The Asian Canadian
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The Asian Canadian

Have You Eaten Yet?

You have tattoos and others have piercings, but for me, there’s nothing that says more about me than the food I choose to carry every single day. As a kid trying to maintain my identity in America, my Chinese was passable, my history was shaky, but I could taste something once and make it myself at home. When everything else fell apart and I didn’t know who I was, food brought me back and I was here again. — Eddie Huang[1]

The idea of what it means to be Chinese has always confused me, as has the idea of what it means to be Canadian. As an Asian Canadian of mixed Chinese ancestry these two ideals have always clashed. Both are large continents with a multitude of ethnicities, identities, and very few cultural touchstones. Chinese food or rather the idea of Chinese food in Canada is generally thought of as a thread of cultural connective tissue for people of Chinese ancestry. However, China, like Canada is more of a continent than a country, it previously had over 2000 recognized ethnicities, even if the current Chinese government only recognizes 56; what binds all these different people together? It is a problem every nation tries to solve. Chinese Canadian food is different than the traditional regional dishes made and eaten in China. Chinese Canadian food is not Shanghainese, Szechuanese, or Cantonese cuisine. Yet, the lack of nuance and subtly when discussing the differences of people who call China their ancestral home is not an accident; I believe that the lack of understanding between Chinese cuisine goes hand in hand with the lack of understanding, definition, and acceptance of what it means to be Chinese Canadian.

The lack of acceptance of Chinese Canadian food is directly linked with the continuity of racism Chinese Canadians have faced since Confederation. I believe that racism regarding Chinese immigrants and Canadian Born Chinese is marked more by continuity than change and this racism has adapted and changed over time to fit within the everchanging social spectrum of acceptability. I want to use the vehicle of food to break down this continuity of racism; food can be used as a trojan horse of sorts to introduce people to cultures, values, and ways of living different than their own. As Oxford historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto has written, “[food] has a good claim to be considered the world’s most important subject. It is what matters most to most people for most of the time.”[2] I believe food is one of the few true universal languages we all speak, even if it sometimes gets lost in the translation of techniques, spices, and textures. In the case of Chinese Canadian food, while its inspiration comes from China, its evolution is directly caused by the introduction of a new land and people, and it had to adapt these things in order to survive. Chinese Canadian foods such as ginger beef, orange chicken, and sweet and sour pork are as Canadian as the maple leaf, loonies, and Canadian hockey teams during the Olympics. One clear example of this adaptability, not only in terms of ingredients but different palates is the creation of ginger beef. Ginger beef was allegedly created in Calgary at the Silver Inn Restaurant in the mid 1970’s.[3] The chef was Hong Kong raised and had spent many years working in Peking-style restaurants.[4] When trying to fill out the menu with food that would not scare non-Chinese customers away, one particular dish came to mind: a beef dish that was sweet and chewy, akin to beef jerky.[5] It was a popular dish in China, mainly eaten as a snack, he put it on the menu with high hopes, unfortunately it did not match the palate of most of their customers.[6] Most Alberta beef is tender, so the idea of it being chewy is a foreign concept, not to mention the amount of spices, ginger, chilies, and garlic used were too intense.[7] The solution to this problem? Make it into something relatable, so he asked, “Why not make it a French fry?”[8] That’s exactly what he did,

“He coated thin strips of beef in a thin batter, then deep-fried the strips to create a crisp outer layer. He was careful to avoid overcooking, so the inside of the meat stayed tender, highlighting the fresh, local beef. Then he tossed everything in a sweet chili-ginger-garlic mix, toning the spices down just a bit from the original version.”

It was, like all good chop suey dishes, the perfect combination of sweet, salty, tangy, and crunchy. It had some of the “exotic” Chinese flavours the customers were looking for but blended with familiar “Western” ideas.”[9] Food operates as one of the key cultural pillars in people’s lives and their view of others.[10] However, because of the racism that is built into the foundations of Confederation, Chinese Canadian food is believed to be lesser or unworthy of being a product of Canada. I do not think a communal plate of chop suey dishes is powerful enough to bridge and breakdown all of the historical baggage between two continents and the legacy of Western imperialism and colonialism, I think it can, at the least, bring those two continents to the table. Confederation was never interested in coming to the table, from John A. Macdonald’s Electoral Franchise Act to the Chinese Head Tax to the Chinese Exclusion Act, we see a legacy of anti-Chinese legislation and rhetoric built into the fabric of Canada. Yet, Chinese Canadians are still here but in order to break this legacy and define for ourselves what it means to be Chinese Canadian we must understand exactly what we are breaking away from as well as the ways we have resisted against this legacy.

