Here is a 30 second trailer for my documentary. It’s about the history and social impact of Chinese-Canadian restaurants through my memories of my family’s restaurant in Montreal, Canada in the 1950s.
I have only written a couple of posts about my family. There is the one about celebrating Christmas An Old-Fashioned Chinese-Canadian Christmas and one about eating out with my dad in a Chinese restaurant The Writing on the Wall: Ordering a Chinese Meal. A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to tell a bigger story and in a way that I had never done before. It took me six years, but I finally finished my first documentary.
Meet and Eat at Lee’s Garden takes a look at Chinese-Canadian restaurants in the 1950s, the men who owned them and what the restaurants meant to the Chinese and Jewish communities.
Working in restaurants as a cook, waiter or owner defined a generation of head-tax payers including my father who opened Lee’s Garden on Park Avenue in 1951.
The 1950s was a time of change for the Chinese community. The Chinese Immigration Act was repealed by parliament and the men who had lived in Canada for decades were finally allowed to become Canadian citizens and bring their wives and children to Canada.
The restaurants allowed a relationship between the Chinese and their customers that would not have occurred outside of the restaurants. Those early pioneers were the face of the Chinese community. They made contact with a society that considered them outsiders. By opening their doors and welcoming everyone who entered, other marginalized communities, such as the Jewish community, found acceptance.
In the 1950s, for the Jewish community, the fact that Chinese restaurants were open seven days a week meant they could have family dinners on Sunday, when other restaurants were closed. This brings up the question of why Jewish people eat Chinese food made with pork. The answer is Safe Treyf, the logic by which a Jewish person can eat the pork in Chinese food.
The Chinese-Canadian restaurant and its distinctive menu have earned a place in history and in people’s hearts. Upon closer examination, they also tell the story of the struggle of the Chinese to be accepted in Canada, of Chinese families who were separated for decades because of a racist government policy, and the food that has created a bond between the Chinese and Jewish communities that continues to this day.
My documentary, Meet and Eat at Lee’s Garden, will premiere on CBC on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020 at 7p.m. on the show Absolutely Canadian. It will also be available for streaming on the internet (in Canada only) with the CBC GEM app.
I’ve uploaded my latest book, The Red Pagoda and Other Stories, to Kindle, set it for pre-orders and now for the part that I find is as hard as writing the book: the marketing. Of course, social media is always a good choice, but I thought I’d share some other options that I’ve used, big and small. What I keep in mind is that all magazines and their web sites need content. It’s just a matter of finding them and seeing what works for you.
I had a chance to test my line dancing skills Saturday night. Some friends invited me to a St. Valentine’s dance in Chinatown at Le Cristal Chinois restaurant which included a ten course meal. It’s a toss-up as to which appealed to me the most, the supper or the dance, so I brought both my dancing shoes and my appetite. The only requirement was everyone had to wear something red or pink.
The dance floor was already full when I arrived at 5:30. At the front of the sea of red was the instructor dressed in an outfit of black sequins and gold heels. With a microphone in one hand, she called out the steps over the beat of the golden oldies. It was obvious that most of the people were seasoned line dancers and most likely, students in her class. There were only a handful of men present. A few of them assumed the job of guarding the belongings at the table while the women tore up the dance floor. The evening was a family affair with ages ranging from teenagers to retirees in their eighties, but I discovered it was mainly a girls’ night out as most of the women had left their husbands at home so they could dance the night away. Continue reading
If you’re looking for something to make for Chinese New Year which will be on Thursday, February 19, 2015, how about homemade fortune cookies? Try this recipe from the blog, Cecile’s Cuisine.
A few Thursdays ago, I hosted an Asian Cooking Class for a fun group of women. Not only did we have a lot of fun, but we also learned to make many yummy recipes. Our menu consisted of Pot Stickers, Teriyaki Chicken, Sesame Infused Broccoli, Coconut Rice and Fortune Cookies. Yes, we made fortune cookies;-)
Did you know however not all Chinese restaurants offer Chinese Fortune cookies?!?! Yes. it is true. I learned the night of the cooking class that Fortune Cookies were An American tradition. Yep, it is true!!
According to Wikepedia, “Fortune cookies are often served as a dessert in Chinese restaurants in the United States and some other countries, but are absent in China. The exact origin of fortune cookies is unclear, though various immigrant groups in California claim to have popularized them in the early 20th century, basing their recipe on a traditional Japanese cracker. Fortune cookies…
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On August 17th, I posted a blog about a Chinese Tea Salon in which I gave a short talk about the inspriration behind my writing. Well, the on-line video is now available on the Asian Canadian Wiki. You can watch all of the presenters including myself by clicking on this link http://www.asiancanadianwiki.org/w/Chinese_Tea_Salon_in_Montreal . Each video is about 5 minutes.
