One of the many projects I’m working on is a collection of published short stories called “The Red Pagoda and Other Stories.” It’s taking longer than I thought, but I hope to have it out as an e-book before the end of the year. However, one of the stories can be found in Carte Blanche, the online literary review of the Quebec Writers’ Federation. Click on the link above and it will take you to the website. I hope you enjoy it.
Years ago, when I decided to see if I had the stuff to be a writer, I took a creative writing course at a Continuing Education program at Concordia University. The teacher, to inspire us, told us to write what we know. It sounded simple, and I’ve heard that piece of advice many times since, but I had difficulty because I didn’t think people would be interested in what I knew. I ended up writing a short story based on my experience of working in my family’s restaurant which was eventually published as a children’s picture book, The Fragrant Garden. Since then, I’ve written several stories, both fiction and non-fiction about the Montreal Chinese Community. It’s a way for me to learn about its history as well as my family’s history. My father was a head tax payer. He was 13 years old when he landed in Vancouver on November 28, 1921 and paid $500 to enter Canada. He never said much about his past, so when I do research, I can only imagine what his story is about.
Now there is an educational website, The Long Voyage: From Pigtails and Coolies to the New Canadian Mosaic, about that period in Canadian history and the history of the Montreal Chinese Community. It has video interviews with descendants of head tax payers and an overview of the history of the Chinese in Canada. Anyone who is interested in Canadian history or the history of head tax payers will find this site useful and informative. It might also spark some interesting conversations in some families.
Have you ever had trouble ordering from a Chinese menu? This blog will make you smile.
Rarely has one meal made so many people happy.
Last week, our tour guide pointed out a red-lanterned street known as “Ghost Street” and said that it was a famous area for spicy dishes, hot pot, and Sichuan food. We were in a minibus at the time, but my husband and I decided that we’d go back and check it out. At 3:00 the next afternoon, we did.
We were fooled by the menu posted outside one restaurant that had pictures of food labeled in English. It seemed like a good choice so we went in.
The young woman serving us came over with a very detailed order sheet; the kind you typically see in a sushi place. But this one was entirely in Chinese characters. There wasn’t a word of English anywhere on it and we had no idea what to do with it.
She stood at our table…
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When I was a kid, my parents owned a Chinese-Canadian restaurant called Lee’s Garden. It was located on Park Avenue near Laurier Avenue in Montreal. I started working there on weekends when I was in elementary school, helping my mother make egg rolls or bagging take-out orders. By the time I was in high school, it became a full-time summer job. I answered the phone and handled the cash register. The restaurant was like a second home. The waiters and cooks became extended family and regular customers became old friends.
Then one day my parents told me something that shocked me to the core. Nothing on the menu was real Chinese food, they said. The butterfly shrimps, chicken chow mein, pineapple chicken, and everything else was invented for the ghosts, the red-haired devils. The news hit me like a lightning bolt. How could that be? Chicken Soo Guy, won ton soup and egg rolls were my comfort food! They were fake?! If the food was fake, then what did I know about being Chinese?
The restaurant’s most popular dish and one of my favourites (and still is) was Dry Garlic Spare Ribs. The tender, melt off the bone ribs with the sweet, sticky sauce was on almost every order. The recipe is one of the few things I have left of the restaurant and I’ve decided to share it with those who made the restaurant a welcoming place, a place where Sunday dinners became a part of their family traditions, where special occasions were celebrated and where the regulars dropped by for a cup of coffee, a piece of pie and friendly banter. You. The public.
Lee’s Garden closed in the early 1970s, but it remains forever in my heart. If you or anyone you know frequented the restaurant, please write a comment. I’d love to hear your story.
Lee’s Garden Dry Garlic Spare Ribs
(A Chinese-Canadian classic)
3 lbs. pork spare ribs
3 cloves of finely chopped garlic
1 1/2 tsp. soy sauce
1 to 2 quarts boiling water
1 tsp. salt
3/4 cup white sugar
- Wash and cut the ribs into bite size pieces. Trim excess fat.
- Heat a large frying pan or wok on medium high heat. DO NOT ADD ANY oil, butter or margarine as this will produce an oily film on the ribs.
- Stir fry ribs until they are an even light brown color. Keep stirring to prevent the meat from sticking to the pan. Drain the juice from the pan.
- Add garlic and continue to stir fry for five minutes.
- Sprinkle the soy sauce over the ribs and continue stir frying on medium for about 3 to 4 minutes.