Just like the multitudes of identity that fall under the umbrella of Chinese Canadian, not all racism manifests itself in the same way. There is nothing fixed or inevitable about racism, they have their own contexts, histories, and ways they are carried out.[11] It does not exist in a vacuum, it is affected and affects things such as gender, sexuality, age, class, and ability/disability; things which a person have little control over in terms of their identity.[12] Racism creates race, not the other way around.[13]

Wenying Xu starts his book Eating Identities: Reading Food in Asian American Literature off with two stories: in the first story is one his father told him when he was a child about the Southern Chinese dessert, tang yuan, a sticky rice ball with a sweet filling.[14] His father recounts how in the late 1600’s tang yuan perplexed the British, they had never tasted anything like it, it was chewy, creamy, and fragrant.[15] The British were so confused by its composition they took a few back to their labs and dissected them to find a dark filling, consisting of brown sugar, lard, and sesame seeds.[16] The scientist came to the conclusion that the Chinese must have melted down the brown sugar, lard, and sesame seeds into a syrup before using a needle to inject the liquid into the rice balls and sent their findings to the Queen.[17] In hindsight Xu is certain his father fabricated this story however, he admits that it shaped his idea of the West growing up and thought, “how curious, scientific-minded, and yet stupid the English were.”[18]

The second story he shares is from 1987 when Den Fujita, a Macdonald’s partner in Japan made the following statement:

“The reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skin is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for 2,000 years. If we eat McDonald’s hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years, we will become taller, our skin will become white and our hair blond.”[19]

I share these two stories not only because I think that in their levity do a good job of breaching more nuanced conversations around stereotypes around how we orient ourselves with the other. These two stories say something about how we think of food as completely tied to our identity and how sometimes it is easy to forget what it is like to experience something for the first time. What is interesting to me from these two stories is that no matter how much particular food we eat, it does not become our identity, the British could eat all the tang yuan in the world and they would still be British just like all of Japan could only have McDonald’s in it but it would still be Japan. In terms of Chinese Canadian food, it is not just Chinese, and it is just not Canadian, it is both, it is something new. These arbitrary oppositional binaries have limited what Canada can be and what it aspires to be.

The root of all of this relates to John A. Macdonald and his vision of Canada as an Aryan state. During Confederation and consolidation of Indigenous Lands, John A. Macdonald would not only have refused to come to the table, he would not have wanted it built in the first place. Macdonald aka the father of Canadian Confederation, introduced biological racism during the formation of the Canadian State in 1885 when he barred the voting rights of anyone of the “Mongolian or Chinese race”.[20] He justified this through the social Darwinist belief that they were biologically different from “Aryans” and their presence is a direct threat to the “the Aryan character of the future of British America.”[21] Macdonald would go as far to say that the Electoral Franchise Act that disenfranchised those of “Mongolian or Chinese race,” an act he personally controlled, “the greatest triumph of my life.”[22] It is tempting for some to argue that Macdonald was singular in terms of his racism and policies and that Canada has moved beyond this since 1885. However, the danger of attempting to reduce racism from a systemic ideal to an individual one is that it then ignores supporters of MacDonald, not to mention his colleagues in Parliament who worked with him in the formation of these laws and policies, and “also ignores how racist systems work, and plays into the continuing denial of the racisms that characterize the dominance of racialized Europeans in Canada.”[23] Categories of race, the stereotypes and prejudices which reinforce them do not invade the world as fully formed ideas nor do they follow a linear path of oppression, they adapt and mold themselves to the specific contexts they are deployed.[24] Macdonald’s racialization and disenfranchisement of East Asians was a key moment in the formation of the Canadian State and the message is just as clear now from 1885 as it is today, “We do not want you here.”[25]

As I mentioned in my introduction about the of a clear definition of what it means to be Chinese and Chinese Canadian, Macdonald did his best to define it for himself and the Canadian State. The term “Chinese” in this era was arbitrary to say the least.[26] At first Macdonald wanted to propose the disenfranchisement of people from China through amending the clause defining a “person” to read “a male person including an Indian and excluding a Chinaman.”[27] He argued that “Chinamen” did not have capacity for “British instincts or British feelings or aspirations and therefore ought not to have a vote.”[28] Macdonald also argued his point that Chinese immigrants only wanted to come to Canada to work and bring back their prosperity to China, thus they did not have any economic value to the country.[29] Anchoring arguments for Chinese disenfranchisement and later exclusion to race instead of ideas around culture ensured that these exclusions would be the foundation of Macdonald’s ideal Aryan state.[30]

