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Pig’s Liver Rice Crepes: A 1970s Edmonton Dim Sum Ticket

  • Caroline Lieffers et
  • Jason C.S. Wong

Corps de l’article

Despite the proliferation of histories, anthropological accounts, and sociological studies of Chinese food in the West, the story of dim sum in Canada remains largely untold, residing mostly in community anecdotes and fragmented documents. This essay takes up an example of such a document—a dim sum ticket from a prominent 1970s Edmonton restaurant, the My Lai Garden (Figure 1). [1] This piece of ephemera, now housed at the University of Alberta’s Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, is a gateway into larger questions about the history of food, diasporic identity, and cultural exchange in Canadian history.

Figure 1

My Lai Garden dim sum ticket, Edmonton, 1970s.

Image courtesy of the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta. Reproduced with kind permission from Ned Lee
My Lai Garden dim sum ticket, Edmonton, 1970s.

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Dim sum begins not in the context of Western tastes, but Chinese ones. Literally meaning “dot heart” or, more poetically, “delight heart” or “touch on the heart,” dim sum is an assortment of Cantonese culinary delicacies, much like hors d’oeuvres or tapas, to be shared with tea. One of the first restaurants in Edmonton to popularize dim sum, the My Lai Garden directly imported a Chinese tradition to a growing diaspora. As a case study, this dim sum ticket represents a history of eating as symbolic consumption and distinct community practice. Dim sum is not simply food: it is an ethnic performance and a social space, a cultural metaphor and a practical occasion for families to bond, friends to meet, and business to be transacted. It is also at the centre of what Anita Mannur calls “‘culinary citizenship,’ that which grants subjects the ability to articulate national identity via food.” [2] In Edmonton, dim sum acted first as a transplanted cultural space for a transplanted people. At the same time, the My Lai Garden was a site of cultural inclusion and exchange, attracting Euro-Canadian diners intrigued by its worldly connotations. The restaurant, however, did not simply dish up a commoditized ethnicity: dim sum’s defining Chineseness and subtle cultural meanings remained elusive to most non-Chinese diners, complicating questions of Euro-Canadian hegemony and suggesting a more complex history of ethnic life in Edmonton.

Historical studies have tended to approach Chinese food in the West as serving a homogenized “white” society’s tastes, employing words such as “Westernization,” “adaptation,” and “exotic” to describe the cuisine’s history and growth among these supposedly dominant diners. [3] Samantha Barbas, for example, details how late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Chinese restaurateurs created hybrid dishes such as chop suey in an effort to improve their reputations and appeal to “American tastes.” [4] Andrew Coe’s recent book on Chinese food in the United States similarly notes that “most Americans still expect Chinese food to be cheap, filling, familiar, and bland.” [5] This emphasis on “Americans,” however, conspicuously neglects culinary and cultural concerns within the Chinese community. Lily Cho’s sophisticated study of Chinese restaurants in small-town Canada, notably, goes further in its examination of these immigrants’ food and life in the West, helpfully articulating some of the nuances of their diasporic experience and cultural negotiation. She argues that a menu of Western dishes from a Chinese restaurant might be read as “a subversive text that defines and delineates the idea of Canada for Canadians.” At the same time, the list of so-called Chinese dishes—concoctions like chow mein and egg foo yung, heavily adapted for the Western palate—“attests to a self-conscious and utterly aware production of fictive ethnicity” and “functions as a reminder that the racialized other herself might also produce an inauthentic and imperfect Chineseness as a strategy of resistance.” [6] By emphasizing tactics of subversion and resistance, however, even Cho’s work implicitly subordinates, isolates, and “others” the Chinese community in Canada. While her perspective might be suitable in small-town environments, where scattered Chinese restaurateurs served up culture to the Euro-Canadians who vastly outnumbered them, the history of dim sum, particularly in an urban space with a growing Chinese population, forces a useful re-orientation, approaching Chinese culture from the inside out. Dim sum − Chinese food prepared principally by and for the Chinese community − exists and persists with or without Euro-Canadians. As an examination of its history in Edmonton demonstrates, dim sum may have attracted non-Chinese diners, but it made few concessions to them. [7]

