Bitter First, Sweet Later

Chop Suey Nation, Anna Hui’s account of Chinese food in Canada, begins with a moment of horrible shock, when her childhood school’s “China Day” sees the kids served with unidentifiable day-glo slop. This is not the Chinese food she gets to eat at home, but as she comes to discover, it is what constitutes “Chinese food” to many non-Chinese people.

Eventually, this moment of culinary misery transforms into a road-trip across Canada, poking around the obscure restaurants that seem to exist in every town, reminiscing all the while about those many Chinese migrants, including her own family, who came to make a new life in North America.

This is hardly unexplored territory – Hui’s own bibliography includes Lily Cho’s Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small-Town Canada, which answered many of her questions nine years in advance. That was, however, an academic book steeped in the cant of cultural studies, so Hui’s resolutely chatty approach certainly makes the story more accessible. She also, mercifully, treads lightly with the coming-to-Canada story of her own family, which, devoid of a scandal, war, murder or zombie infestation, is frankly rather jejune. The value, however, of the Hui family background is a revelation that crops up early in the book, that even though the infant Anna was traumatised by the sight of ersatz Chinese food, her father had enjoyed a brief career serving it in small-town Canada, before she was born. Hui reacts to this in much the same way as she might react to a parental admission to a backstory as gender-flexible swingers with a penchant for golden showers.

She comes into her own both with the gin-clear concision of her prose, which is so readable that the book just rockets past before you know it, and with the odd-couple experiences of her discount road-trip, for which she has inadvertently rented a comically unsuitable Fiat 500. In a discovery that has also hounded my own investigation into Chinese foods, she grapples with the difficulty of being able to adequately access the contents of a new menu without stuffing herself so full every day that she never needs to eat again. She also contends with a common problem in folk history, which is that often those who are most available to be interviewed are the least likely to have anything pertinent to say. I feel for her in a Fisgard restaurant at the very start of her journey, facing a waitress with no interest whatsoever in answering any of her questions.

Some still go unanswered. There are some tantalising moments in early chapters when she seems poised on the verge of investigating a fascinating issue in cultural history – who the hell designed the generic look of all those far-flung restaurants with their matching roof adornments, chop-socky fonts and red vinyl seats? Instead, she concentrates on the spread of intellectual property – how cooks like her father learned specific recipes, some of them invented in Canada like “shredded ginger beef”, and adapted then to satisfy the whims of local diners – the restaurant in noodle-free Newfoundland, for example, that substituted shredded cabbage and completely confused east-coast definitions of chow mein, or the manager in pensioner-packed Deer Lake, who realised that his diners hate his crispy-skinned spare ribs because they could only chew soft meats. And in Quebec, home of already-stodgy poutine, the terrifying prospect of stir-fried macaroni.

By the time she has reached peak weird, dropping in on a lone Chinese lady running a year-round Chinese restaurant on a remote island, she has found her true subject, and it does indeed lead to some family revelations. Possibly by total coincidence, Hui’s story displays what appears to be a template for many books I have read on Canadian themes, most notably Colleen Mondor’s Map of My Dead Pilots – a family narrative nested within a broader tale of human migrations, but here leavened with the image of a shivering Chinese woman and her Star Trek-loving husband, trying to drive several thousand miles in a toy car.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Chop Suey Nation is published in the UK on 26th September.  

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