Today we know, despite Canada’s best efforts, Macdonald’s original vision has not come to pass, even if his vision casts a deep shadow. This begs the question, if Chinese immigrants were not wanted beyond their labour for the railroad, where do they fit? One answer is in restaurants and what is ironic the railway was crucial for Chinese Canadians for them to settle in different parts of the country. According the 1931 Canadian census, Chinese people were less than 1% of the population but one out of every five restaurants, café, or pub owners was of Chinese ancestry.[31] One out of three male cooks was Chinese, in 1921 40% of Chinese people in Alberta worked in the restaurant industry and that number rose all the way to 60% a decade later.[32] These numbers show that it was not only the Chinatowns of urban areas such as Vancouver and Toronto that Chinese people lived but also across the country in smaller towns such as Ponoka, Swift Current, and Nelson.[33] The railroad had a great effect on where Chinese migrants settled.[34] You can track the rise of Chinese restaurants on the main streets of small Canadian towns along with the railroad because the placement of the railroad was one of the most important factors of an establishment of a town.[35] Initially in these small towns the few non-white owned businesses were owned by Chinese people, at first small general stores and laundromats before also opening cafes.[36] These small town cafes and restaurants were not just places for farmers or workers to get a meal, they served as informal gathering spaces for the town, Chinese people and their businesses were crucial in small town development.[37] These small town Chinese restaurants are still around and are proof that the Chinese Canadian experience has a diversity all unto itself. As Lily Cho explains in her book Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada, “Those who arrive to work in the kitchens of Chinese restaurants do seem very far removed from the modern multinational entrepreneur with his handful of passports and the latest model mobile phone. The small town Chinese restaurant illuminates a collision between the idea of the non-urban and that of the non-modern in the increasingly triumphalist account of Asian arrival.”[38] There are major differences between Chinese communities born of the railway workers and those who migrated during the late 20th Century from Hong Kong, and while the more economically prosperous person from Hong Kong might be the first to point out their differences via bank account, you could say this about any migrant group.[39] History, time, and class do the work of separating communities and it is foolish to assume that the Chinese diaspora is the same with every new generation of Chinese Canadians.[40] The through line for connection does run deeper than China as an ancestral home, Chinese restaurants in the West in many ways is the gateway for Chinese migrants to get their foot in the door, this is the not only the demand for cheap labour but Chinese Canadian restaurants provide a space for migrants who struggle or do not know English.[41] Chinese restaurants are spaces of connective tissue between the old and new and also spaces of mingling between Chinese and non-Chinese communities, the workers camps assigned to the railroad are long gone but some of the restaurants in the towns have stayed.[42] They are proof that Chinese Canadians have been a part of this country’s formation beyond being exploited labour for the building of the railroad.

Chinese Canadian restaurants are a space for Chinese Canadians to make their own identity.[43] Placing these notions of what it means to be Chinese Canadian in the context of a restaurant, it allows assumptions about race to be easily deconstructed, if someone was so inclined, it forces them to look beyond simply what is on their plate.[44] As Jessa Riel Alston — O’Connor states in her thesis, Consuming Culture: Negotiating Asian Canadian Identities Through Food Culture and Art, “Food is recognized, therefore, as a critical site where important questions of race and culture in [Canada] are played out, while restaurants become spaces or sites where culture is consumed and at the same time challenged.”[45] Like the stories from Xu earlier in the piece, real deconstruction does not come from deconstructing the food, it comes from learning the stories and history of the people who made the food. What is on the plate is a history all unto itself.