Dim Sum for Chinese Diners

Dim sum is a Cantonese cultural institution. 請你飮餐茶 (Cantonese ceng2 nei5 jam2 caan1 caa4, Mandarin qǐng nǐ yǐn cān chá), loosely translated as “I’ll take you out for dim sum,” is a common Cantonese exclamation, used to respond to a compliment, thank someone for a favour, bid an old acquaintance farewell, or extend an invitation of friendship. [8] Dim sum originated in the teahouses of Canton (Guangzhou), where merchants and traders would meet to discuss business, current affairs, and social matters. Cantonese speakers use the word yumcha (飲茶 jam2 caa4, yǐn chá), literally “to drink tea,” to refer to this culinary and social experience. As Siumi Maria Tam notes, however, “[s]ince the focus of yumcha is to eat dimsum, the justification for drinking tea during yumcha is mainly to achieve a physical balance,” neutralizing the greasiness of the dishes. Patrons, moreover, judge yumcha by the quality and variety of the food, not the tea. “Thus yumcha is a misnomer,” she writes. “It is not ‘drink tea’ per se that is practised, but ‘eat dimsum.’” [9] Although some dim sum establishments emphasize the presentation of tea, the art of tea serving and consumption itself is a different practice, represented by the expression 茶藝 (caa4 ngai6, chá yì).

Many of these once humble Cantonese teahouses evolved into famous attractions, and dim sum soon spread to Hong Kong, its popularity increasing dramatically in the 1950s and 60s as refugees poured in from mainland China. [10] Tam notes that although Hong Kong dim sum recognized its Cantonese roots, in this postwar period the region’s teahouses − as well as the many restaurants that increasingly offered dim sum −added new dishes that mirrored the area’s cross-cultural, syncretic character, including Malaysian sponge cake and European-style egg tarts. [11] Standards were high: preparing this variety of sweet and savoury treats is a distinct art, meticulously acquired through formal apprenticeship. The best dim sum “masters” (點心師傅 dim2 sam 1 si1 fu6, diǎn xin shī fu) are celebrities, supervising kitchens that make hundreds of different items.

Yet dim sum remains a leisurely, convivial event. In many cases, diners choose foods from a cart or tray, and each dish (often served in a round basket) usually contains three or four small portions designed to be shared. Though highly ritualized, with subtle cues such as tapping the table to thank someone for serving tea, dim sum’s overall informality encourages large groups of family and friends to meet casually, coming and going and visiting at each others’ tables, with a continuous flow of snacks and tea. This culinary and social flexibility, combined with Hong Kong’s rising status as a global centre, encouraged dim sum’s replication as emigrants from southern China and Hong Kong re-located to Taiwan, Australia, and further afield. Around the world, restaurants used the expressions “Cantonese-style famous dim sum” (廣式名點 gwong2 sik1 ming4 dim2, guǎng shì míng diǎn) or “Hong Kong-style famous dim sum” (港式名點 gong2 sik1 ming4 dim2, gǎng shì míng diǎn) on their advertisements and signboards to signify their connection to this tradition.

A recent exhibit on Chinese restaurants at the Royal Alberta Museum declares that “[d]im sum was introduced to Alberta in the 1980s.” [12] In fact, the ritual’s history is much more difficult to trace. One local restaurateur clearly recalls eating dim sum at Edmonton’s New World Chop Suey Parlor as early as the 1950s. [13] Served only on Sundays − a break from the usual Western and Westernized Chinese fare that dominated the menu at this Chinatown establishment − dim sum was an intimate and casual experience for the city’s small Chinese community: one employee reported that “guys we knew would be wandering through the kitchen picking out their own [dishes]. It was very confusing.” [14] Other restaurants, including Moon’s Café just north of downtown, may also have served dim sum as early as the 1950s or 60s, but with few Chinese language publications in Edmonton in this period, the practice seems to have been seldom advertised or recorded for posterity. [15]

