Literary History: Chinese Restaurants in Canadian Literature

Front Counter of Peking Café in Calgary, Alberta. 1975. Credit: Gordon F. Brown. Reproduced with permission from Library and Archives Canada (Gordon F. Brown fonds/e010675478).

Beginning with the first type of Chinese restaurant texts, these works tend to have earlier publication dates and to have been written by those outside the Chinese Canadian community. Their central characters observe Chinese restaurants, sometimes eating in them or coming to know those who work in or own them, but they and their world are outside the restaurants’ walls. This group includes works by Robert Kroetsch, W. O. Mitchell, Sinclair Ross, and Robert Stead. Two more recent novels, Japanese Canadian Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms (1994) and Haisla/Heiltsuk author Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach (2000), also fall into this category.

By contrast, the second group includes Chinese restaurant texts that focus on characters whose lives are centred in the restaurant industry itself. In these texts, the restaurant is described at length, and readers are introduced to the routines of restaurant labour, as well as the lived realities of Canada’s racist legislation regulating the immigration and hiring practices of the Chinese community in Canada. Written primarily by those within the Chinese community in Canada, these texts reclaim the privilege of telling the story of the Chinese restaurant.

Restaurant Literature by non-Chinese Canadians

While the outsider perspective (and you may want to think about whether this is a perspective of racial privilege rather than one of marginalization) of the first group of texts can result in a kind of narrative blindness to the Chinese restaurant proprietor’s own experience, literary restaurants serve nevertheless to open the main characters’ eyes to cultural difference. An example of this narrative blindness can be seen in Sinclair Ross’s short story “Cornet at Night” (1939) from The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories (1968). While this coming-of-age story introduces a farm boy to the “exotic atmosphere” of town life through a Chinese restaurant, it provides only a brief, prejudiced description of the “indolent little Chinaman behind the counter” (36). In contrast, other outsiders offer more detailed, sympathetic representations of the restaurateurs. During the 1970s, the most in-depth fictional depiction of a Chinese restaurant, first published in French and by a writer outside the Chinese community in Canada, was Gabrielle Roy’s novella “Où iras-tu Sam Lee Wong?” (“Where Are You Going, Sam Lee Wong?”). Roy began writing this story about a lonely prairie restaurateur Sam Lee Wong in the mid 1940s, but published it only in 1975 in Un jardin au bout du monde (Garden in the Wind). Carole Gerson provides an overview of the themes and mood of Roy’s text in her review (1979). The novella offers not only a detailed account of the community-building role of Wong’s establishment, but also an individual portrait of the Chinese cook-proprietor. Central to Roy’s portrayal are indirect and explicit acknowledgements of the institutional and community-based racism that shaped the experiences of Chinese immigrants and Canadian history. Another such portrait is Robert Kroetsch’s poem “Elegy for Wong Toy” (1972) from The Stone Hammer Poems, which alludes to the role of Chinese workers in building the Canadian Pacific Railroad and the bachelor existence of many Chinese immigrants due to the racist policy of the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act. Both Roy and Kroetsch depict the Chinese restaurateur as being called “Charlie,” highlighting how racial stereotypes infiltrated Canadians’ perceptions and everyday language. Roy’s and Kroetsch’s use of the elegiac mode—with its attention to loss—predominates in these texts that provide longer meditations on the Chinese immigrant experience. This loss encompasses not only the Chinese restaurateurs’ unfulfilled dreams and social isolation in Canada, but also the surrounding communities’ failures to see beyond their prejudiced attitudes.

Restaurant Literature by Chinese Canadians

Kitchen of Peking Café in Calgary, Alberta. 1975. Reproduced with permission from Library and Archives Canada (Gordon F. Brown fonds/e010675479).

By contrast to the first group of texts, which conjures encounters with the exotic or poignant meditations on loss and loneliness in relation to Chinese restaurants, in the period after the publication of the first Asian Canadian literary anthology in 1979, Inalienable Rice, the second group of restaurant texts emerges. These texts are written by Chinese Canadians who invite readers into their restaurants—worlds of action, noise, commotion and food, often described in the first person. Kitchen doors swing open and shut, working days are long, chefs lose their temper and swear aloud, and authors and narrators alike contemplate what it means to be of Chinese descent in Canada and to be part of a community supported by the restaurant industry.

