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 The Chinese Immigration Act was repealed by parliament and the men who had lived in Canada for decades were finally allowed to become Canadian citizens and bring their wives and children to Canada.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.
Now that spring has arrived, restaurants and bars are expanding their dining rooms. As a result, terrasses are blooming on Montreal’s sidewalks and streets. Al fresco, anyone?
For the past few weeks, the St. Hubert restaurant chain has been running a commercial where the owner of a Chinese restaurant discovers St. Hubert has a $7.95 meal deal. Both of the actors are Chinese and speak in Cantonese with either English or French subtitles. The complaint is that the commercial is demeaning and offensive. It has drawn criticism and comments on its Facebook and Twitter accounts, and sparked a national dialogue on the stereotyping of Chinese-Canadians.
Do I think the St. Hubert commercial is stereotyping Chinese people? Yes, but not in a negative way. Is it demeaning? I don’t think so.
Television has not done a good job of depicting Chinese people. I watched the TV series Bonanza when I was growing up and found the character of the Chinese cook, Hopsing, kind of…confusing. My father and none of the Chinese men I knew had a long braid or behaved in a subservient way. Then there was the practice of casting Caucasian actors in Chinese roles, such as Charlie Chan who was played by three Caucasian actors and the TV series Kung Fu where David Carradine was chosen over Bruce Lee to play the lead role. There are a handful of Asians on prime time shows now, but basically unless there is a scene that takes place in Chinatown, it’s rare to see a Chinese person on TV.
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?
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.
A Food Truck Extravaganza
One of the best things that happened to Montreal this summer was the food trucks. I didn’t mind lining up for a half hour on a sunny day in the park to place my order. The food was always fresh and a delicious change from the usual fare at the food court. So when my copy editor, Virginia Modugno, mentioned that the food trucks congregate at the Olympic Stadium on the evening of the first Friday of every month, I had to go. It would be a chance to try out some trucks that I hadn’t yet visited.
It turned out that yesterday would be the last First Friday for the year. We got there around 5 p.m. Twenty-six trucks were already parked and serving early birds like us. We took our time to walk around and study the menus. Poutine with shitake and portobello mushrooms. Pulled pork sandwiches. Filet mignon sandwich made with artisan bread, cream cheese, onions, caramelized pepper, jalapeño and honey mustard. Braised duck wrap with green apples, Swiss cheese, mixed lettuce and Japanese vinaigrette. Lobster roll. Perogies with sour cream and blue cheese. Crab cake with Thousand Island dressing. Smoked meat sausage sandwich. Mac ‘n cheese tuna pie. Turnover style tourtière. Zucchini fries. Meatball taco, and much, much more.
While Virginia decided on a pulled pork sandwich, I decided to start with dessert. The chalkboard menu at Au pied de cochon listed an apple and Chantilly cream filled doughnut for $4. This was not going to be an evening to count calories. I have no regrets. 🙂
Dessert was followed by a lobster roll for $10 from Lucille’s. Sorry, but I wolfed it down before I realized that I hadn’t taken a photo of it. The most interesting bite I had that evening was a pork belly lollipop soaked in maple syrup for $2 from Zoe’s. It sounds weird, but so good! Virginia decided on a Sloppy Mac which is a mac ‘n cheese with ground beef, chilli and bacon bits in a roll.
And hey, then it was time for dessert again! Deep fried cheesecake. Butternut pie. Peanut butter pie. Lots of stuff with maple syrup. I decided on the deep fried apple pie with caramel sauce and roasted pumpkin seeds for $6. I washed it all down with a Chai latte for $3 from a truck serving Indian cuisine.
As the sun set, the plaza became crowded and the line-ups at the trucks longer. Reggae music took the chill out of the air. The family picnic atmosphere was enhanced by jugglers and clowns on stilts. Montreal has a lot of great festivals during the summer and I think First Friday is going to be one of my favourites.
Every day on my way to work, I pass by a Hong Kong style pastry shop called Patisserie Cocobun in Atwater metro. It sells a wide variety of freshly baked Chinese buns which include buns filled with either coconut, mango, red bean, custard or if you prefer, no filling at all. I love the bread which is either soft and sweet or lightly crusted. Either way, they’re delicious! I bought one out of curiosity and now I’m hooked.
The hot buns are filled with either BBQ pork, curry beef, hot dogs or other combinations with ham and are the size of a sandwich. Since the buns cost less than $2 each, it costs me an average of $4 for lunch. Cocobun also sells bubble tea and other Hong Kong style cakes and cookies.
When I was a kid, my parents owned a Chinese-Canadian restaurant called Lee’s Garden. It was located on Park Avenue near Laurier Avenue in Montreal. I started working there on weekends when I was in elementary school, helping my mother make egg rolls or bagging take-out orders. By the time I was in high school, it became a full-time summer job. I answered the phone and handled the cash register. The restaurant was like a second home. The waiters and cooks became extended family and regular customers became old friends.
Then one day my parents told me something that shocked me to the core. Nothing on the menu was real Chinese food, they said. The butterfly shrimps, chicken chow mein, pineapple chicken, and everything else was invented for the ghosts, the red-haired devils. The news hit me like a lightning bolt. How could that be? Chicken Soo Guy, won ton soup and egg rolls were my comfort food! They were fake?! If the food was fake, then what did I know about being Chinese?
The restaurant’s most popular dish and one of my favourites (and still is) was Dry Garlic Spare Ribs. The tender, melt off the bone ribs with the sweet, sticky sauce was on almost every order. The recipe is one of the few things I have left of the restaurant and I’ve decided to share it with those who made the restaurant a welcoming place, a place where Sunday dinners became a part of their family traditions, where special occasions were celebrated and where the regulars dropped by for a cup of coffee, a piece of pie and friendly banter. You. The public.
Lee’s Garden closed in the early 1970s, but it remains forever in my heart. If you or anyone you know frequented the restaurant, please write a comment. I’d love to hear your story.
Lee’s Garden Dry Garlic Spare Ribs
(A Chinese-Canadian classic)
3 lbs. pork spare ribs
3 cloves of finely chopped garlic
1 1/2 tsp. soy sauce
1 to 2 quarts boiling water
1 tsp. salt
3/4 cup white sugar
- Wash and cut the ribs into bite size pieces. Trim excess fat.
- Heat a large frying pan or wok on medium high heat. DO NOT ADD ANY oil, butter or margarine as this will produce an oily film on the ribs.
- Stir fry ribs until they are an even light brown color. Keep stirring to prevent the meat from sticking to the pan. Drain the juice from the pan.
- Add garlic and continue to stir fry for five minutes.
- Sprinkle the soy sauce over the ribs and continue stir frying on medium for about 3 to 4 minutes.
- Pour boiling water into the pan until the water just covers the ribs.
- Sprinkle the salt over the ribs and stir. Cover and boil on medium high for 10 minutes.
- Add sugar, distributing it evenly over the ribs. Cover and boil on medium for 20 minutes.
- The ribs should be very tender. If not, continue to boil for a few more minutes.
- The sauce should be thick and brown. If it is still too watery, leave the cover off, allowing some of the water to evaporate. If the sauce is too thick, add a bit of boiling water.