- Pour boiling water into the pan until the water just covers the ribs.
- Sprinkle the salt over the ribs and stir. Cover and boil on medium high for 10 minutes.
- Add sugar, distributing it evenly over the ribs. Cover and boil on medium for 20 minutes.
- The ribs should be very tender. If not, continue to boil for a few more minutes.
- The sauce should be thick and brown. If it is still too watery, leave the cover off, allowing some of the water to evaporate. If the sauce is too thick, add a bit of boiling water.
In celebration of Canada Day, I’m posting an article I wrote that was published in the December 2005 issue of Concordia University Magazine.
Happy Canada Day, everybody!
I was born and educated in Montreal, but while I was growing up, and for many years thereafter, people asked me where I was from, no matter how well I spoke English and French. Experience taught me that exotic looks in this country meant one was a foreigner.
Times have changed. I was at a social event with a number of strangers when someone asked, “Where are you from?” I was about to reply when I realized the question wasn’t directed at me: it was aimed at a friend who was standing beside me, Jane, a woman with peaches-and-cream complexion, brown eyes and short, wavy hair. At a glance, nothing about her screams “foreigner.” However, when she speaks, her British accent rings out strong and clear. New acquaintances immediately take note, and Jane’s origins quickly become the topic of conversation. It’s a situation I find amusing, especially when I’m standing next to her. My oriental looks don’t pique their interest. Have I finally achieved Canadian nirvana?
When I was a young girl, I was often complimented on my mastery of the English language. Even though I didn’t have a Chinese accent, people assumed I was a recent immigrant. I imagine they took their cue from my parents, who emigrated from China in the first half of the 1900s. My father had taught himself English and my mother barely spoke it at all. If I spoke French, people were certain I was Vietnamese. It was the only possible explanation.
Occasionally, I met people whose knowledge of Chinese history and culture exceeded mine. They spoke of the Ming Dynasty or the Tang Dynasty as if I, too, were a student of Ancient China. I listened in silence, too embarrassed to admit the only dynasty I knew of starred Joan Collins and Linda Evans.
Curious glances often turned into polite inquiries. Questions about my birthplace were a common occurrence. I wondered why I had to explain it at all. So, I decided to turn the tables on my inquisitors and asked about their own background. I was surprised and pleased to learn that most of them came from elsewhere. We often fell into pleasant conversations about the food we ate, the sound of our language and traditions. Being different, I discovered, is interesting.
Jane has been in Canada for almost 20 years now. She doesn’t mind if people are curious about her birthplace, but here have been times when she wished she wasn’t asked as soon as she said “Hello.”
Another friend, Cathy, who arrived from England about 25 years ago, gets a bit mischievous with people who are charmed by her speech. She switches her northern inflection into a Cockney accent, and peppers the conversation with British expressions.
“People love it,” Cathy says, about the feedback to her use of colourful jargon. Even though people respond positively to her accent, she swears she’s lost most of it. Whenever she goes back to England for a visit, her family and friends tell her she sounds Canadian.
It’s been years since simply being Chinese elicited curious glances from strangers. The road to get to where my ethnicity is overlooked was a long one. Decades ago, before it was politically incorrect, people openly voiced their objections to the influx of “yellow foreigners.” Back then, every so often, kids and even some adults would fling open the door to my family’s restaurant and yell, “Go back home to China!” and then run off. My parents patiently shook their heads at such behaviour. As a child, I thought such cries were ridiculous. I had never even been to China, so how could it be my home?
On the other hand, years later when I travelled to the Orient as an adult, I stood out as foreign as well, a Canadian. Once, I was wandering one of the busy shopping districts of Hong Kong and attempted to communicate with the locals. We always started off trying to figure out what dialect we each spoke, but it didn’t matter as I always ended up asking if they spoke English.
The day has finally arrived where I blend in with the general population, and that may be in part due to the fact that the general population has changed. The Chinese are now the largest visible minority group in Canada. Living in a metropolitan city like Montreal, with its large Asian population, makes being Chinese less of a phenomenon.
Over the years, though, the question itself has changed, and so has the tone. It’s no longer one of whether or not I belong here. Instead of assuming I immigrated to Canada, people now ask what nationality I am. It’s a question I’m happy to answer, and ask in return. Taken in the right light, it’s a question that acknowledges the many ethnic groups that make up Canada’s population. In a country populated by immigrants, looking different is now the norm.