The My Lai Garden dim sum ticket, however, coincides with a new era in Edmonton’s Chinese history. Taking advantage of the federal government’s universal points system, introduced in 1967, which applied equally to all prospective newcomers regardless of country of origin, a wave of new Chinese immigrants dramatically changed Canadian demographics in the late 1960s and 70s. Canada’s Chinese population grew from 58,197 in 1961 to 118,815 in 1971 and 289,245 in 1981. [16] Most came directly from Hong Kong but, starting in the mid-1970s, others arrived from mainland China − including southern, Cantonese-speaking provinces where dim sum was prominent. [17] A disproportionate number of Chinese immigrants found their way to Edmonton. Between 1971 and 1981, for example, the census metropolitan area’s total population grew from 495,915 to 650,895, an increase of about 31%. The Chinese population, however, rose from 5,110 to 16,300; this astounding 219% increase was one of the highest in Canada. [18] University students arrived, too: one study notes that in 1972-73 there were over 1,000 Hong Kong students at the University of Alberta, making up about 5% of the total student population and upwards of 15 or 20% in some faculties. [19]

The few historians to examine Chinese community life in Edmonton − and in Canada generally − have focused largely on Chinatowns as cultural sites or detailed the rise and fall of formal, male-oriented organizations, including clan associations and political groups such as the Kuomintang and the Chinese Freemasons. [20] Although these traditional manifestations of community did much to sustain an isolated and often unwelcome minority, such histories neglect alternative cultural spaces, especially those frequented by more recent immigrants. [21] This new Chinese population, made up largely of urbanized, well-educated Cantonese speakers, was increasingly among the comfortable middle class, with money and time to spend on dining out. [22] A young businessman named Ned Lee (李英念) recognized a new market for the cultural institution of dim sum. Born in Hoiping (開平) in southern China’s Guangdong province, Lee immigrated to Canada in 1949. He worked in Vancouver’s restaurant industry for several years, then made his way to Edmonton in 1953. A friendly, charismatic man, Lee soon became a high-profile entrepreneur, with at least partial ownership in five different eateries: first the Bamboo Palace, then the My Lai Garden, Jumbo, China Garden, and Dynasty, as well as several grocery stores. Lee’s many restaurants served both traditional and Westernized Chinese food, but in the early 1970s the elegant My Lai Garden was unique in visibly promoting the culinary art of dim sum within, and sometimes beyond, the Chinese community. [23]

Lee remembers that the My Lai Garden opened in about 1971, although the restaurant did not appear in the Henderson’s Directory until 1975. [24] The name “My Lai” is a rough transliteration of the Chinese 美麗華 (mei5 lai6 waa4, měi lì huá), meaning “beautiful magnificence,” while the second part of the Chinese name, 大酒家 (daai6 zau2 gaa1, dà jiǔ jiā), translates to “grand restaurant,” connoting quality and refinement. The establishment, managed by Lee’s nephew Wayne, was situated in the heart of Chinatown, just east of downtown, at the major thoroughfares of Jasper Avenue and 97 Street. (Hastily produced, the ticket actually puts the My Lai Garden at a fictional address, 7918 Jasper Avenue, instead of 9718, but patrons clearly had no trouble finding it.) Located on the second floor, the restaurant seated around 180 diners, who consumed traditional Chinese food during the week and dim sum on the weekends. Opened shortly before the decade’s peak of Chinese immigration to Canada, the My Lai Garden became an Edmonton outpost for the culinary and cultural experience of dim sum, a central and symbolic site of diaspora. [25]

