I’ve always wanted to see the inside of a TV news studio and got the chance yesterday when I was invited to appear on CBC Montreal’s six o’clock news program to talk about the story I wrote for Real Talk on Race. That’s me with Debra Arbec, the news anchor, in the photo above.
So now you get to see what my Cover Girl experience was all about. The CBC officially launched Real Talk on Race today. For the next two weeks, CBC Montreal’s radio, television and social media platforms will be discussing and encouraging people to talk about race and racial identity. Ten Montrealers, including me, contributed personal stories which you can read on their web site. My story will roll out on Wednesday, but you can have a sneak peek here.
Listen to CBC radio’s Daybreak and Radio Noon. You can join the conversation by texting or calling into the show. You can also like them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/CBCMontreal/ or follow them on Twitter and Instagram: @CBCMontreal.
My friends, Celia and Pauline, had volunteered to barbecue hamburgers at a Canada Day celebration in Montreal West. Being the good and loyal friend that I am, I decided to support their efforts by eating one. It was a hot, muggy day perfect for relaxing in the park listening to live music and taking advantage of the ice cream carts. Here are a few photos of the festivities. Happy Canada Day, everyone!
The pounding beat of a drum, the clash of cymbals and the sound of firecrackers rang through Montreal’s Chinatown Sunday afternoon to scare away evil demons. The lions had arrived to celebrate the New Year. The lions are members of The Montreal Chinese Lions Dance Club, a martial arts and lions dance club. Dressed in colourful, shimmering costumes, they visit stores, restaurants and tong associations in Chinatown to wish them luck and prosperity in the New Year.
Thank goodness the deep, freezing cold temperatures broke this weekend. It was a balmy -1 Celsius. The snow was turning to slush. A small cloud of smoke billowed as firecrackers exploded in Sun Yat-Sen Square. The lions bowed and pranced in front of guests of honour, each of whom dangled a head of lettuce and a red envelope from a pole. According to tradition, the lion eats the lettuce and the envelope. Then, it tosses the pieces of lettuce in the air to wish the person and the establishment prosperity in the coming year.
The crowd followed the lions up Clark Street to their first stop. Someone on the second floor dangled a head of lettuce and a red envelope from a pole high over the sidewalk. The lions leaped and danced and successfully grabbed both items.
Le Cristal was packed with customers having dim sum when the lions made their entrance into the restaurant located on the sixth floor. Cameras and cell phones snapped photos as the lions wound their way around the tables and headed towards the far end. The owners hung the lettuce and red envelope from the ceiling which was more of a challenge since it was so high. Customers cheered as the lions made several attempts and then burst into applause when they succeeded.
For the next three hours, the lions made their way into shopping centers and stores. They stopped at doorways marked by a head of lettuce and a red envelope hanging from the top, or where someone waited with a pole. The crowd grew as the small parade made its way along La Gauchetière Street, chasing away evil spirits to ensure the community a happy and prosperous new year.
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?
I don’t have a bucket list.
If I did, gliding wouldn’t be on it. Cruising on the Mediterranean. Yes. Sunning on a beach in Maui. Yes. Gliding. No.
So why was I being strapped into that tiny, flimsy plane with no engine or propeller?
It’s all because of my friend, Phyllis McIntyre. She began organizing flights for her amputee support group three years ago, and now she’s hooked on flying three thousand or more feet above ground, supported by nothing but air currents.
I’m not a risk taker. I’m a writer. Sitting at my computer, I can handle whatever risk the limits of my imagination can come up with. But I’d heard Phyllis talk glowingly of gliding several times, and (darn my writer’s curiosity!) before I even thought about it, I said I wanted to try it.
That was how I ended up driving an hour and a half north of Toronto with Phyllis and her husband, Nate Redmon. The skyscrapers behind us had disappeared, and we drove down a highway that divided miles and miles of farmland. The farmland and clouds, Nate explained, are necessary for gliding. Heat rises from freshly plowed fields and lift the glider. I can’t remember what he said about the clouds because I was busy calculating when I should take a Gravol pill. My best travelling companion is an anti-nausea pill. I don’t leave home without it.
The York Soaring Association is just outside the town of Arthur in Ontario. It created the Freedom’s Wings program so that the disabled could experience gliding in gliders fitted with hand controls. Phyllis, a double amputee, thought it would be a great summer activity for the support group she co-founded with fellow amputees Kitty Lo, Malcolm Koss, and Roger Hunter who she met while receiving outpatient physiotherapy at St. John’s Rehab Hospital in Toronto. They all felt that they needed a support group for both amputees and their caregivers to discuss issues and to support each other as they worked to regain a “normal life.” Together with Nate representing caregivers, they formed AMPower. Through word-of-mouth, twenty-five people showed up at the first meeting in October 2010.
“You don’t feel like you have any kind of disability,” Phyllis said, about the Freedom’s Wings program. Pinned to her t-shirt is the Freedom’s Wings pin that is given to amputees who complete their first flight. “You’re sitting in this vehicle and you have the ability to fly just like anybody else. You don’t need to be as fast. You don’t need to be perfect.”
On this day, only one other AMPower member and her family arrived to take part in York’s soaring program. Gliders, leaning on one wing, are lined up on the grassy field. The clubhouse is a small clapboard structure with a long deck outfitted with picnic tables and a barbecue. It was a perfect day to go gliding, sunny and cloudy with a temperature hovering around 30 degrees Celsius. We had a picnic lunch while we signed up and waited for our turn. From the deck, we had a clear view of the take-off. A single engine plane dragged a glider across the field and up into the air. It was the first time I’d ever seen this and was fascinated…until my name was called.
“Would you like to do a little wing dipping?” Don, the pilot asked as he helped buckle me into the seat.
With the bottle of Gravol pills and a plastic bag tucked into my purse at my feet, I was ready. The glider rumbled (or was that my stomach?) as it was dragged along the ground before lifting into the air. When we finally reached 3,000 feet, I felt a slight tug as the rope was released. We were on our own, with nothing but plowed fields, clouds and Don’s skill as a pilot to keep us aloft. On a clear day, I would have been able to see the CN Tower, but I wasn’t disappointed. The view was spectacular. What was even more amazing was the hang glider flying about 1,000 feet above us. After flying for a half hour, we headed back to the club and Don made a smooth as silk landing.
This was Phyllis’s sixth flight. Nate lifted her into the cockpit and she buckled herself into the seat. After the hatch was closed, the glider was pushed into position. Her pilot, Rob, took her to the exhilarating height of 6,000 feet. She was glowing when she emerged from the cockpit.
“When I’m up in the air, I don’t even remember that I have prosthetic limbs,” she said.
Freedom’s wings keep you soaring, even on the ground.
(Note: The group AMPower no longer exists.)
Want to experience my take-off? Click on the video below. It’s seven and a half minutes long.
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.
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.