There’s a chop suey restaurant in every small Canadian town. These restaurants serve the kind of food that journalist Ann Hui used to dismiss as inauthentic. And yet, Hui wanted to know how Canada’s chop suey restaurants — each with the same menu of egg rolls and sweet-and-sour pork — came into existence and, more specifically, how the Chinese families who run them wound up in the country’s tiniest towns. To answer these questions, Hui and her husband rented a Fiat and drove from British Columbia to Newfoundland, stopping in small-town chop suey restaurants along the way.
Hui chronicles their journey in Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Cafe and Other Stories from Canada’s Chinese Restaurants. It’s part travelogue, part memoir, and as Hui tells the stories of Chinese restaurant owners in places like Vulcan, Alberta (home to a replica of the starship Enterprise and fewer than 2,000 people), she discovers her father’s own similar story. In this excerpt, Hui meets a restaurant owner in Deer Lake, Newfoundland, and learns that chop suey cuisine isn’t, in fact, all the same. — Monica Burton
We drove off the ship, past a small cluster of homes painted blue, red, and yellow. From the Trans-Canada Highway, we took in the snow-covered rock that seemed to stretch on forever. It felt like we were the only ones on the island. There was only our car and the highway.
About three hours into our drive, we stopped in a town called Deer Lake, about 30 minutes past Corner Brook. It was time for lunch. Just off the highway, sandwiched between an A&W and a Subway, was a white trailer-style building. The word “CANTON” was painted in big block letters in red on the side of the building. Next to it, the Chinese simplified characters for “Guangdong.”
My husband Anthony needed another break from Chinese. There was a pizza place down the road, he said. He’d wait for me there. As I pulled open the door, a handmade sign caught my eye. “Chow mein on our menu is cabbage,” it read.
Inside the Canton Restaurant, a middle-aged man greeted me from behind the counter. He looked about 50. Despite the stained apron around his waist, he had a professorial look to him. His hair was neatly trimmed, and he wore a smart-looking zip-up vest over his plaid shirt. He introduced himself in Cantonese as Richard Yu, the owner of the restaurant.
He was right in the middle of the lunch rush, he said apologetically. But if I didn’t mind waiting, he could come talk to me once things died down.
So I sat at a table near the front of the room, watching as he hurried back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room. The dining room itself was huge, split into two levels, with about 30 tables. The walls were white with green wainscoting. The door frames and trims were painted red. In the middle of the room was one long table with over a dozen people seated around it, mostly seniors having their lunch. A handful of other families and couples were there too. And every few minutes, the door would open and in would walk another guy in a flannel shirt and work boots, ordering take out for lunch.
I studied the menu, a mostly familiar collection of classic chop suey dishes (egg rolls, chicken guy ding, sweet and sour pork), along with “Canadian” ones (fish and chips, liver dinner and T-bone steak). The wings were on special, either deep-fried in batter or drenched in honey-garlic sauce.
About 10 minutes later, Mr. Yu came over to sit down. He was from Toisan and had moved to Vancouver in his twenties.
He’d been a high school science teacher in China, but when he arrived in Vancouver, he didn’t have the luxury of going back to school to get the credentials he needed to continue teaching. He needed to earn money right away to support his family. So he went into the restaurant business.
It was the Goldilocks approach that had led them to Deer Lake, he said. They liked Vancouver, with all of the amenities for Chinese immigrants. But there were already so many Chinese restaurants there. Competition was stiff, so they had to work all the time. Plus the living costs were high. What did it matter that there was a Chinese New Year parade when they didn’t have time to go see it?
They heard through acquaintances that Newfoundland was a nice place to live. So the family moved to Corner Brook, where Mr. Yu took over a Chinese restaurant. But that city wasn’t right either. The restaurant was too quiet. It had a bad reputation among locals because of the previous owners, they learned. And there was no parking — essential, given the Newfoundland winter weather. So they moved again, this time to Deer Lake. Finally, Mr. Yu said, they felt like they were home. The town, with just under 5,000 residents, felt peaceful. The people were nice. And here, competition wasn’t an issue. Canton was, at least in the beginning, the only Chinese restaurant in town.
“We made the right decision,” he said. “I’m satisfied with my life right now. My kids have grown up, my business is steady, and I have peace of mind.”
He’d had to make adjustments for the region, he said. Some of the recipes didn’t translate in Newfoundland. Ribs, for example. In Vancouver, he’d had his recipe for spareribs perfected. He’d deep fry them before coating them in a sauce — sweet and sour or honey garlic — so that they were crispy on the outside but tender on the inside. They’d always been a hit in Vancouver.
