changed its name to Kong Yu Teas. Many of the restaurants did not serve Chinese dishes because they did not have the necessary ingredients or skilled cooks; they simply offered western food--stews, chops, potatoes, vegetables, pies, stewed fruit and jello. They would prepare Chinese dishes by request only for their Chinese customers.

As the Chinatowns expanded in larger cities, the restaurants offered Chinese cuisine, sometimes in modest upstairs rooms on oilcloth covered tables; sometimes in sumptuous quarters with red, black and gold decor. Chop suey houses appeared in the mid 1920's, the first clear indication that Chinese food was available on the main menu.

By 1911, there were Chinese living in every part of Canada except the Yukon and the North West Territories, almost all of them men. The wealthy merchants and importers such as Kwong Lee, and their agents like Lee Chong, who was the first to bring his wife and family to Canada, were surrounded by their families and friends and living in comparative ease. Grace Lee, born in Victoria in 1902, describes being entertained by one of those families: "When I was a child, there was this very rich Chinese man who invited only the Chinese to dinner in his garden at his home once a year. Those were very happy occasions. In those days, there were a few very rich Chinese here. The rich women were very grand. Whenever they were invited out for dinner, they would wrap their beautiful clothes in a bundle and change when they got to their destination. Then they would change back into their street clothes when they left. It was very grand! Even the children had to change clothes." At the other end of the scale were the thousands of bachelors who had expected to be sojourners, not settlers, wanting to earn as much money as quickly as possible to send or take back to China. Before 1900, they came under the coolie broker system, where they first paid off their indebtedness, then were free to work on their own. After 1900, this was replaced by chain migration with a man arriving alone, earning enough to return home to bring a teen-aged male relative, and then both repeating the process. This resulted in enormous bachelor societies whose fare was sparse, rice the staple eaten with chopsticks and whatever else the cook could use to vary or augment the meal.

Chop suey may be the invention of those pioneer cooks who, in the absence of any Chinese delicacies, used their ingenuity to combine miscellaneous odds and ends of ingredients to create simple and practical dishes. The restrictive immigration policies of the Canadian government and the steadily increasing head taxes--fifty dollars in 1885, one hundred dollars in 1890, and five hundred dollars in 1903--meant that most Chinese would never have the luxury of a wife and family in Canada.

In 1923, the Chinese Immigration (Exclusion) Act was passed barring virtually all Chinese immigration. The Act was not repealed until 1947 after intense lobbying by both Chinese and non-Chinese groups. During this difficult period, the numbers of Chinese Canadians declined, but some managed to survive and prosper against almost insurmountable odds. Among those who managed to marry and establish families, many showed an entrepreneurial spirit even during the Depression of the 1930's. Some of their daughters reminisce: "I remember having to hover around one of these big, potbellied stoves to get warm...my mother would have porridge cooking on it. Another memory of my mother is her growing mung beans and bean sprouts...After school we'd help clean the beans before we had dinner" and "My mother...started her garden in March...She used to dry fish on our front yard and dry vegetables on our closesline...(and)...she'd go up to my elementary school football field to pick watercress."

Within the community or within a family group, traditions were faithfully observed: "My parents and other relatives and friends had Chinese cooks, who usually became almost members of the family...at Christmas time in Victoria, a group of these cooks, who knew one another well, would congregate during evenings at one employer's house after another and have co-operative Christmas cake decorating bees. The results were fantastic, with stiff white sugar pagodas, etc. on the tops of the cakes."

"There were only two Chinese families in Brockville...we mostly spoke English at home... were basically raised Canadian. But each year we had to leave school in May and go to the cemetery for Ching Ming, decoration day. At first we were a little embarrassed. Who would want people to know that you left school to have a picnic in the cemetery? We decorated and put food on the graves and planted flowers in remembrance and respect of our ancestors...and we'd pour liquor on the graves."

"My father took us to the hills to pick green onions, wild green onions, and they're really delicious. We'd bring them home and make Chinese pancakes. You grated potato and put in pork and dried shrimp chopped up and the green onions. We would invite all our friends up, so we would be making it the whole day."

"We had the Chinese Sunday school picnic. There were a group of us, maybe seventy-five or a hundred. Everybody would make tai and bring the doong, the sticky rice wrapped in palm leaves - and pass it around."

There were Chinese Christian communities in many cities such as Montreal, Winnipeg, Hamilton and Toronto. In addition to teaching English, food traditions became firmly established and picnics, garden parties, church suppers and afternoon teas provided important cross-cultural influences. In the 1920s, for example, Chinese Chews appeared on the tea tables of the nation and remained there until the middle of the century along with Empire Cookies and Pecan Snowballs. The main ingredients in Chinese Chews were walnuts, dates and candied ginger, all linked in Canadian minds with the exotic Orient.