Lee cannily began by recruiting a dim sum master from Hong Kong to underpin the kitchen and train a team of culinary artisans, a number of whom went on to other restaurants around the city. Many of the servers, moreover, were new immigrants or students from Hong Kong who spoke fluent Cantonese with customers. The menu, divided into savoury (left) and sweet (right) items, was also characteristic of Hong Kong dim sum (see Figure 2 for a translation). The first dish, for example, is the quintessential shrimp dumplings, wrapped in delicate, translucent rice flour skins that require considerable skill to produce; diners conventionally use this item to judge the dim sum master’s abilities. Steamed barbecue pork buns; beef, prawn, and barbecue pork rice crepes; and steamed Malaysian sponge cake are also Hong Kong dim sum standards. The restaurant was au courant with Chinese trends, channeling the culinary fashions of the 1970s with dishes such as dried fish dumplings, shredded chicken spring rolls, beef dumplings on a bed of vegetables, and pig’s liver rice crepes. The Chinese names of the dishes are an art, too. In a kind of gastronomic poetry, most are written with the standard five characters, of which the first and last must be different. [26] Many names also rely on metaphor and embellishment. Chicken buns are rendered as “imperial consort’s miniature chicken buns” (貴妃雞包仔 gwai3 fei1 gai1 baau1 zai2, guì fēi jī bāo zǎi), while the deep-fried puff pastry dessert sprinkled with granulated sugar becomes “ice crystals [on] chicken egg balls” (冰花雞蛋球 bing1 faa1 gai1 daan2 kau4, bīng huā jī dàn qiú). This language of food appealed to the aesthetic tastes of an informed Chinese audience.

Figure 2

Translation of the My Lai Garden dim sum ticket.

Translation of the My Lai Garden dim sum ticket.

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The My Lai Garden brought familiar Cantonese and Hong Kong practices to a growing and receptive population, allowing them to affirm their cultural identity, as well as family and community ties. Tam notes the “central role yumcha plays in the celebration of family solidarity, the creation and reinforcement of business connections, and in general the maintenance of social congeniality.” [27] Although no longer a home for Edmonton’s Chinese community, now residing mostly in the suburbs, Chinatown remained a destination: the small area had only 260 residents in 1973, but it hosted 27 Chinese businesses, including three restaurants that catered largely to diners seeking “authentic Cantonese food” rather than Westernized Chinese dishes. [28] Chinatown was a site for an increasingly disparate and, in many cases, integrated community to reunite each week. Indeed, the space below the My Lai Garden was home to the Oriental Trading Company, a grocery store that Lee also owned, specializing in Chinese goods. [29] A single building provided two core services for Chinese patrons. An advertisement in Edmonton’s 1974-75 Chinese Business Telephone Directory (Figure 3) confirms how Lee marketed his two most Chinese-oriented enterprises directly to this community. [30] The text is in Chinese seal script, a calligraphy evocative of an ancient cultural heritage, while the poetic quatrains describing the restaurant’s services are also a familiar convention borrowing from the principles of classical Chinese poetry. The advertisement reads:

正宗唐菜 (zing3 zung1 tong4 coi3, zhèng zōng táng cài)
[Authentic Chinese cuisine]
名茶美點 (ming4 caa4 mei5 dim2, míng chá měi diǎn)
[Famous tea and beautiful/elegant dim sum]
壽筵喜酌 (sau6 jin4 hei2 zoek3, shòu yán xǐ zhuó)
[Birthday banquets and wedding receptions]
馳名燒烤 (ci4 ming4 siu1 haau1, chí míng shāo kǎo)
[Famous in-house barbecue]

Lee emphasized the distinctive cuisine and festive practices that bound a Cantonese community together, including dim sum, articulated as the union of fine tea and food. The choice of the character 唐 (tong4, táng) in the first line to mean “China” or “Chinese,” moreover, is most common in Cantonese-speaking regions, as opposed to the more standard 中 (zung1, zhōng). The restaurant emerges from a clearly Cantonese context.

Figure 3

Advertisement for the Oriental Trading Company and My Lai Garden.

From Chinese Business Telephone Directory: Edmonton, Northern Alberta, and Central Alberta, 1974-75 (Vancouver: Sino-Canadian Directory Ltd., [1974]), 22. Image courtesy of the Edmonton Public Library. Reproduced with kind permission from Ned Lee
Advertisement for the Oriental Trading Company and My Lai Garden.

