Well, I’m officially in holiday mode. I’ve got a wreath on my door, my Christmas tree is up, (all 12 inches) and I’ve started shopping for gifts (so far I bought two for me and zero for anyone else).
But what really makes it feel like Christmas is watching Christmas movies on TV: White Christmas, Elf, Christmas Vacation, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are a few. My absolute favourite is A Christmas Story. Did you know that it was filmed in Canada? That last scene in the Chinese restaurant is classic. It’s not only a movie classic, it’s a classic Chinese-Canadian Christmas because when I was a kid, I spent every Christmas Day in my family’s restaurant.
The winters of my childhood practically guaranteed a white Christmas. I buckled on my brown rubber boots with a fake white fur trim sometime in November when flakes started to fall and by mid-December accumulated enough for snowball fights at recess. It was in elementary school where, being the only Chinese in the entire school, I learned about the meaning of Christmas. I already knew about Santa Claus, but I had suspicions about whether he really existed because whenever I asked for a toy, my parents asked how much it cost and I was pretty sure Santa wasn’t concerned about money.
In 1962, my father bought out his partners and became the sole owner of Lee’s Garden, a Chinese-Canadian restaurant on Park Avenue in Montreal. With my mother managing the kitchen and my dad out front with the customers, the restaurant opened early in the morning until the wee morning hours the next day. Neither rain, nor sleet nor snow nor hail could keep the restaurant closed. Customers could always count on a hot bowl of won ton soup, egg rolls with plum sauce, a platter of almond ding, Cantonese chow mein or any other Chinese-Canadian dish 365 days a year.
Preparations for Christmas began in September when my father placed his order for calendars with a printer in Hong Kong. In November, Canada Post delivered boxes of wall calendars featuring pretty Chinese woman wearing “teong sam,” the short-sleeved, tight fitting, satin dresses with the mandarin collar. Then on December 1st, calendars were rolled-up and slipped inside every bag of take-out, to thank customers for their business during the past year and to wish them the best in the new one. Like Santa pouring over the naughty and nice list, a list was dutifully kept of every family who received a calendar to ensure there wasn’t any duplication.
When the time came to put up the tree, my father bought the biggest one he could find at the neighbourhood tree seller for five dollars. He and my brother grappled with a tree that seemed determined not to come inside. When they finally made it through the front door, it took the help of the waiter plus a cook or two to get it upright and to screw it into the metal stand. Breathless from exertion, everyone stepped back to admire the tree.
My dad would always say, “Looks good,” even if one side had a bare spot that would have to be turned to the wall. The tree had a special place in the corner, in the little waiting area beside the front entrance. The tree would be at least as tall as the doorway with plenty of room between the tree top and the high ceiling for the star.
First order of business was to water the tree. Then, dusty boxes filled with decorations were brought upstairs from storage. My dad connected strings of lights into extension cords that would make a modern day fire official cringe. We crossed our fingers praying that none of the bulbs were burnt out or else someone would have the tedious job of checking them one by one. Cheers mingled with sighs of relief when the lights glowed. As we decorated the tree with garland, glass ornaments, tinsel and a foil star from Woolworth’s, statues of the three Buddhas of health, wealth and happiness smiled at us from their perch on the shelf above the counter.
On Christmas Eve, my father typed up the Christmas special my mother had planned. Like the other daily specials it included won ton soup, egg rolls, chicken fried rice and a choice from two other dishes. Dessert was either red or green Jell-O with a dollop of whipped cream. That was the Christmas touch.
My dad prepared the menu for the daily specials like this: he rolled two small sheets of paper with a piece of carbon paper in the middle into the old Underwood typewriter. Using two fingers, he typed out the Christmas special without making a single mistake. Then he’d get the jelly pan with the thick layer of gelatine from the refrigerator. The carbon copy of the daily special was carefully placed face down onto the gelatine. Then he gently rubbed his fingers over the entire sheet of paper several times. When he peeled the paper off, a mirror image of the daily special was left on the gelatine. Then he placed a blank rectangular sheet of paper over the exact same spot using the side of the pan to keep it straight and again gently rubbed his fingers back and forth over the entire sheet of paper. This time, when he peeled the paper from the gelatine, he had a perfect carbon copy of the Christmas special. He continued rubbing sheets of paper on the gelatine until he had printed enough copies for all the menus. Then, he cleaned the gelatine with water and put it back into the refrigerator, ready to be used the next day.
Christmas morning, the restaurant opened at ten instead of eight, affording my parents a bit of time with my brother, my sister and me to open presents at home. The smell of fresh coffee brewing greeted customers along with smiles and a cheerful “Melly Clistmas.” By noon, there was a steady stream of customers. The Christmas special was a popular choice.
At six in the evening, the doors were locked and a sign “Closed for Christmas party” was taped onto the glass door. Customers still finishing their meal were offered a free glass of wine or a shot of whiskey. As they slowly filtered out into the cold snowy night, our guests filtered in.
There were two or three men, friends of my parents, and the waiters and cooks who had the day off. Occasionally, someone new was invited, an acquaintance who didn’t have any place to go. All of these men had left parents, wives and children behind in China while they tried to build a life in Gold Mountain. One or two, like my father, were head tax payers and unlike my father were not successful in bringing wives and children to Canada after the end of the Second World War. My mother arrived in 1950 after being separated from my father for almost a decade. Our guests didn’t speak about their families and nobody asked, not wanting to remind them of any bad memories of either World War II or the Japanese invasion of China and the suffering that was inflicted on both sides of the ocean. These men, “Bachelors,” as they were known in the community, were happy to be in Canada, in Montreal, in our restaurant, warm and with the promise of a good home-cooked meal. We were the family they would know for many Christmases.
My dad welcomed his guests with a warm handshake and my uncle stood behind him, offering them a shot of Johnny Walker whisky to take off the winter chill. There were even bigger smiles later on when my dad handed out Christmas bonuses to the staff.
The waiters removed the low partition between two sets of booths that ran down the middle of the restaurant, enough to seat twenty-five. I helped set the tables with chopsticks and golden rice bowls decorated with a fiery dragon. When my mother announced that supper was ready, everyone settled into the booths in good humour, urging someone else to take what might be the best or the most comfortable place. Bird’s nest soup, Cantonese lobster, and seafood stir-fry filled the tables, but my favourite dish which we only ate at Christmas was what my father once jokingly told me was “Chinese turkey.” It’s a rectangular pan layered with chicken and shrimp and a thin layer of crispy chicken skin on top, War Siu Guy. My mother laboured over it for hours and it was heavenly. With the first part of the ten course meal on the tables, someone would always call for a toast. The adults raised glasses of whisky mixed with seven-up, and we kids raised our soft drinks, to toast the end of another year and happiness, health and wealth in the new one.
What are your favourite childhood memories of the holiday season?