The Potato Wars is a true story about how in 1935, a group of Chinese potato farmers fought The BC Coast Vegetable Marketing Board for the right to sell potatoes. The Board had implemented a system of quotas and fixed prices that prevented the Chinese from selling their produce in Vancouver. It’s a piece of Chinese-Canadian history that graphic artist, Joanne Hui, examines in a unique way and in the process, makes learning history fun.
This spring, Canada Post came out with stamps featuring the gates that stand at the entrance to Chinatown in Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Mississauga, Ottawa and Montreal. Interesting tidbit I didn’t know is that the North gate of Montreal’s Chinatown was donated by the city of Shanghai in 1999. Below are a couple of photos I took of the gates in Montreal.
South gate on Saint Laurent Boulevard
West gate on La Gauchetière Street
There are a couple of interesting books about the Chinese communities in Canada. One is by Paul Yee entitled, Chinatown: An Illustrated history of the Chinese Communities of Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax.
Yee’s book is an interesting collection of stories, historical facts and pictures. Starting in Victoria where Canada’s first Chinatown was established, Yee takes the reader on a cross country tour of each Chinatown. From the gold rush, the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the election of Doug Jung, the first Chinese-Canadian Member of Parliament in 1957 to the appointment of Vivian Poy, the first Chinese-Canadian appointed to the Senate in 1998, Yee shows how the Chinese communities grew and evolved to become what they are today.
The other book is by Arlene Chan. The Chinese Community in Toronto, Then and Now.
In addition to historical facts about the growth of this community, Chan also takes a look at living and growing up Chinese in Toronto. There are also fun tidbits about the Chinese culture. For instance, do you know where the word chopsticks comes from? According to Chan, “chop” means “quick” – “chop chop” is still in use today to mean “hurry.” The Chinese word for chopsticks means “quick sticks” that became “chopsticks” in the English language.
Moon cakes are only on sale once a year, in August, so yesterday I headed to Chinatown to treat myself to a box. I didn’t have to go far into the grocery store to find them. Stacks of boxes were right up front. My favourite is the one with lotus paste and one egg yolk.
As I wandered through Chinatown taking a look at the sidewalk sale (I mentioned it in my post on Friday) you’ll never guess who I met…Ironman! Yes, Ironman, the comic and movie action hero. He’s here for the anime convention at the Palais des congrès which is located in Chinatown. Can you recognize the other characters below?
May Wong reads from her book, “A Cowherd in Paradise: From China to Canada”
When a friend e-mailed me that May Wong was coming to Montreal to do a reading this past Sunday, I knew I had to go. Her book, “A Cowherd in Paradise: From China to Canada” is about her parents who were separated for years because of Canada’s Exclusion Act which came into law in 1923. My parents story sounded similar to hers and so I went eager to hear what she had to say.
Wong had the audience’s rapt attention as she set the background for her story, explaining the historical details that shaped her parents’ lives. Her father chose her mother from a picture. Her mother didn’t know what her future husband looked like until after the wedding ceremony. While her father was establishing himself as a restaurateur in Montreal, her mother was in China stuggling to survive natural disasaters and the Japanese invasion. The title of the book is a tribute to her mother who was responsible for the family’s water buffalo when she was a little girl. The book includes old family photos and a copy of her father’s head tax certificate.
While I haven’t read the book yet, I think it would be interesting for those whose parents, like mine, didn’t talk about the past. It is very fortunate that Wong’s mother, not only wanted to tell her stories, but also wanted Wong to publish them. The book is a treasure not only for Wong’s family, but for families of other head-tax payers as well.
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.
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.
On Sunday, June 9th, I went to Chinatown to watch The Ancestral Ceremony. It’s an annual event held by the Montreal Chinese Association to honor our ancestors who came to Canada from China to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. After the railway was built, some of these men settled down in Montreal, creating what we now know as Chinatown.
The hour long ceremony was held in Sun Yat Sen Park. It started with the Lion Dance to wake up the spirits of the ancestors. Dancers dressed in colorful, shimmering lion costumes danced to the beat of cymbals, a gong and a drum that was loud enough to…well,…wake up the dead. After the ceremony was over, local talent comprising of Chinese musicians, dancers and singers of all ages entertained the crowd. I only took a few photos, but as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Offerings on the makeshift altar include a whole roasted pig. The urn is used to burn incense. Paper money is burned in a separate container.
There is a feeding frenzy as the lions prepare to eat the red envelopes and lettuce dangling from the poles.
A crowd gathers in Sun Yat Sen Park to watch the ceremony.
Leaders of the Montreal Chinese Community stand before the altar as offerings are made to the ancestors.
I was invited to attend the Association’s closing banquet at Kam Fung Restaurant that evening. It was a delicious ten course meal that included fish ball soup, deep fried sea food rolls, beef with chinese vegetables, fried rice and noodles. To tempt your curiosity and taste buds, below are photos of some of the other dishes. In all, it was a good day.
Tofu and baby bok choy
Steamed chicken, very tender and moist
War Siu Guy, a delicious combination of chicken and shrimp. My favorite!