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The My Lai Garden did, however, make a few concessions to Canadian conditions. Some key items, such as water chestnuts, Chinese vegetables, and tofu sheets, had to be imported from the United States or Asia, compromising freshness. Moreover, unlike some Hong Kong teahouses that opened as early as 5 AM every day for breakfast or night-shift customers, the My Lai Garden did not open until later in the morning. [31] It also generally reserved dim sum for weekends, when a critical mass of Chinese diners could fill the restaurant. The social and cultural core of dim sum, however, remained intact. As in China, Hong Kong, and diasporic locales around the world, families, friends, and associates would connect around the tables and across the restaurant, sharing gossip and re-enacting old social ties, power structures, and conventions of behaviour and respect in a new environment. For many, the replication of the dim sum experience, with its familiar culinary and social mores, provided a sense of comfort, friendship, and security in a new country. [32] The practice even spread beyond its regional roots, becoming a central site of a more general Chineseness. One local woman recalls that she “grew up” at the My Lai Garden, eating dim sum and other dishes with her relatives and friends. Although her family was Malaysian Chinese, not Cantonese, the My Lai Garden was one of the few eateries that catered directly to Chinese Edmontonians; her Cantonese babysitter, moreover, had a family member who worked at the restaurant. [33] Though Cantonese at its core, dim sum was also accessible to other members of the Chinese diaspora, bound together by a common search for something more like home. The restaurant was a community hall, a canteen, and even an employment centre for new Chinese Canadians.

Lee did try one notable experiment: the large number of Edmontonians clamoring for dim sum prompted the My Lai Garden to offer a take-out option. This particular dim sum ticket, as indicated by the words 外賣部 (ngoi6 maai6 bou6, wài mài bù) on the upper right, is actually a take-out order form, although Lee notes that the menu was nearly identical to the sit-down listing. [34] This was a major compromise, as dim sum is meant to be a social experience enjoyed outside the home. Tam, for one, is adamant that “one needs to eat in a certain context, arousing certain social meanings, for the action to be qualified gongsik yumcha, or Hong Kong style yumcha.” [35] There were also consequences for the food. Dim sum is an art of balancing flavours and mastering difficult textures and procedures. It should be served quickly, piping hot, and Lee acknowledges that the take-out option was not very popular. Chinese patrons, in fact, were accustomed to waking up early to claim a table for the group (搵位 [wan2 wai2, wěn wèi], literally “find a seat”), a familiar practice that was itself a part of the dim sum ritual. Lee recalls that it was the relatively small number of Euro-Canadian diners, unaccustomed to these traditions, who were most likely to settle for the take-out option. [36]

Dim Sum as Culinary Tourism

Indeed, despite the restaurant’s centrality to the Chinese community, the My Lai Garden’s patrons were not exclusively Chinese. In their study of Edmonton’s Chinatown, David Chuenyan Lai and Brian Evans argue that Lee was “the person who, more than anyone else, popularized dim sum in Edmonton.” [37] Most Albertans had at least a passing familiarity with Chinese restaurants, found in nearly every prairie town and city. Although they usually served Western dishes or a Westernized version of Cantonese food, these establishments habituated many Albertans to basic Chinese tastes and customs such as green tea and chopsticks and might even have prompted some to venture into more traditional fare. The My Lai Garden’s high quality dim sum appealed especially to civic leaders and intelligentsia seeking a more visibly sophisticated dining experience, where they might explore a different culture or simply balance on the satisfying line between the challenge and mastery of the unfamiliar. [38] Evans, for instance, a Professor of Chinese History at the University of Alberta and a seasoned traveller to China, joked that while some people went to church on Sunday, he went for dim sum. He developed a lasting friendship with Lee and was even honoured with an invitation to join the local Lee Family Association. He also shared dim sum with friends, students, and colleagues, many of whom were curious to try a more “authentic” Chinese experience. [39] Dim sum at the My Lai Garden was an obvious centre of Chinese food and community in Edmonton, with unique dishes and an apparently legitimate Chineseness that might signify not only the restaurant’s quality, but also the diners’ kinship with or interest in the Chinese population and culture. Eating out is undoubtedly an assertion of identity, whether defining members of a Chinese diaspora or displaying one’s connoisseurship, openness to difference, or adventurousness. [40]

