In 2016, Globe and Mail
reporter Ann Hui drove across Canada, from Victoria to Fogo Island, to write about small-town Chinese restaurants and the families who run them. It was only after the story was published that she discovered her own family could have been included—her parents had run their own Chinese restaurant, The Legion Cafe, before she was born. This discovery, and the realization that there was so much of her own history she didn’t yet know, set her on a time-sensitive mission: to understand how, after generations living in a poverty-stricken area of Guangdong, China, her family had somehow wound up in Canada.
Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Cafe and Other Stories from Canada’s Chinese Restaurants
weaves together Hui’s own family history—from her grandfather’s decision to leave behind a wife and newborn son for a new life, to her father’s path from cooking in rural China to running some of the largest “Western” kitchens in Vancouver, to the unravelling of a closely guarded family secret—with the stories of dozens of Chinese restaurant owners from coast to coast. Along her trip, she meets a Chinese-restaurant owner/small-town mayor, the owner of a Chinese restaurant in a Thunder Bay curling rink, and the woman who runs a restaurant alone, 365 days a year, on the very remote Fogo Island. Hui also explores the fascinating history behind “chop suey” cuisine, detailing the invention of classics like “ginger beef” and “Newfoundland chow mein,” and other uniquely Canadian fare like the “Chinese pierogies” of Alberta.
Hui, who grew up in authenticity-obsessed Vancouver, begins her journey with a somewhat disparaging view of small-town “fake Chinese” food. But by the end, she comes to appreciate the essentially Chinese values that drive these restaurants—perseverance, entrepreneurialism and deep love for family. Using her own family’s story as a touchstone, she explores the importance of these restaurants in the country’s history and makes the case for why chop suey cuisine should be recognized as quintessentially Canadian.