I’m really excited about self-publishing my first Young Adult novel, heck, my first novel ever. The print version will be available in a few weeks through Amazon. I thought I’d give you a sneak peek by publishing the first chapter here. I hope you enjoy it.
The worst things happen in the dead of the night.
It’s almost midnight when I hear the front door open. My dad’s finally home. He’s only six hours late this time. The low murmur of the late-night news snaps off. For a few moments there’s an eerie silence, like in a horror movie before the axe falls. In this case, the axe is my mom. She stayed up waiting for him to come home, mentally sharpening her blade.
Snatches of words and phrases in Chinese, low and harsh, creep up the stairs. Sounding angry and scared, my mother throws out words like “debt” and “house payment”. My dad’s quiet apologies interrupt her.
Lately they’ve been fighting about money as often as a radio station plays a Top Ten hit. Last year, my dad lost his job when the clothing company where he was assistant manager for over twenty years moved its operations to China. A few months ago, he got a job working the stockroom at a grocery store for minimum wage, less than half what he was making before.
I lie in bed, in the dark, practicing chords on my unplugged guitar. Street lamp glow streams through the open blinds, casting strips of light on the bedroom wall. For weeks, I’ve been practicing day and night, until my fingertips are numb.
Because I’m playing with Pumping Iron this Saturday in the Montreal Rocks Contest!
My best friend, Craig Chemielewski, formed Pumping Iron with a few other guys from school. They’ve been practicing together for about a year. I even wrote a couple of songs for them. Craig writes the music and I write the lyrics. We’re Chang and Chemielewski, and we’re going to be the Lennon and McCartney of our generation.
A couple of the other guys weren’t too thrilled when Craig suggested that since I was writing for the band, they should give me the chance to play with them. Mick especially. He’s such a diva. I don’t want to give Mick a reason to kick me out, so I’m happy playing backup.
I finger the strings, listening carefully to the quiet notes. “Hey, John,” I whisper to the black and white poster of The Beatles on the wall. “How’s this?” I play the chord. He doesn’t say it sucks.
I’ve been taking guitar lessons every Saturday for the past few months. It looked so cool to be in a band that I had to try. Once I got started, I was hooked. Mark, my teacher, told me that I have talent. “The music’s inside you. You have to keep practicing to draw it out.” I practice so much that Mom says the guitar is permanently attached to my hip. I strum Let It Be, whispering the words as my parents bring their fight upstairs to their bedroom.
“David!” my dad shouts. “Put away that damn guitar and go to bed!”
It’s not the first time he’s said that, and it won’t be the last.
I wait until their bedroom door slams shut, muffling their words. I can still hear the angry tone in Mom’s voice. After a few seconds, when I’m sure they’re too involved in their argument to notice, I continue where I left off and sing quietly to the end of the song. Then I lean the guitar against the wall beside the bed and lie down. It’s time for the big performance with Bono. He’s been begging me to play with Edge and the boys. Tonight, he gets his wish. Santana’s just going to have to wait.
With my trusty air guitar, I play a solo that blows away audiences around the world. At least until I fall asleep. I know what’ll happen in the morning: we’ll all pretend we didn’t hear them fight.
Sure enough, when I come down the next morning, Kim, my nine-year-old sister, is sitting at the kitchen table eating toast and telling my grandmother the latest gossip about her classmates. Dad’s hiding behind the local Chinese newspaper. All I can see of him is the top of his thick black hair over the paper’s edge. My mother stayed in bed, under the blankets. She prefers to cry when she’s alone.
“Angela says her mother puts stuff into her lips with a needle so she won’t look old.” Kim licks jam off her fingers. “And Michael says his mother never tells anyone how old she is. But she’s forty.”
“Spilling everyone’s secrets again?” I ask.
“It’s only a secret from everyone in school,” Kim points out.
“Old is good,” Grandma says, in Chinese. “I am eighty-four years old. One becomes wiser with age.” Although she’s lived in Montreal for most of her adult life, she can barely speak English. Toishan is our dialect. Like every morning, she’s busy packing leftovers for our lunch. I take a quick peek. Barbecue pork sandwiches and dried mango. All right!
When Yeh-yeh, our grandfather, passed away a few years ago, my parents decided Nai-nai, as Kim and I call her, would live with us. Nai-nai smells like the tiger balm she rubs on her legs every night to relieve her aching muscles. She’s almost five feet, just tall enough to reach my armpits. Even though she’s small, it’s easy to pick her out in a crowd because she likes clothes with bright colors and patterns. Nothing matches, but we don’t tell her. The yellow butterfly clip I gave her for Mother’s Day last year keeps her white hair from falling into her face.