This notion of legitimacy or authenticity, to be sure, is a troubled one, referring not so much to the quality of the restaurant and its food as to a way of understanding them: food cultures have always evolved, so authentic practice is elusive and always changing, and authenticity is a constant quest for purity in response to the perceived corruption of genuineness. [41] Still, there is little doubt that the food, representing the taste of home, was sought after by Cantonese patrons. Even the décor was a familiar style, mostly imported from Hong Kong and rich in red, representing joy, good luck, and prosperity. But for Euro-Canadian diners, the dishes and decorations also represented the exotic and the foreign. Laurier Turgeon and Madeleine Pastinelli identify ethnic restaurants as “deterritorialized places where diners can see and touch, even consume the culture of the other on home ground,” and the My Lai Garden offered a novel experience of culinary tourism for non-Chinese patrons, who often learned of dim sum by word of mouth. [42] One local Euro-Canadian woman recalls that she went to the My Lai Garden in 1976, part of a group invited by a co-worker who was an international student from Hong Kong. Dim sum’s shared baskets of food were a new experience for the group, who relied largely on their Chinese companion to do the ordering and explaining. Although they were some of the only non-Chinese diners in the restaurant, they enjoyed themselves, and each took home a box of egg tarts − no doubt one of the most familiar items on the menu. [43]

In 1982, a food magazine reviewed another of Lee’s restaurants, where dim sum was now a familiar offering. The author similarly reminisced,

Once, many years ago, I accompanied a friend up the steep stairs of what later I learned was the My Lai Gardens [sic] Restaurant, and there, amid a roomful of Chinese-speaking strangers, we had a most delicious and mysterious Sunday lunch of bite-sized pastries and dumplings, steamed buns with barbecued pork inside, strange sweet morsels and tea. The name dim sum didn’t stick in my mind as much as the memory of the food, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized we had had the famous Chinese breakfast of “heavenly morsels.” For a long time in Edmonton, dim sum was only available on weekends, and it wasn’t until the Jumbo and the south-side Golden Rice Bowl came into being that it could be found every day. Now it’s a common business-person’s lunch, and if you haven’t tasted it, there is a wide choice of establishments at which to have your first-ever rice rolls, har gow [shrimp dumplings], shu mai [pork dumplings], almond jelly and, if you feel brave, chicken’s feet in garlic sauce. [44]

If dim sum represented an almost mythical exoticism, its naturalization, or rather, Edmontonians’ naturalization to it, was a sign of the city’s maturity. Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of the “contact zone” might be usefully extrapolated from her colonial examples and applied to a country that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had recently designated as multicultural and whose relations with China, like those of the United States, were moving rapidly towards rapprochement. [45] Montreal’s Expo 67, too, focused Canadians’ attention beyond the country’s borders: with tickets that looked like passports, “the visitor was temporarily transformed into a citizen of the world, challenged to bear witness to the tremendous range of peoples and things on display, and consequently drawn into processes of cultural exchange,” as Rhona Richman Kenneally and Johanne Sloan put it. [46] In a period of dramatic national redefinition, the My Lai Garden was a key site of exchange and the production of cultural meaning for both Chinese and Euro-Canadians in contact.

