Ann Hui is the national food reporter for The Globe and Mail, using food as a lens to explore public policy, health, the environment, and agriculture. She began her career as a general assignment reporter in the national section, before covering Toronto politics from 2013-2015. She has been nominated twice for a National Newspaper Award. She is the author of Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Cafe and Other Stories from Canada’s Chinese Restaurants.
In June of this year, I spoke with journalist and author Ann Hui for the New Brunswick Media Co-op in my role as a research assistant for Rural Action and Voices for the Environment (RAVEN), a research-based project at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. It may be obvious, but the objective of RAVEN is to champion rural community voices, particularly when they speak to environmental issues. Some of my questions, then, speak directly to these issues as they relate to Ann’s cross-country Chinese restaurant tour, outlined in her book, Chop Suey Nation (out September 7, 2019, in the U.S.). You can read my article for the Co-op about Chop Suey Nation here. This conversation is our Q&A in-full.
Photos, below, courtesy of Douglas & McIntyre. Author photo by Amanda Palmer.
Lauren R. Korn: Fogo Island, Newfoundland—where a woman, living alone, was operating a Chinese restaurant—was one of the inspirations for the cross-country restaurant tour that creates the narrative of Chop Suey Nation. You write, “I wanted to understand what would compel someone to live a life like hers. […] It was a question I would repeat over and over as I made my way from coast to coast, visiting the many restaurants and explaining the purpose of my visit. The question was this: How did you wind up here? What brought you here?” How and why did small towns and rural communities play into your initial itinerary?
Ann Hui: In larger cities it’s becoming more and more difficult to find these kinds of chop suey restaurants. In Vancouver, in Toronto, the vast majority of Chinese restaurants are focused on “authentic” cuisine. So logistics was one reason. Another personal reason is that I was fascinated with these places. These restaurants, and the lives of these people who are living in these small communities, were so different from what I was used to. I was used to living in environments with a fair amount of diversity. With these small communities and restaurants, there was a fascination, a desire to understand that experience. The last reason is, when we picture small towns and rural communities—the idea of Chinese restaurants in the middle of them—there’s something seemingly unusual about it. Small communities tend to be more homogenous in demographic make-up. You don’t expect to see Chinese restaurants in these places. It was that juxtaposition I was interested in.
LRK: How has your book been received by the public?
AH: I’ve been doing events across the country, here and there. It’s been nice; regardless of where people are, or where they grew up, everyone seems find something in the book to connect to.
LRK: In a chapter about Boissevain, Manitoba, you write, “I hoped I might find…a single place that connected all of our Chinese restaurants. A single place that could explain how a woman like Ms. Lin had wound up in Vulcan, or Ms. Xie in a place like Drumheller.” Can you explain to those who have yet to read your book the relationship you see between rural communities or small towns and the Chinese immigrant experience, particularly regarding Chinese and chop suey restaurants in Canada?
AH: The vast majority of people who come here and run these restaurants are coming here, because they’re looking for new opportunities and looking to new build a new life. “Gold Mountain” is the dream—the idea that they’re going to strike it rich, or be better off for coming [to Canada]. These restaurants, particularity in rural communities, became their vehicles for doing that. In Canada, the food industry is an industry whose experiences a newcomer can pick up without having to speak English and without a formal education. For a lot of these restauranteurs, small towns make the most sense, because there’s too much competition in the larger cities. A lot of these owners weren’t experienced, so smaller towns were an opportunity to run a business without that competition. Often, these Chinese restaurants are the only restaurant in town.
LRK: Did any of the restaurant owners you spoke to express disappointment about having to live in small towns or rural communities? Did they feel like they were missing out on the cultural phenomena of the “typical” Western experience?
In my book, I write about my conversation with Peter Li [in Drumheller, Alberta]. He said something like, “Every day, same same.”
Other people I spoke with, though, enjoy their place in these smaller communities. Some of these restaurant owners grew up in urban areas in China and were used to noise and crowded conditions. So the opportunity to live in a small town, where the pace is more comfortable—many enjoy that. This idea actually challenged me to question some of my biases, too. I’ve only ever lived in large cities. But people are different, and people are looking for different lifestyles.