As mentioned, significant in this second group are two family memoirs, Chong’s The Concubine’s Children (1994) and Wah’s Diamond Grill (1996), and two novels, Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe (1990) and Bates’ Midnight at the Dragon Café (2004). Two other works of significance are books of poetry: Wah’s Waiting for Saskatchewan (1985) and Jim Wong-Chu’s Chinatown Ghosts (1986). What further distinguishes these texts from earlier depictions of Chinese cafes is the depiction of Chinese co-workers and the larger Asian diaspora in Canada, as opposed to the solitary portrayals that tended to mark the literary landscapes of the previous decades. In Wong-Chu’s Chinatown Ghosts, for example, food gives voice to the horrors of the Vietnam War when the speaker empathizes with a silent co-worker, a newly arrived refugee, who prepares the egg rolls: “I feel his nothing / his no hope / … / because home and his young wife / are in deep fried / Vietnam” (34). Menus with Chinese and hybrid western cuisine also assume a critical presence, highlighting experiences of dislocation as well as transformations of the adopted Canadian culture. “Mixed Grill,” or “mixee grill,” is a signature dish in Wah’s Diamond Grill because of its transcultural heritage. An “improvised imitation of Empire cuisine” that defies straightforward categorization, this entrée’s ingredients, preparation, and pronunciation have changed since it was transported from the elite clubs of Hong Kong to the Chinese cafes of western Canada (2).

What does this overview of the history of Chinese restaurant literature in Canada reveal? It provides a framework through which to glimpse the complexities of identity, cultural negotiation, and diaspora community formation in Canada.

Close Reading Questions

  1. Read Andrew Suknaski’s poem “Jimmy Hoy’s Place” in Wood Mountain Poems (1976) and study the photograph of the Wood Mountain Cafe and Confectionary (near the back of Suknaski’s book). Do these representations fit best within the first or the second group of restaurant texts? Why?
  2. W. O. Mitchell’s depiction of the Bluebird Café in Who Has Seen the Wind is an unusual one because the novel describes the restaurant proprietor as having a family at a time when Chinese immigration was severely limited. Nevertheless, the Wongs’ story is a poignantly tragic one. In what way is Mitchell’s treatment of the Wong family elegiac or poignant, particularly in chapters 14 and 15?
  3. Reflect on the restaurant poems by Jim Wong-Chu and Fred Wah, and consider if these writers address, use, or undermine any stereotypes through their use of imagery and language. One article that models this kind of critical approach and may help you to formulate some ideas of your own is “Representing Chinatown: Dr. Fu-Manchu at the Disappearing Moon Cafe” (1999), in which Maria Noëlle Ng argues that Judy Fong Bates’ “landmark” novel, Midnight at the Dragon Café, recreates “lingering” ethnic stereotypes (163).
  4. Can you think of other Chinese restaurant texts besides those mentioned here? Choose one to analyze. How does this text shape your understanding of restaurant literature?

Works Cited

  • Bates, Judy Fong. Midnight at the Dragon Café. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2004. Print.
  • Chong, Denise. The Concubine’s Children: Portrait of a Family Divided. Toronto: Viking, 1994. Print.
  • Chu, Garrick, et al., eds. Inalienable Rice: A Chinese and Japanese Canadian Anthology. Vancouver: Powell Street Revue and The Chinese Canadian Writers Workshop, 1979. Print.
  • Gerson, Carole. “Three Faces of French Canada.” Canadian Literature 82 (1979): 115-18. (PDF)
  • Goto, Hiromi. Chorus of Mushrooms. Edmonton: NeWest, 1994. Print.
  • Kroetsch, Robert. “Elegy for Wong Toy.” The Stone Hammer Poems, 1960-1975. Nanaimo: Oolichan, 1975. 44-45. Print.
  • Lee, SKY. Disappearing Moon Cafe. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1990. Print.
  • Mitchell, W. O. Who Has Seen the Wind. Toronto: Macmillan, 1947.
  • Ng, Maria Noëlle. “Representing Chinatown: Dr. Fu-Manchu at the Disappearing Moon Cafe.” Canadian Literature 163 (1999): 157-75. (PDF)
  • Robinson, Eden. Monkey Beach. Toronto: Knopf, 2000. Print.
  • Ross, Sinclair. “Cornet at Night.” The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories. 1968. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1968. Print.
  • Roy, Gabrielle. “Où iras-tu Sam Lee Wong?” Un Jardin au bout du monde et autres nouvelles. Montreal: Beauchemin, 1975. 59-130. Print.
  • —. “Where Are You Going Sam Lee Wong?” Trans. Alan Brown. Garden in the Wind. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 1977. 49-103. Print.
  • Stead, Robert J. C. Grain. 1926. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1969. Print.
  • Suknaski, Andrew. “Jimmy Hoy’s Place.” Wood Mountain Poems. Toronto: Macmillan, 1976. 28-30. Print.
  • Wah, Fred. Diamond Grill. Edmonton: NeWest, 1996. Print.
  • —. Waiting for Saskatchewan. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1985. Print.
  • Wong-Chu, Jim. Chinatown Ghosts. Vancouver: Pulp, 1986. Print.