Following the Second World War, a number of events combined to change the food traditions of many Canadians. Husbands and fathers arrived home bringing their war brides and children from around the world, new waves of immigrants swept into the country, including thousands of Chinese after the repeal of the Immigration Act in 1947, and the end of racism in Canada's immigration policy in the 1960's. The economy boomed and a nation, starved for new, different, well spiced, international dishes after the blandness of wartime foods, turned to new recipes, cook books and restaurants to bring some variety to their daily fare.

"Pretending to be very good at cooking international fare, we made things like Polynesian Chicken with coconut, or Hawaiian Shrimp with pineapple. In the 1950s, Canadians were eating North American versions of Chinese food in restaurants from coast to coast. A sweet and sour dish, whether pork or chicken, was one of the first ventures into Oriental cooking at home. Chicken strips or cubes, or meatballs, in a similar sauce, were also popular."

Today, Chinese coming to Canada make up twenty percent of all new arrivals from around the world. Toronto got off to a slow start with the first Chinatown not developing until after 1910, but now has five Chinatowns and is home to more residents of Chinese ancestry than any other North American city except San Francisco.

A while ago, the Mayor of the City of North York in Canada, visited China on a goodwill mission. As a gift to his hosts, he took four hundred giant fortune cookies custom-made for him by a local firm, the Far East Fortune Cookie. The cookies were six inches in diameter and stuffed with messages inviting everyone to come and make a fortune in North York. His hosts, in the traditional and gracious style of Chinese everywhere, told him how amazed and delighted they were with this unusual gift.

Today, Chinese families enjoy entertaining in restaurants, as they can be found at all hours eating and drinking in the Chinatowns. Yum Cha or 'drink tea' provides the opportunity to socialize, meet new and old friends and have fun. Siu yeh, 'a little bit of food', can be a bedtime snack taken in a restaurant. Eating dim sum, 'touch the heart', those tiny mouth-watering steamed morsels, provides for other social occasions.

Banquets are held to commemorate family events: births, birthdays, engagements, weddings and funerals. At them, symbolic and colorful foods such as tangerines and oranges represent gold and happiness, fish is a symbol of plenty, lotus seeds represent fertility, and peaches bring immortality. These banquets are also popular fund raisers for a range of worthy causes that Canadians of all cultural backgrounds willingly support.

Dragon Boats, Mid-Autumn, Moon, Lantern, and the Chinese New Year are the most exciting festivals. Despite the Canadian climate and the fact that New Year falls between January 21 and February 20, everyone enters into the spirit of celebration. New clothes and hair cuts welcome New Year's eve as families gather. Slips of red paper on which couplets are written and red lanterns are placed beside doorways to bring good luck. Red envelopes filled with money are exchanged, lion and dragon dances are performed and merchants hang red envelopes containing money and green vegetables for the lion beside their doorways. The money collected goes to charity as does that from many fund raising banquets held at this time.

The God of Prosperity seems to be everywhere, greeting you at the subway stations, in restaurants, in the Chinatowns, and in the Dragon Malls, dispensing sweets wrapped in red paper. This is a time when Chinese Canadians delight in demonstrating their food traditions, giving those from other cultures an opportunity to sample and savor such traditional New Year dishes as rice cake rolls, smilies, taro cake, prosperous cake, soft cookies and coconut rice cakes.

Wherever you travel in Canada, there is a Chinese restaurant serving one of the many modern versions of Chinese food. There is usually a chef of Chinese ancestry in the kitchen who, with great culinary skill, produces an excellent meal at a modest price, two attributes that Canadians of all ages and all cultural backgrounds, greatly admire. This is an amazing record, for I cannot identify any other cultural group in Canada, that despite growth, prosperity and diversity, has continued to maintain a basic service industry across the nation for close to 150 years in addition to all its other accomplishments. For that, and for all the other contributions that the Chinese, whether pioneers or new arrivals, have made to Canadian life we are all deeply grateful.
Dorothy Duncan is Executive Director of the The Ontario Historical Society in Willowdale, Ontario; and Country Fare editor of Century Home Magazine, published in Port Hope Ontario; both are in Canada This article is an abridged version of a talk given at ISACC's 1994 conference called: Chinese Cuisine and the American Palate. The conference was at Queens College-CUNY, Flushing NY, and the entire talk is available in the original with references from the editor of Flavor and Fortune.

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