Many Chinese Canadian restaurants aka chop suey restaurants owners were not trained chefs and were forced to think on their feet to create new Chinese dishes with the ingredients available to them as well as accounting for a majority non-Chinese patron.[46] Many opened restaurants because they felt they had no other options either because of the language barrier or because until the mid-twentieth century they were barred from other professional occupations.[47] These cooks survived by improvising on the fly and learning from other cooks. [48] Even if these cooks wanted to make “authentic” Chinese food, Canada did not house the same spices, sauces, produce, and fish needed to do so.[49] They worked with what was available and created and tested new dishes they thought would appeal to the West; which meant adding more soy sauce, ketchup, and sugar.[50] This is how chop suey was concocted: using bits and pieces.[51] Dishes you could find across Canada with variations depending on the location, substitute green cabbage for napa, carrots in one city, celery in another, in one place it was chicken and another it was beef.[52] The only vegetable that was a constant was bean sprouts because they could be grown anywhere.[53] Overtime, this cuisine became standardized because it would become popular in one spot and customers would go another one asking for the same thing, the dish would spread and soon every restaurant in the area would have it.[54] Many of the most popular chop suey dishes were created in San Francisco and they spread over the border into Canada, such as General Tso’s Chicken.[55] Remember the story of ginger beef at the beginning of the piece? The restaurant cycled through cooks regularly after the dish became popular because they would recruit cooks from Hong Kong and China and they would learn how to make it and wonder why they were working for someone else when they could make it themselves now, and this is how ginger beef spread through the prairies.[56] Ginger beef is 100% Canadian.

Chinese Canadian restaurants exist across Canada and the spread of them is far from linear. Major cities become main nodes for early Chinese immigrants such as Victoria and Vancouver, with the railway Chinese communities migrated farther east.[57] Entire villages or families would move to specific towns or cities, one family in Vancouver, another settling in Toronto, one village in Kenora, and so on.[58] From these settlements one restaurant would open up, then someone from the extended family of the first restaurant would open their own with help from the initial family.[59] Over decades these restaurants would spread, eventually there was no limit on the number of young men and women from China coming to Canada who wanted a chance at more opportunity but also a chance to work for themselves.[60] The spread of these restaurants at first was by word of mouth, air-mailed letters and long distanced phone calls, nowadays it is mostly online.[61] Many of the ads today advertise not only a restaurant but a new life, the ads often emphasize what life would look like for an entire family: good schools nearby, safe communities, and grocery stores with familiar goods.[62]

Something you might have noticed about Chinese Canadian restaurants is most of them look and feel the same beyond the food. Menus have the same typeface and organized the same way, booths are lined with the same vinyl, and the same plum sauce ready to go.[63] A blogger David Chen did research focusing on Chinese restaurant names in the United States, he found that there are over 1770 separate independent restaurants named “Panda Express,” and another 511 named “China Wok.”[64] These are restaurants, thousands of miles apart, yet managed to replicate each other to a tee without the ease of the internet.[65] This is not mere coincidence nor an accident. Whenever, a Chinese Canadian restaurant changes hands, it was not just a simple transaction of a business but also all the expertise of running the business from the owner.[66] When buying a Chinese Canadian restaurant you buy the entire business including the furniture, equipment, and all of the recipes.[67] Sometimes, the previous owner will stay the first month showing the new owners exactly how they ran it in the past; the exact way they wrap spring rolls or the correct amount of batter the sesame chicken needs and sometimes there will be a binder full of every recipe on the menu that has been passed down from every previous owner.[68] Changing anything would cost money, it was convenient to keep doing what the restaurant had been doing than to do anything different. When so much of your life is in turmoil trying to settle in a new place this is one form large form of stability.

This is concrete proof that connective tissue exists in Chinese Canadian culture, even if it is far from the type of connective tissue that I was personally searching for, but these restaurants are one pipeline for Chinese immigrants to get to Canada. That binder full of recipes passed down from one owner to the next is no different than a family recipe book. Food becomes a rallying point across the country not only for people coming to this country but a way to quickly find their footing. John A. Macdonald’s two greatest achievements in his life, the Electoral Franchise Act and the cross-country railway, both dealt with Chinese immigrants and Chinese Canadians, but the latter was a catalyst to ensure that Chinese Canadians would always be a part of Canada long after the railway was completed, even if the former did everything to deny this reality. The irony is not lost on me, the few places Canada allowed Chinese people to be Chinese people beyond laundromats and corners stores is the kitchen. Sometimes it is best to get in where you fit in. Survival becomes the first ten priorities, everything else gets pushed into the background. This is its own continuity, one that has continued from Macdonald’s Electoral Franchise Act, one that has pushed Chinese Canadians to the background when discussing the direction of our country. This is another layer of the diaspora, Canadian Born Chinese and their Chinese immigrant parents. This is where I find myself, I have the privilege of stability because of the work my parents put in. The challenge for me and my generation is to capitalize on our privileges to push the needle forward, to push Chinese Canadian narratives, and our own stories around figuring out our own identities and what it means to be Chinese Canadian. Like ginger beef we are something new, the product of two continents. The alleged inventor did not create ginger beef out of thin air. He took his lived experience, his knowledge as a chef, the ingredients at his disposal, and the taste of the community around him, and used all of that to situate himself into an entirely new continent. Coll Thrush knew what they were talking about when they said, “We are what we eat, both materially and discursively, in terms of both the ecological networks that provide us with sustenance and the identities that define who we are as social, cultural, and historical beings.”[69] I am Chinese, I am Canadian, and despite whatever John A. Macdonald thinks of it they do not cancel each other out. One does not outweigh the other nor do they fully make up my entire identity. This is my body. This is my country. It is up to me to figure out what it all means in order to break the continuous story this country tells about it, I never imagined I would find it in the food I have eaten my entire life but then again where else could it be?

