My Saskatchewan mother-in-law often ate at Prince Albert’s Lotus Café in the 1960s. She remembers the restaurant as not only the place to go for a good meal at a reasonable price with lemon meringue pie ‘to die for,’ as she described it, but also for re-entry into civilization on her way home from a teaching post even further north. But to the owner, Dennis Wong, Prince Albert must have felt a far cry from his previous home in Vancouver, and farther still from the remote Guangdong province of his ancestors.
Chow: From China to Canada: Memories of Food + Family presents a broad-strokes view of one Chinese-Canadian family. It also offers an ode to author Janice Wong’s restaurateur dad, Dennis, who ran Lotus Café from the mid-1950s to 1979. Part memoir, part cookbook, Chow offers a glimpse into the past through Wong’s personal recollections and recipes.
Chow provides historical vignettes of both urban and country life, with visits to dusty gold rush Nanaimo, bustling bop-era Victoria, and pre-Mao China. One of Dennis Wong’s grandfathers was born into a well-off Christian family in China and became a Methodist minister, immigrating to Canada in 1896. His other grandfather arrived in Victoria at age 16, where he first worked as a grocer and then a chef. Later he married a woman who was born in a tepee in Barkerville during the gold rush.
Though the family encountered prejudice and travails, the stories reveal a sense of adventure, fresh chances, and relative prosperity. Through Wong’s culinary narrative, we learn how newcomers such as her family managed financially during the pre-WWII era, when the Canadian government denied Chinese nationals the vote, and barred them from teaching, medicine, law, and engineering. Chow is more than a cookbook—the foods of Wong’s family are a steady backdrop to their tumultuous history.
Dennis, a second-generation Canadian, was born in Victoria, BC, in 1917 with the odds staked against him. As a not quite two-pound preemie he was kept in the warming oven of his mother’s wood stove. Wong describes how her father nevertheless thrived, becoming an athlete and dandy in his teens. He even earned the title of runner-up yoyo king in Victoria of the late 1920s.
Dennis’s childhood home stood six blocks outside Canada’s oldest Chinatown in Victoria, even though most Chinese families chose to settle within the Chinese hub. Family meals reflected his bicultural life. While home-cooked dinners consisted of Chinese fare, when outdoors, the family feasted on potato salad and chicken pies for Sunday church picnics.
He met his wife at a Chinatown Leap Year Dance on New Year’s Eve, 1940. Mary Mar grew up in Nanaimo, where Chinese immigrants began to arrive in the 1860s to work the coalmines. As a young teen she accompanied her grandmother home to Guangdong. The village was bereft of young men who had left to seek their fortune, so a bride would marry a symbolic rooster in order to join their groom’s families in this patrilocal culture. Mary later worked as a seamstress in Victoria and then opened a dressmaker’s shop in Vancouver with her sister.
The Wongs grabbed the opportunity to buy Wings Café in boomtown Prince Albert of the 1940s. In 1956 Dennis opened his Chinese-Canadian restaurant Lotus Café. While he served dishes such as chow mein, egg fu yong, and some other Chinese restaurant classics, he saved his memorable village-style cooking for home meals on weekends. Instead the café mainly offered prime ribs or western roast chickens. Yet in true syncretic fashion, Dennis’s killer gravy included oyster sauce.
As a child, Wong felt her family’s food fit in with her ethnically diverse neighbourhood stocked with cabbage rolls and kugel, or jellied salads and meatloaf. At the same time, she recalls her mother—one of two Chinese women in Prince Albert in the 1940s—often expressing feelings of self-consciousness. It seemed whenever the particularly pungent salted fish, hum yee, was on the table, neighbours or girl guides or salesmen would knock on the door.
Approachable recipes are served alongside these stories, from easy stir-fries and spare ribs, to dim sum dumplings and sweet bean buns. Wong includes handy tips, such as how to improvise a steam rack in a wok, or how adding a pinch of baking soda to green beans captures their colour. She also explains the ins and outs of different starches for thickeners (her dad favoured tapioca). Yet interestingly the dessert chapter features only classic Prairie fare: butter tarts and lemon bread, for example, all Dennis’s favourites (but not, alas, my mother-in-law’s fondly remembered pie).
Although Chow reads well, it leaves some questions unanswered, particularly concerning the general historical context, which would have helped clarify aspects of Wong’s tale. Chinese-Canadian restaurants dot the prairies like grain elevators, thanks in part to immigrant railway workers who were out of a job once the transcontinental iron rail was completed. Wong’s book begs further exploration of this rich chapter in Canadian history.
Chow is a sliver of a tale in the larger story of the globalization of Chinese food, and how migration continues to shape restaurants worldwide. Indeed, other Asian communities have more recently made their gustatory mark in Canada too, from the renowned Thai restaurant Nit’s in Moose Jaw or tiny Vietnamese soup counters tucked into small-town strip malls to mid-sized fiery Korean grills in urban centres. Much of their stories remain to be told. Through her book, Wong offers a peek into her community and its history through Dennis’s kitchen.
Maeve Haldane is Montreal-based food writer, editor, and anthropologist.