LRK: At one point in the book, you write, “In China, authenticity wasn’t the question. It was just about tradition.” Can you speak to the role that authenticity plays in your book? In your opinion, what’s the relationship between authenticity and tradition?
AH: It’s complicated. I grew up in a family—and in a culture and at a time—where authenticity has been highly prized. My parents, when they first moved to Canada, they did so at a time when they couldn’t very easily find the dishes they were used to eating back home. It would have been quite challenging in ‘70s Vancouver to find decent Peking duck, for instance, or some of the traditional, lesser-known dishes. For them, once those flavours and those dishes became available, it was really important to them. It was a feeling I internalized in my childhood—to understand the foods that tasted close to what my parents thought of as “authentic.”
There’s this obsession with trying to find the most authentic Bolognese, or the most accurate version of Shaanxi cuisine in Toronto. I understand that—especially for people who haven’t had access to those foods; it’s important for them to experience that. But I think that in a lot of ways, we’ve gone a little overboard with that idea of authenticity, especially when we cling to that notion, or hold onto that value of authenticity as a way of dismissing other kinds of foods.
It was common in my childhood to hear chop suey be dismissed as fake or cheap or not as good. And again, I understand that, especially for people like my parents. But now that we can have both [authentic and chop suey cuisines], I don’t understand why both can’t co-exist. When you look at the history of all food, so many dishes are the results of people moving from one part of the world to another, of cultures coming up against one another, bringing together dishes and cultures, and blending them with places from other regions. They’re all products of this story. In that way, they’re very authentic. They’re telling the stories and the histories of those who have moved from one part of the world to another.
LRK: Many of your chapters begin with descriptions of the ways small Canadian communities have evolved into tourist centres in order to stay economically afloat—Chinatowns across North America, Vulcan’s Star Trek-themed murals, the “world’s largest” lobster, dinosaur, pryogy, etc. How do you view authenticity through the lenses of these changes? Are Chinatowns less authentic because they cater to tourists? Are the identities of these places subsumed or enhanced (or something else entirely) by these changes, by what you later call “brands”?
AH: I don’t have a perfect answer to this. My thinking is still evolving. In my book, I write about Victoria’s Chinatown. When I spent some time living in Victoria almost a decade ago, I was struck by how much that city’s Chinatown seemed to be catering to non-Chinese communities, selling stuff that has little to do with Chinese culture: Hello Kitty, kimonos. That surprised me, and I questioned that, for sure. But I think that over the last decade, I’ve seen the experience of Chinatowns elsewhere. Vancouver’s Chinatown, where I grew up, has been struggling over the last decade. Business owners are getting older, and some of the younger generations have no interest in taking over the family business, so many are shutting down. And there’s the real estate market. Property values and rent have increased such that original business owners are sometimes pushed out or shut down. We’re seeing a lot of challenges in these places, and because I have seen that now, I can understand and appreciate the economic realities of the original business owners in Victoria and understand why they’re running their businesses the way they are.
Also, Chinatown doesn’t mean the same thing to all Chinese people. In Vancouver, Chinatown was a place to get dim sum with my grandmother, where my mom would buy groceries, and where my dad would go to meet business partners. It was a place we chose to visit. For my parents and grandparents, Chinatown wasn’t a place where they chose to be. It was simply the only place where they felt comfortable or the only place they were able to make a living. Chinatown wasn’t a choice. For my great grandparents, Chinatown was the only place they were allowed to be, to run their business, and the only place they felt safe.
LRK: You cite Victoria’s Chinatown (at the Gate of Harmonious Interest) as a space “where Chinese immigration first began in Canada.” As the national food reporter for The Globe and Mail—one who uses “food as a lens to explore public policy, health, the environment, and agriculture”—how do you see Canada’s Chinese history, embodied perhaps by Victoria’s Chinatown, in the country’s present? (For example, your reference to low wages and poor working conditions seem prescient of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program.)
