The Writing on the Wall: Ordering a Chinese Meal

With the holidays approaching, there’s going to be alot of getting together with friends over brunch, lunch and supper. So, I thought I’d post an article I wrote about ordering a meal in a Chinese restaurant that was published in the Oh Canada! column in the October 2002 issue of Canadian Living magazine.

Bon appétit! Or should I say Chin Chin!

* * *

When my father was alive, we celebrated holidays and birthdays with family dinners in Chinatown. Combined with my older brother’s and sister’s families, we would commandeer the largest table at our favourite restaurant.

While we buried our heads in the menus, my father would sit back, cross his arms and seem to stare off into outer space. When the waiter arrived, we would shout out our favourite dishes by their numbers on the menu.

When it was my dad’s turn, he would ask about dishes that weren’t on the menu. The waiter would brief him on the delicate flavouring of duck tongue, fried intestines and stewed tripe. Any mention of bitter melon fermented with black beans would make my father’s mouth water. “But they would never eat it,” he would mourn with a nod in our direction, and sadly order something for us with beef, pork or chicken. After scribbling characters onto his notepad, the waiter would shuffle off to the kitchen. My dad would turn to us with a sigh of dismay, and say, “You don’t know how to eat!”

According to him, the best dishes were not printed on the stain-speckled plastic menus the waiter tossed onto the table; they were written on the white, pink or red sheets of paper that adorn the walls of many restaurants in Chinatown. Black brush strokes list delectable dishes that are unfamiliar to the North American palate. Being Canadian-born, I always felt that ordering a meal off the wall required special skills to crack the secret code – like Indiana Jones reading hieroglyphs. If only I had made it past Grade 1 in Chinese school.

When the waiter returned with part of our order carefully balanced along the length of one arm, my dad would lament the predictability of his Canadian-born children and grandchildren. Cantonese chow mein and lemon chicken were mainstays at our every meal. Oh, we enjoyed traditional dishes, such as Eight Enhancement Soup, chicken boiled in soy sauce and Cantonese lobster, but it was the writing on the wall that separated immigrant from Canadian-born Chinese.

“What is it?” I would ask when an unrecognizable dish found a spot on the crowded lazy Susan in the centre of our table.

“Oh, good stuff,” my dad would say, glowing in anticipation of eating his choice dish. “Nothing you like.”

I would eye it suspiciously and sniff its aroma. I would interrogate my father and the waiter on the ingredients. My dad would grunt his displeasure at my behaviour. Was this really just about the food, or had I missed the cultural boat by ordering from the wrong menu?

My Canadian-born Chinese friends also back away from the wall when we dine together. And if the waiter reads the specials off the wall in Cantonese or whatever is his native dialect that ultimately brings up another embarrassing point: we can’t understand Chinese either.

“Can’t read and can’t speak?” a waiter once exclaimed, echoing our parents’ disappointment. “Lemon chicken!” he sang out in heavily accented English as we slowly sank under the table in embarrassment.

My father passed away several years ago, and, though our families still gather for special dinners, the ones in Chinatown are less frequent. On those rare occasions, it’s my brother who – with the waiter’s help – ventures to order off the wall.

When an unfamiliar dish arrives, I still look at it with suspicion. But you know what? I really like lemon chicken.

Genevieve P.M. Roy and her nail polish art collection

Nail Polish Art: Inspiration in a Small Bottle

There was a gathering at Galerie V-Trimont in Westmount on Friday, October 18th for a unique art collection that might be the first of its kind in Canada or even in the world: paintings done entirely with nail polish.

Festival of Lanterns

Festival of Lanterns

This beautiful art collection was created by Genevieve P.M.Roy, a local Montreal artist of French and Chinese heritage who I  met when I joined a Dragon Boat team a few years ago.  Roy greeted guests who sipped wine and munched on appetizers as they viewed paintings inspired by her passion for music, acting, and singing. The evening was definitely a family affair. Her mother, Quee Ying Wong, helped organize the evening and her father, Michel Roy officially opened the evening with a speech while her aunt, Jennifer Wong, sold raffle tickets at the door.

The paintings began as gifts to friends. It was while she was working on one such painting when she realized her nail polish was just the color she was looking for. She experimented with products from different companies and created works featuring vibrant color and glitter.

The vernissage was also a fund raiser. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the paintings and a souvenir book will be donated to the Shriners Hospital for Children which plans to open a new facility in Montreal in the fall of 2015. 

Roy is also a blogger and cultural reporter for Mountain Lake PBS. Visit her web site at http://genevievepmroy.weebly.com/index.html

 

Chinese lanterns at the Montreal Botanical Gardens

The Magic of Lanterns at the Montreal Botanical Gardens

The annual Magic of Lanterns show is on at the Montreal Botanical Gardens. I finally got a chance to see it on Saturday and the weather was perfect for a night time stroll. The line up to get into the section where the Chinese Garden is located was extremely long, but people were patient and smiling as everyone inched forward.

The annual exhibit has a new theme every year.  Artisans in Shanghai create over 900 lanterns that are designed by a team from the Montreal Botanical Gardens. The results are beautiful. Ancient Chinese figures line the walkway to the main exhibit at the lake which comes alive with lanterns in the form of birds, insects, wild animals, trees and villagers.