[1] Eddie Huang, Fresh off the Boat: A Memoir (New York: Spiegal & Grau, 2015), p.250)

[2] C. Thrush, “Vancouver the Cannibal: Cuisine, Encounter, and the Dilemma of Difference on the Northwest Coast, 1774–1808,” Ethnohistory 58, no. 1 (January 2011), 2.

[3] Ann Hui, Chop Suey Nation (Madeira Park, BC: Douglas & McIntyre, 2019), 78.

[4] Hui, 78 (2019).

[5] Hui, 78 (2019).

[6] Hui, 78 (2019).

[7] Hui, 78–79 (2019).

[8] Hui, 79 (2019).

[9] Hui, 79 (2019).

[10] Wenying Xu, Eating Identities: Reading Food in Asian American Literature (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008), 2.

[11] Timothy John Stanley, Contesting White Supremacy: School Segregation, Anti-Racism, and the Making of Chinese Canadians (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011), p.6).

[12] Stanley, 6 (2011).

[13] Stanley, 6 (2011).

[14] Xu, 2 (2008).

[15] Xu, 2 (2008).

[16] Xu, 2 (2008).

[17] Xu, 2 (2008).

[18] Xu, 2 (2008).

[19] Xu, 2 (2008).

[20] Timothy Stanley, “John A. Macdonald, ‘the Chinese’ and Racist State Formation in Canada,” Journal of Critical Race Inquiry 3, no. 1 (2017), https://doi.org/10.24908/jcri.v3i1.5974, p.7)

[21] Stanley, 7 (2017).

[22] Stanley, 7 (2017).

[23] Stanley, 8 (2017).

[24] Stanley, 8 (2017).

[25] Stanley, 8 (2017).

[26] Stanley, 9 (2017).

[27] Stanley, 9 (2017).

[28] Stanley, 9 (2017).

[29] Stanley, 9 (2017).

[30] Stanley, 28 (2017).

[31] Lily Cho, Eating Chinese Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), p.8)

[32] Cho, 8 (2014).

[33] Cho, 9 (2014).

[34] Cho, 8 (2014).

[35] Cho, 9 (2014).

[36] Cho, 9 (2014).

[37] Cho, 9 (2014).

[38] Cho, 10 (2014).

[39] Cho, 11 (2014).

[40] Cho, 11 (2014).

[41] Cho, 12 (2014).

[42] Cho, 13 (2014).

[43] Jessa Riel Alston-O’Connor, Consuming Culture: Negotiating Asian Canadian Identities Through Food Culture and Art (A Thesis in The Department of Art History, Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts (Art History) at Concordia University. Montreal, Quebec, Canada), http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.632.5981&rep=rep1&type=pdf, p.20)

[44] Alston — O’Connor, 20 (2011).

[45] Alston — O’Connor, 18 (2011).

[46] Hui, 77 (2019).

[47] Hui, 77 (2019).

[48] Hui, 77 (2019).

[49] Hui, 77 (2019).

[50] Hui, 77 (2019).

[51] Hui, 77 (2019).

[52] Hui, 77 (2019).

[53] Hui, 77 (2019).

[54] Hui, 78 (2019).

[55] Hui, 78 (2019).

[56] Hui, 80 (2019).

[57] Hui, 100 (2019).

[58] Hui, 100 (2019).

[59] Hui, 100 (2019).

[60] Hui, 100 (2019).

[61] Hui, 101 (2019).

[62] Hui, 101 (2019).

[63] Hui, 103 (2019).

[64] Hui, 103 (2019).

[65] Hui, 103 (2019).

[66] Hui, 107 (2019).

[67] Hui, 107 (2019).

[68] Hui, 107 (2019).

[69] Thrush, 2 (2011).

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