AH: You can definitely draw those comparisons between the first Chinese men who wound up here and who were treated unfairly by their employers. But more broadly speaking, you see it with a lot of newcomers. People who don’t speak a lot of English. Their education is not recognized, and they’re sometimes in these dire circumstances. That is still happening today. When you have those conditions, it often is going to make it easier to exploit these people.
LRK: You’re a former flight attendant, and you live in Toronto, presumably without a car (you rented a car for your 18-day cross-country trip). What considerations toward consumption did you make when planning for this trip? What limitations—economic, environmental, or otherwise—were discovered and/or planned around?
AH: For the most part, in Toronto I rely on public transportation. My husband has a car, and it is his car, but I do benefit from it. With it, we’re able to go get groceries on the weekend.
Economically, I was fortunate enough for the trip to be funded by The Globe and Mail, where I first wrote about the road trip. I wanted to be careful with how I was spending those resources. When you rent a car, when you pick it up in one part of the country and plan to drop it off in another part, it becomes very expensive. Every extra day made it more expensive. Obviously I was planning my trip around getting the best story, meeting the most interesting people. But I also had to ask myself, How can I keep this trip to as few a number of days as possible? I would have loved to have seen the northern part of the country, but that would have tacked on additional costs and many more days. At one point, there was talk of only traveling from British Columbia to Toronto and not heading further east. So the fact that I was able to make that happen [to end up on Fogo Island], I didn’t want push my luck. I wish I could say I spent a lot of time considering the environmental factors of my trip, but in truth I was balancing other, more immediate considerations. I was really concerned with [The Globe and Mail] changing their minds and not letting me take the trip, so I wanted to make it as palatable to them as possible.
LRK: In a chapter about your father’s arrival in Canada, you write about how your parents are reluctant to throw anything away amidst your insistence that your mother get new dishcloths and your curiosity about a blanket your father has kept since he arrived in the country forty years prior. The following Nackawic, New Brunswick, chapter outlines your routine of ordering only spring rolls or egg rolls at the restaurants you visited to stave off the inevitability of growing tired of chop suey cuisine and the subsequent waste that accompanies being unable to stomach more. Separate from your parents and from your cross-country restaurant tour (or perhaps because of them), what is your relationship to waste and its opposites?
AH: I think I’m still finding that balance. When I was growing up it was mystifying. It puzzled me how my parents were so extremely focused on not wasting anything. And it made sense; they both came from very poor upbringings. Generally, they cannot understand why anyone would waste anything.
So here was a short moment, in my early 20s, when I first moved out and when I used everything! I loved the convenience of those Swiffer dust cloths, the Clorox wipes I mention in the book. It was all so novel, and I couldn’t understand why my parents weren’t taking advantage of these conveniences.
Now that I’m older, and now that we as a society have evolved a little bit in our understanding of the impacts we have on the environment and the repercussions of not changing our ways, I’m starting to move closer to the direction that my parents had always been in. They were just ahead of their time. People like my parents were, perhaps, wiser than I gave them credit for.
LRK: There is a wealth of information in your book about the history of Chinese immigrants in Canada, food-related and otherwise (e.g., Chinese immigration as it relates to real estate and housing markets, agricultural ebbs and flows). Apart from interviewing Chinese restaurant owners, what form(s) did your research take?
AH: The interviews were the bulk of it. Some of the interviews were with academics and historians who did the actual research, like Henry Yu, Linda Tzang, Ian Mosby, and Lily Cho. They did the real work. I kind of walked in and asked them the annoying questions. And I read everything I could. There have been quite a number of books on the creation, evolution, and history of Chinese cuisine in North America and in the U.S. Jennifer 8 Lee and her Fortune Cook Chronicles were a tremendous influence in this book.
I also took quirkier avenues: the University of Toronto in Scarborough just acquired the world’s largest collection of Chinese restaurant menus from Harley J. Spiller. So I went through that. And I also browsed museum exhibits, through galleries that have put together pieces of this history. In Brooklyn, at the Museum of Food and Drink, an exhibit called “Chow” brings together the history of Chinese food in America. And I visited the Museum of Vancouver, where there was an excellent exhibit on Chinese-Canadian history—I explored everything and everywhere I could.