Long before I was born, Yeh-yeh and Nai-nai owned a Chinese hand laundry that was one of the last in Montreal to close. We have an old black-and-white photo of Yeh-yeh standing in the doorway of his new business, with a big smile on his face. He was young and skinny when he opened Chang’s Chinese Hand Laundry. The words are hand-painted on a wooden sign over the door. It was sweaty, back-breaking work that left his hands red and raw.
Nai-nai left China when she was a teenager. She and her parents walked miles and miles, crossing a river to get to Hong Kong to look for a better life. After the Second World War, relatives arranged for her marriage to Yeh-yeh. After about a year, Yeh-yeh had to return to Canada, so they were separated until the Canadian government finally allowed Chinese men to bring their wives over. Uncle George was born first, then Dad, who’s tall and lean like Grandpa was, with a full head of hair that I’m hoping is genetic.
I pour some Cheerios and milk into a bowl, then sit at the table to eat. My dad hasn’t budged from behind the paper. The front page has a big picture of the prime minister and columns of Chinese characters. Sometimes I think it would be neat to know how to read Chinese, but Chinese school is on Saturdays, the same time as my guitar lessons. I have my priorities, and besides, I have all the homework I can handle.
“How come you came home so late?” I take a spoonful of cereal. The crunch fills up the sudden silence in the kitchen.
The pages stop moving, so I know he heard me, but he doesn’t answer right away. “I was visiting some friends.”
“The guy who runs mah-jongg games in the basement?”
The newspaper comes down a couple of inches. “How do you know that?”
I shrug. “Everyone knows. Why’d you go? I heard people there play for big money. You don’t gamble.”
Nai-nai nods in agreement. “Lim Tai knows someone’s husband who gambled away the family business,” she says in Chinese. Giving him a look that only a mother could, she continues, “Then they lost their house because they couldn’t pay the mortgage. When the wife threatened to take the children and leave him, the husband tried to commit suicide. They live with some relatives now.”
Kim’s listening, wide-eyed.
The paper wall comes down. “What were you doing, playing guitar so late?” he says to me, ignoring Nai-nai.
“You should be studying.”
“At least I was home,” I reply, looking him in the eye.
He looks annoyed, tries to get the last word. “You better make sure you pass, or you won’t graduate.”
But I can’t let him have it. “No problem. I got good marks. I could probably calculate the odds of you winning back the money.”
The paper wall goes back up.
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.
The St-Jean Baptiste long weekend is coming up and many people will be planning a short getaway to enjoy the three-day-weekend. With the spirit of travel in mind, I’m posting an article I wrote about a train ride I took to Toronto that was first published in Canadian Living magazine, November 1997.
* * *
As I waited to board the train from Montreal to Toronto, a Chinese man approached me and, speaking in broken English, asked if I were going to Union Station. Wary of strangers who ask about my travel plans, I hesitantly nodded yes. “Could you look after her?” he asked, gesturing toward a petite, well-dressed woman of about fifty. “She doesn’t speak any English.” Smiling shyly, she bowed.
“I don’t speak much Chinese,” I warned, realizing he’d chosen me because I was the only Oriental in line.
“It’s OK. Thank you,” he said, and left after a quick goodbye to the woman. We boarded the train and sat together. She slept. I read until the steward appeared pushing the lunch cart.
I’m bilingual: I speak both French and English, but my Chinese is very limited. Stumbling over my mother tongue, I asked if she wanted something to drink.
I understood her Cantonese reply, “Apple juice.” So far, so good. Then came the menus.
“Do they have rice?” she asked as I scanned the list.
“No rice,” was all I could manage. I ordered apple juice.
She pointed to a drawing of a pizza. “Bread?”
“Ye-e-ss.” What was the translation for tomato sauce? “It has tomatoes.” Picking up a pizza slice from the cart, I showed it to her. The thick sauce did not resemble tomatoes in the least. She frowned. I showed her the menu, hoping she would recognize something. Surely, “Chicken Sandwich” was universal. She pointed to another drawing. “Is that bread?”
“Un, no. It’s sweet. A ma-a-fin.” I regretted it the instant I said it. Saying muffin with a Chinese accent is as ludicrous as assuming a foreigner will understand English if it’s spoken slowly and loudly enough. The steward looked amused as he handed me a muffin for her inspection. “How about Pita Pockets?” he suggested.
“Oh, I couldn’t explain that in Chinese,” I groaned. Finally, she decided on pizza, insisting we share the large slice. Quiet settled between us as we ate. She cut the pizza into pieces and hesitantly tasted each one. After we finished, she pulled out a small bag containing toothpicks and offered me one. I accepted.
We attempted more conversation. I strained to understand as she talked about her visit to Canada. She giggled as I formed awkward phrases. We carried on this way and somehow it didn’t matter that I had forgotten so much Chinese. In the end, we understood each other perfectly.