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 The Chinese Immigration Act was repealed by parliament and the men who had lived in Canada for decades were finally allowed to become Canadian citizens and bring their wives and children to Canada.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.