This is a subject I’ve always been fascinated by. When I first read The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, I became obsessed with the history of this food. And everything that lies at the heart of food—culture, history, identity—I’m genuinely fascinated by it all. This really was the perfect project for me.
LRK: Early on in your book, you speak briefly to “the f-word, ‘fusion.’” Can you explain the word’s negative connotation and its taboo-like presence in the restaurant industry?
AH: I don’t know exactly where it came from, or how the word originally started to be used as the f-word. For me, when I think of fusion food, and especially Asian fusion, it was in reference to a kind of restaurant that was very popular in the early 2000s, and I associate it with restaurants that would take the flavours and the same ideas that these Asian cuisines were already using and build from them—sometimes quite thoughtlessly, putting the dishes on big white plates, crisp, white table cloths, and calling it “elevated.” “Upscale.” Doing it without a whole lot of thought. That rubs people like me the wrong way—the idea that we need to elevate Chinese food, that we need to put important dishes on white plates and white tablecloths to be taken seriously.
LRK: You’ve written, “Who was I to walk in and demand to know people’s stories?” Have you come up with an answer to this question?
AH: No, I really haven’t. It’s probably something that every journalist struggles with, and it’s something that’s top-of-mind for me often.
LRK: Your relationship to your father and his childhood in China is an integral part of your book. In the book’s early pages, your relationship with your father is distanced, not a part of your reality; when looking at a childhood photo, you write that it “looked like something out of National Geographic.” But by braiding your father’s history with your cross-country restaurant tour, that distance lessens dramatically (at least for the reader). What surprised you most when you began to learn more about your father?
AH: I don’t know that there’s any one answer I can give you. It was everything. It was finally knowing all the little details: when he described the house he grew up in, one that didn’t have a bathroom, and how he would have to walk a block to use the restroom; when he talked about going to that labour camp as a teenager, that they slept on beds of straw, talking about how they only had enough money to eat meat once a week. Little details like those that highlighted just how difficult his situation had really been. As a kid, he would talk about how he’d have to walk long distances to go to school, and we’d roll our eyes. We didn’t understand and couldn’t have understood at that age what his childhood had been like. Now that I know, it all makes so much more sense.
LRK: Your father was a reader—and a reader of poetry, to boot. Did his literary tastes influence your own?
AH: I with I could say yes, but no, mostly because of the language barrier. His reading was primarily in Chinese. Both of my parents were readers. My mom read obsessively. She made it part of our routine to visit the library every week. We’d leave with mountains of books in our arms. It was my mom who instilled in us the importance of reading and our love of reading.
LRK: What stories are you working on (for The Globe and Mail or elsewhere) now that your book has been published?
AH: I’m back in the world right now. I’m mainly living my day-to-day life. Researching and writing food-related things. I am working on something that’s a bit of departure for me, but I can’t share that update, yet. If you’re asking me if I’m working on another book, the answer at the moment is no. I’m definitely open to it, but this book was kind of the perfect project for a lot of reasons. It was a subject that I really loved, something that was personal. Unless I can find another topic that I’m equally as passionate about, another topic that hits that same bar, I don’t know that I’d do it again.
LRK: And finally, of all the restaurants you researched and visited for your book, can you name one you would specifically recommend to readers?
AH: The one that I talk about all the time is the Fogo Island restaurant, Kwang Tung Restaurant, not necessarily because the food is any different or any more special, I just think Feng Zhu Huang’s story is so extraordinary. I thought, and still think, that her resilience and strength of spirit is so inspiring. I think that if anybody has the opportunity to go out there and meet her and experience that first-hand, I would recommend it. The last I heard (a few months ago), she was still there, though I think there’s still a plan in the place to wind things down.
Lauren R. Korn is a poet and graphic designer currently living on the traditional and unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik and Mi’kmaq. She is the 2020 Director of the Montana Book Festival; the Director of Content for The Adroit Journal; and a poetry reader for icehouse poetry. She recently received her M.A. in English from the University of New Brunswick.