But when he made the same ribs for his Newfoundland customers, they were unimpressed. “They said, ‘Even a dog wouldn’t eat this!’” Mr. Yu said, chuckling. It took him awhile to figure out the key difference. His new customers in Newfoundland were much, much older than the ones he’d had in BC. The crunchy ribs were hard on their teeth. Or at least, on the teeth they had left. Newfoundland has the oldest median age in the entire country. Over 20 percent of the population in Deer Lake is over the age of 65.
So he started braising his ribs, cooking them slowly under low heat until they were soft and tender, falling off the bone. They were an immediate hit.
We’d already seen a number of these regional variations along our trip. There was ginger beef back in the Prairies. In Quebec, we’d found “fried macaroni,” stir-fried pasta with soy sauce, meat, and veggies. In my research, I’d also come across “Peterborough won-tons” (deep-fried wonton skins, without the meat fillings), and the Timmins, ON, custom of serving all Chinese dishes with a side of toast. And here in Newfoundland, it was braised ribs.
When you fail, you learn,” Mr. Yu said. “You learn from your mistakes.”
The restaurant was beginning to fill up again, which I took as my cue to get out of the way. But first, I asked about the sign at the door.
“What does that mean, that your chow mein is made with cabbage?”
“Another Newfoundland thing,” he said.
The first Chinese restaurants had to improvise because they weren’t able to find Chinese ingredients, he said. But the problem was especially pronounced in Newfoundland. It was nearly impossible to get even basic ingredients, like soy sauce or bok choy, imported onto the island. Even egg noodles — the “mein” in “chow mein” — were difficult to come by. One of those enterprising early restaurateurs improvised by cutting cabbage into thin strips, so that they’d resemble, at least in appearance, thin noodles. He started calling it chow mein, and it stuck.
To this day, “chow mein” in Newfoundland means thin strips of cabbage, stir-fried with veggies and meat. For noodles, Mr. Yu said, you have to ask for them specifically, by ordering “Cantonese chow mein on noodles.” The sign on the door was a recent addition, he said, after tourists started getting confused.
I decided to order my own container of Newfoundland chow mein, to go. As I walked out with the Styrofoam bowl, Mr. Yu waved goodbye. He nodded at the bag in my hands. “You won’t find anything like this in Vancouver,” he said.
Back in the car, I found Anthony sitting with a pizza box in his lap.
“I got this for you,” he said, handing me a small personalized pizza box. I opened the lid to find a pizza covered with a white sauce. Studded across the top were pieces of pink shrimp, small scallops and what looked like chunks of lobster meat, all of it under a blanket of cheese. “Apparently it’s a Newfoundland thing,” he said.
I grabbed a slice, then took a bite. The seafood tasted like it was from frozen, and all of it was overcooked — the textures of the shellfish indistinguishable from the rubbery mushrooms. The cheese tasted like salt and little else. I winced and handed the box back to Anthony.
Then I pried the lid off the Styrofoam container from Canton. Sure enough, inside were thin strips of cabbage, stir-fried with plump pieces of chicken, carrots, and onions. Using a plastic fork, I took a big bite. It tasted familiar — the sweetness of the veggies, the juicy chicken and a hint of soy and sesame, like the chow mein without the crunchy noodles. What it lacked in texture it made up for in richness in flavor. The cabbage added a depth to the dish. It was even more savory, even more umami than a traditional chow mein.
“What is that?” Anthony said, leaning over and looking into my bowl.
“Chow mein,” I said happily. “It’s a Newfoundland thing.”
And it was. This dish, from its origin story, to its ingredients, to its execution — it was utterly and completely Newfoundland. It told the story of this place. It was as Canadian as it was Chinese.
“When you fail, you learn,” Mr. You had said. “The point is that you keep going.”
Just weeks earlier, I had been so dismissive of this food as “fake Chinese.” Now I realized I had been completely wrong. This ad-hoc cuisine, and the families behind it, were quintessentially Chinese. It was pure entrepreneurialism. Out of cabbage, they’d made noodles. Out of a bucket and water, they’d grown bean sprouts. They had created a cuisine that was a testament to creativity, perseverance, and resourcefulness. This chop suey cuisine wasn’t fake Chinese — but instead, the most Chinese of all.
From the book Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Cafe and Other Stories from Canada’s Chinese Restaurants, by Ann Hui. ©2019. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.