In 2016, Globe and Mail reporter Ann Hui drove across Canada, from Victoria to Fogo Island, to write about small-town Chinese restaurants and the families who run them. It was only after the story was published that she discovered her own family could have been included—her parents had run their own Chinese restaurant, The Legion Cafe, before she was born. This discovery, and the realization that there was so much of her own history she didn’t yet know, set her on a time-sensitive mission: to understand how, after generations living in a poverty-stricken area of Guangdong, China, her family had somehow wound up in Canada.
Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Cafe and Other Stories from Canada’s Chinese Restaurantsweaves together Hui’s own family history—from her grandfather’s decision to leave behind a wife and newborn son for a new life, to her father’s path from cooking in rural China to running some of the largest “Western” kitchens in Vancouver, to the unravelling of a closely guarded family secret—with the stories of dozens of Chinese restaurant owners from coast to coast. Along her trip, she meets a Chinese-restaurant owner/small-town mayor, the owner of a Chinese restaurant in a Thunder Bay curling rink, and the woman who runs a restaurant alone, 365 days a year, on the very remote Fogo Island. Hui also explores the fascinating history behind “chop suey” cuisine, detailing the invention of classics like “ginger beef” and “Newfoundland chow mein,” and other uniquely Canadian fare like the “Chinese pierogies” of Alberta.
Hui, who grew up in authenticity-obsessed Vancouver, begins her journey with a somewhat disparaging view of small-town “fake Chinese” food. But by the end, she comes to appreciate the essentially Chinese values that drive these restaurants—perseverance, entrepreneurialism and deep love for family. Using her own family’s story as a touchstone, she explores the importance of these restaurants in the country’s history and makes the case for why chop suey cuisine should be recognized as quintessentially Canadian.
“This engaging tour of small-town Asian restaurants derives emotional heft from descriptions of the heroic struggles of immigrants—including, as the author discovers as an adult, her own parents—dishing up Canadian-friendly “Chinese” dishes...Her probe yields another important story illustrating how discriminatory policies devastated so many Chinese families.”
“With grace and extraordinary insight, Ann Hui weaves her own family’s history with the personal stories behind small-town Canada’s chop suey houses. You can’t help but feel as you’re reading that within these pages lies the history of an entire nation. A surprising, occasionally heartbreaking, and ultimately gorgeous read.”
“...Ultimately, read Chop Suey Nation not only for its window into this familiar cuisine, but also because reading it means understanding that these small, family-run restaurants are an integral part of Chinese immigration in this country. That these families, Hui’s included, survived and established a sense of community amidst racial tensions and cultural discomfort. That these small town and rural restaurants are at the heart of Canada’s relationship to itself, to its identity.”
“ ...an entertaining look at how Chinese food evolved to become quintessentially Canadian... The author packs her pages full (in Chinese, “bao”) of interesting information charmingly related...The straightforwardness of the writing is praiseworthy... much to enjoy in Hui’s narrative.”
“...makes for great reading while you’re motoring through Canada.” - “14 Best Books to Read in Summer 2019”
“Chop Suey Nation is a peek into the universal experience of immigrants making a life through food. ‘Why,’ asks journalist Ann Hui, ‘are there Chinese restaurants in small towns across Canada?’ An intriguing journey for answers becomes interspersed with a moving memoir of her father’s life. Now I crave chop suey.”
“Chop Suey Nation is an absorbing, eye-opening read for anyone...”
“Part memoir, part history and part road trip, Ann Hui’s Chop Suey Nation is easy to love. The story weaves through families and countries, exploring culture and cuisine through restaurants across Canada—and in her own home. Guaranteed to charm you and make you hungry.”
“Hui is a storyteller at heart and a very good one at that.”