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Book Reviews

Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada, Lily Cho, University of Toronto Press, 2010, 207 p.

  • Willa Zhen

Corps de l’article

Lily Cho’s Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada calls attention to the presence of one of the stalwarts of rural Canadian life: Chinese restaurants. Notably the biculturalism of Chinese restaurants and their menus are legacies of Chinese migration to small town Canada. Their place and role in Canadian social life is analysed throughout this volume, making the case that small town restaurants are critical in discussions of Chinese diasporic communities in Canada and of the Canadian social experience more generally.

The themes of diaspora and nostalgia are explored across five thematic chapters: historical presence and diasporic agency; time and the Chinese restaurant culture; nostalgia and the public sphere; the Chinese restaurant as an institution; and the role of memory. Drawing on an array of sources, including menus, literature, photographs, poetry, music, and even artist Karen Tam’s Gold Mountain Restaurants installations, the ambitious range of inquiry is further supported by theoretical commentary to portray small town Chinese restaurants in Canada. At times the strength of the study is hindered by the sheer expanse of information and gamut of ideas.

Cho posits that small town restaurants, while historically owned by ethnic Chinese migrants, were not exactly Chinese. Nor were they wholly Canadian. These restaurants served mixtures of Western and Chinese fare, and also anchored small town communities as social centres for all residents. Therefore their weight in small town cultural life was markedly different than Chinese restaurants in urban centres, whose patterns of cultural production developed out of different social contexts and served different clientèle.

To address the importance of these eating places in small town Canada, Cho relates the Chinese restaurant to the narratives of Chinese diasporic culture. As she points out, this work drifts away from other literature on the Chinese diaspora in Canada, which she maintains has been weighted primarily towards the experience of those in urban centres in the Chinatowns of Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto (132). By engaging with Chinese restaurants in small towns, Cho attempts to widen scholarship on the Chinese diaspora in Canada to be more inclusive of the rural experience and to the unique role that these establishments hold in small town life.

Focusing on agency, Cho transgresses the often monolithic approach towards diasporic communities. Drawing on Jürgen Habermas and the theories of the Subaltern Studies Group, she recognises the dynamics and relationships animating the history and politics of the Chinese diasporic experience. Such a focus on agency is strongly reflected in her first chapter, which situates diasporic agency through the historical narratives of two Chinese cooks. Attention to diasporic agency persists throughout the book, and is also raised through discussions of authority and menus, authenticity, nostalgia, memory and the senses, power and institutions.

Cho maintains that the small-town Chinese restaurant draws far less attention in academic debates, and that they also hold a curious position in public consciousness. In some ways they are almost brushed aside, left behind by modernity. On the surface they do not fit debates on globalisation, transnational migration, and multiculturalism, which dominate discourses of modernity. Yet small town Chinese restaurants persist. They are “strangely visible and yet invisible – a sign of the passing of time and the death of prairie life, and yet still one of the last places where one can find a proper beef dip sandwich” (7). These establishments perceived to be dying out, as Cho defends in the chapter, “Disappearing Chinese Café”, yet persist in perpetuating supposedly Canadian values and practices, as obviously demonstrated through menu offerings of classic Canadian comfort food. Chinese restaurant menus have an “absorptive power” wherein they have been able to move from “tamales to Potatoes Lyonnaise to hamburgers, swerving back to Canada culinary icons of its own economic shifts”, all the while maintaining a sense of Chineseness through the order, structure, and unassuming sameness through its Chinese offerings of dishes (63). According to its menu, for instance, The Diamond Grill restaurant served Canadian classics alongside ‘Special Chinese Dishes’ like Chicken Chop Suey and Rice, Egg Fooyong, and Sweet and Sour Pork Spare Ribs and Rice (68).

Cho empathetically stresses that the small town restaurant has not disappeared from Canadian life, and draws from a variety of sources to support her argument for the importance of small town restaurants in Canadian social life and the diasporic experience of Chinese in Canada. These cultural spaces are rendered visible through a variety of texts, incorporating menus, folk tales and rumours, Canadian folk songs, art installations, and literature to demonstrate the persistence of small town Chinese restaurants in contemporary Canadian consciousness. The use of these different texts creates a dynamic argument for the Chinese restaurant as a diasporic but simultaneously Canadian space.

Other literature on the Chinese diaspora in Canada is referenced, specifically the work of Fred Wah in chapter five, “’How taste remembers life’: Diaspora and the Memories That Bind”. But Cho's work fails to address what the author herself points out as a shortcoming in other commentaries: namely the lack of meaningful deconstruction of Chineseness and the diasporic experience. A deeper depiction of Chinese migration to Canada, including the role of eating establishments in both rural and non-rural communities, would strengthen the arguments on diasporic agency by providing a broader backcloth for understanding relationships and power dynamics. Further, a more comprehensive portrait of the divergences between urban and rural diasporic communities would emphasize the argument that small-town Chinese restaurants continue to occupy a unique position in Canadian social life. Other works on Chinese Canadian restaurants, including the nonfiction of Sneja Gunew and Janice Wong, and the fiction of Denise Chong, Gabrielle Roy, and Fred Wah have more thoughtfully engaged with intersections of nostalgia, memory, agency and the diasporic experience that Cho sees as worthy of inquiry.

In sum, Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada presents an enthusiastic approach to the study of diasporic communities, restaurants, and food culture in Canada and adds to our understandings of Chinese Canadian experience. But it is also limited by that enthusiasm and ambitious breadth.

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