It took us a couple of hours to see everything, not because of the size of the garden, but because of the size of the crowd!  The stone pathways around the lake and the terrace surrounding the main pagoda were jam packed. If you’re a shutterbug like me, you may want to bring a tripod. The exhibit runs until November 3rd.

Creativity, Inspiration and Fun at Montreal Comiccon

When I was a kid, one of my favourite comics was Superman. While other kids fantasized about having x-ray vision and being able to fly, I idolized Lois Lane. I mean, I knew I would never, ever have super powers, but I could, maybe someday, be a writer and have adventures like Lois. After all, she covered Superman’s adventures for the newspaper, so she was right there with him as he fought the bad guys, and even saved his life a few times. Lois Lane was undoubtedly a strong influence when it came to my career choices.

So when the annual Comiccon convention hit Montreal this past weekend, I bought a one day pass and went with my friend and copy editor, Virginia Modugno. A must-see for us was the Q&A with the cast of Battlestar Galactica. The lineup to see Edward James Olmos, James Callis, Tahmoh Penikett and Michael Hogan was really long, but they were worth the wait.

There were so many events for gamers and fans of horror and sci-fi: comedy skits, movie premieres, screenings, a video game room, and the Q&A with celebs. We also saw Felicia Day and Christopher Lloyd as eager fans took turns asking questions.

The exhibition hall had tons of memorabilia, collectibles, costumes and comics. What would Comiccon be without tons of comics? Or without the autograph sessions and photo-ops with the celebrities who created such memorable characters? Besides the ones I mentioned above, Gillian Anderson , George Takei and Lou Ferrigno among others were set up at one end of the hall to meet their fans.

And how did they get there? Well, parked at the other end of the exhibition hall was the Ghostbusters station wagon, Dr. Who’s phone booth, the DeLorean from Back to the Future and the hovercraft that a young Luke Skywalker raced in a prequel. There was literally alot of ground to cover at the Palais des congrès, but undoubtedly, the day belonged to the fans. Just seeing the costumes, the creativity and feeling their enthusiasm was worth the price of admission. I don’t know the names of all these characters, so if anyone recognizes any of them, let me know.

Since it was my first time, it was all a bit overwhelming, and when it ended at 7p.m. I was exhausted. It was loads of fun, and maybe I’ll go back next year. Maybe I’ll even shell out the extra bucks for a photo-op with a celebrity.

I didn’t see anyone there dressed up as Lois Lane, but I suppose it could have been me. I was there with my camera, taking it all in as Lois would have, watching the superheros do their thing.

Chinese Tea Salon in Montreal – video presentations on-line

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.

Chinese Tea Salon in Montreal

A couple of weeks ago, I received an e-mail invitation to a Chinese Tea Salon. The invitation explained that the event was “to meet, eat, drink and exchange about diverse projects in the arts, community and academic sectors. This gathering is inspired from tea houses in China (茶館, cháguăn or 茶屋, cháwū ) traditionally similar to the America Café, but centred on tea and to chat, eat and socialize.”

It sounded interesting and it was potluck. I bought mini chocolate chip muffins at the grocery store after work and headed over to the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University where the salon was being held.

The tea salon was inspired by Montreal artist Mary Wong who has been organizing tea houses for visual artists. This evening, which was organized by Janet Lumb and moderated by Alice Ming Wai Jim, an Associate Professor of Contemporary Art at Concordia University, was an opportunity for Montrealers to talk about their projects.

It was a fascinating evening. Each speaker had an interesting angle on their research and artistic project:

  • Olive Li Hui, a visiting professor, teaches a course about Chinese-Canadian women writers at Sichuan University in China;
  • Tracy Zhang explained how acrobatics is used as an instrument of cultural diplomacy in Taiwan and China;
  • Alan Wong spoke of race and sexuality;
  • Cheryl Sim, a media artist, talked about her project exploring the relationship women have with the cheong sam;
  • Parker Mah presented a trailer for his documentary Être Chinois au Québec (Being Chinese in Quebec). You can see a trailer on Youtube or at Être Chinois au Québec.net 
  • Leslie Cheung, a PhD student, talked about youth of color, the second generation and their search for identity;
  • Joanne Hui asked and answered the question “How does art teach?”
  • Henry Tsang, an associate professor at Emily Carr University in Vancouver, B.C., gave an impromptu talk on what it is to be Chinese;
  • And yours truly gave a brief talk about the inspiration behind my writing.

I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the speakers by trying to explain their projects, but a five minute video tape of each presenter, including me, will be available soon on the Asian Canadian Wiki site. I’ll post it when its available. To read more about the presenters and the evening itself, click here.

A Festival of Cultures

 

This past Saturday I went to the annual Festin Culturel held by the City of Brossard to celebrate the diverse nationalities and culture of its citizens. There were food stands representing 16 countries and not a hamburger or hot dog in sight! I ate samosas from India, crepes stuffed with meat and cheese, and honey cake from Russia, and a Colombian dish of fried plantain topped with meat. Delicious!

Considering Montreal had been pounded with either rain or hot, humid weather for most of the summer, the weather was perfect for enjoying the variety of outdoor entertainment and displays by local artists. One of the attractions of the evening was Lorraine Klaasen, a South African singer. The 2013 Juno award winner for World Music Album of the Year won the approval of the crowd with her dynamic performance.