Dim sum’s culinary tourists, for whom Chinatown, the My Lai Garden, and even Lee himself were sites of mystery and adventure, might tempt us to see the restaurant as a kind of commoditized ethnicity, a rehearsal of Chineseness for the benefit of white patrons. As Lucy M. Long contends, culinary tourism is always an interaction between ethnic presentation and aesthetic expectation. [47] To be sure, Lee’s other restaurants were marketed extensively to Euro-Canadian diners, and with his comfortable fluency in English, Lee often represented a bridge between Chinese and non-Chinese communities. He experimented with cross-cultural business partnerships (including a media company, for example), hosted a heavily publicized party at the Bamboo Palace for his mother’s eightieth birthday, and even invited elite Edmontonians to a high-profile Chinese New Year fundraiser in 1969, observing the importance of “better understanding and good fellowship between the Chinese and Western cultures.” [48] In turn, Lee was a local celebrity and accessible representative of the Chinese community: he taught Chinese cooking at a local high school, appeared regularly on television, and was often invited to political events. Food represented Chinese community and culture, and leading restaurateurs might be courted for their political symbolism and local influence. When John Diefenbaker visited Edmonton in April 1974, Lee recounts, he was given the choice of northern Chinese cuisine, southern Chinese cuisine, or dim sum. He picked the latter without hesitation, demonstrating his fraternity with the Chinese community, and Lee served him at the My Lai Garden. [49]

Such examples broadcast a very public representation of Chinese culture and outreach. The My Lai Garden, however, and particularly the experience of dim sum, was hardly an exercise in pandering. Even terms such as “negotiation” or “resistance” imply too much Western hegemony. In his media appearances, Lee was most often associated with his flagship restaurant, the Bamboo Palace, which was very popular with Euro-Canadian diners. Dim sum at the My Lai Garden, by contrast, was clearly a more Chinese-oriented experience, seldom explicitly marketed to, but rather discovered by, Euro-Canadians. Lee’s other menus provided detailed English descriptions and sometimes even pictures of unfamiliar foods, but the English dim sum menu, which unfortunately does not appear to have survived, offered only simple translations. [50] There was no mythical second listing of truly “authentic” Chinese dishes: dim sum at the My Lai Garden was grounded in the Cantonese community’s culinary expectations, demanding a shared connoisseurship of the Cantonese aesthetic. With dishes that could have been served in any Hong Kong restaurant, non-Chinese customers could do little but ask the servers for clarification, and they took risks that may have shocked, disgusted, or delighted them. Although the restaurant space was physically shared, the cultural experience could not be entirely replicated among non-Cantonese. With only a limited understanding of the complex meanings and rituals of dim sum, Euro-Canadian patrons dined on different descriptions, favoured different dishes (often neglecting the chicken’s feet and unusual desserts), and missed the Cantonese gossip that flew around their unknowing ears. Members of their own respective cultural communities, they were allowed into the practice, but they consumed it separately.


Establishments like the My Lai Garden are microcosms of international migration and community building, as well as culinary tourism and the quest for authenticity. But despite the restaurant’s flourishing success, in the 1970s the future of Edmonton’s Chinatown was uncertain. The city proposed developments that would sacrifice the area, and in 1977 the Edmonton Chinatown Planning Committee was formed. They settled on a replaced Chinatown centered on a newly opened senior citizens’ home and cultural centre a few blocks to the northeast, and City Council approved the plan in 1979. Local businesses were given their notice to vacate before April 30, 1981, and the block that housed the My Lai Garden was razed for the construction of a new federal government building. [51] Although other restaurants would continue the tradition of dim sum, this informal cultural centre, a storied site of Chinese life in Edmonton, survives only in glimpses and memories as ephemeral as the food itself.

In her study of Chinese restaurants in small-town Canada, Cho notes that the menu “remains with us as one of the primary means by which food is represented, textualized.” [52] For a community whose history remains elusive, fragmented, and often undocumented, a dim sum ticket serendipitously found in an academic library can begin to tell the story of an alternative cultural institution. For nearly a decade, the My Lai Garden represented a gathering place for Edmonton’s growing Chinese community. Cantonese social and culinary practice was imported to a new territory, and the restaurant’s tea and treats were a symbolic cultural centre for both the Chinese diaspora and adventurous others. A nexus of food, culture, and environment, dim sum is a metonym for the complex history of Chinese life and its influence in Edmonton.

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