Author Ann Hui standing on beach beside cover of her book chop suey nation

Portrait Photography By Amanda Palmer

Why “authenticity” is not the way to judge a restaurant

We asked author Ann Hui how writing Chop Suey Nation changed her perspective on food, family and being Canadian

In 2016, journalist Ann Hui and her husband drove across Canada—from Victoria, B.C., to Fogo Island, Nfld.—in just 18 days. Hui’s mission was to learn about the Chinese “chop suey” restaurants that seem to exist in every small town: How did they get there? Who runs them? And what can they tell us about the experience of Canada’s Chinese immigrants?

Restaurant owners from coast to coast told Hui their stories of starting new lives in Canada, a few of which she shared in a two-part article in The Globe and Mail. A few months later, Hui discovered that her parents had run a small-town Chinese restaurant and chop suey was an important part of her life story, too.

Hui’s new book, Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Cafe and Other Stories from Canada’s Chinese Restaurants (Douglas & McIntyre), is a delicious buffet of culinary history and gripping family memoir. We sat down with Hui to find out what surprised her most on her cross-country quest.

Jaclyn Law: Like you, I grew up hearing that chop suey wasn’t “real” Chinese food. What made you want to dig deeper and explore the cuisine’s history?
Ann Hui: I grew up in Vancouver, spoiled with access to some of the best Chinese food in the world. Like my parents, I was obsessed with finding the best roast duck place, or the best xiao long bao. Whenever we came across this other kind of Chinese food, it was almost exotic to me and I wanted to understand it.

JL: What exactly is chop suey cuisine?
AH: “Chop suey cuisine” is a term I use to describe this whole repertoire of dishes that are sold as Chinese even though they don’t actually originate from China. Dishes like lemon chicken, or chop suey, or chicken balls—all of which you’d have a hard time finding in China but are ubiquitous in North America.

JL: And what is the dish chop suey itself?
AH: Chop suey in Cantonese is tsap seui, which basically means “mix of stuff.” It originated from Chinese immigrants who came to North America in the late 19th century. Most of them weren’t trained chefs—they just wound up working in restaurants. They had limited access to Chinese ingredients, so they worked with what they had, kind of making up dishes that they thought would appeal to local palates. The only standard ingredient is bean sprouts, because they can grow anywhere. Otherwise, it’s basically whatever you happen to have on hand.

JL: How did the cuisine catch on and become a cultural phenomenon?
AH: These restaurants spread in the same pattern as Chinese immigration. In some cases, it was a result of the railroads—you’ll still see restaurants clustered near old railway stations. The restaurants also spread through family networks. One family would start a restaurant in, say, a town outside Edmonton, and they’d train their sons, nephews or friends from China. As the cooks developed and saved up money, they’d want to start their own restaurant, so they might go to the next town over.

Chop suey is a display of perseverance. It’s a display of ingenuity, of entrepreneurialism.

JL: Instead of dismissing chop suey, you argue that it may be the most Chinese dish of all.
AH: Growing up, it was common to denigrate this kind of food and see it as “fake Chinese” or somehow lesser than the—I hate the word “authentic,” but I’m just gonna say “authentic”—stuff we were used to. I was definitely guilty of that for a long time. But then I learned the history of the cuisine and the fact that it was created by Chinese men who faced a long list of barriers, including systemic racism and economic discrimination, and who created this food out of nothing. Chop suey is a display of perseverance. It’s a display of ingenuity, of entrepreneurialism. These values are very Canadian, but also very Chinese.

JL: “Authenticity” has become a fraught concept in the food world. Why is it problematic?
AH: The idea that any one dish or cuisine can be “authentic” assumes that there’s only one agreed-upon way of preparing it, even in its place of origin. “Authenticity” also tends to ignore the fact that food cultures are constantly evolving. Many of our everyday favourite dishes—California rolls, or laksa, or butter chicken, or Japanese wafu pasta—are the products of migration, and of cultures blending together. Just because they don’t originate from one single culture doesn’t make them any less delicious.

JL: It’s fascinating to read about the regional dishes you encountered, such as the Bon Bon ribs in Thunder Bay and the chow mein in Newfoundland made with cabbage strips instead of noodles.
AH: Yes! What I learned from this trip and from being exposed to all of these region-specific dishes is that there’s very much a unique Canadian story everywhere you go.

JL: What surprised you most as you made your way across the country?
AH: I thought I’d find that these restaurants are disappearing. But instead there are many families where it’s the second, third, sometimes fourth generation that are now taking over the restaurants. Many of them are running the restaurants exactly as their elders did, as a kind of tribute. I thought that was very cool. And still, today, many newcomers from China want to take over these restaurants from families who are selling.

Author Ann Hui in white and black striped shirt standing on beach

JL: A thread that came up repeatedly in the restaurant owners’ stories is that you need to do whatever it takes to support your family. What impact did that have on you?
AH: The trip was deeply moving, especially meeting the families and hearing about the sacrifices that some of them have made for the next generation. In other cases, children are running these restaurants to support their parents or grandparents. As a child of immigrants myself—parents who I’ve watched work hard to support myself and my sisters in order to give us what they see as a better life—this trip really reinforced that in my own life and helped me see it more clearly.

JL: Was there one story in particular that moved you the most?
AH: The story of the Huang family. Not long after moving from China to Newfoundland, Mr. and Mrs. Huang made the decision to split up the family—Mrs. Huang and their three kids living on Fogo Island, while Mr. Huang lived in Twillingate—so they could earn income from two restaurants. The couple lived separately for many years, rarely seeing one another, so that they could provide what they felt was a better lifestyle for their children.

JL: After your trip, you learned that your parents had run a chop suey–type restaurant in Abbotsford, B.C., before you were born.
AH: Yes. I’d just done this 9,000-kilometre road trip to learn about Chinese restaurants, not knowing that same story had played out in my own life. It made me realize just how little I knew about my own family story.

A lot of Canadians whose families have been here for a long time have a family story or history that is very clear-cut and fits nicely onto a family tree. I always envied that, and I didn’t realize that part of it is because, for those of us who are the children of newer immigrants, our stories are usually much less clear. We often have gaps. We have stories that we don’t quite know or that have gone untold.

Working on this story helped me understand our history, and it gave me a sense of identity and place that I don’t think I realized was missing. It took learning this story and how my own family fits within that Canadian history to realize, yes, these stories have value and deserve to be told. But, beyond that, they’re stories that are essential within our country’s history. They tell an important part of who we are as Canadians, who we were, and who we hope to be in the future.

JL: Do you have a favourite chop suey dish?
AH: I have a soft spot for spring rolls, especially when they’re hot out of the fryer. Even though they technically do originate from China, they’ve become a chop suey staple. If they’re handmade and not from frozen, you can taste the spices, cabbage, veggies or whatever else is in there. I ate them every single day on the trip and wasn’t tired of them by the end.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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