Chop Suey Nation, by Globe and Mail food writer Ann Hui, is an entertaining look at how Chinese food evolved to become quintessentially Canadian. Hui tells her “sweet and sour story” via a cross-country road trip, sprinkling in memories of her parents’ experiences in the food industry. Apart from cuisine, the book occasionally touches on topics such as Vancouver’s housing crisis and the “fu er dai,” a pejorative term referring to nouveau riche Chinese kids. Hui also refers to Canada’s historical treatment of Chinese immigrants: “Locals weren’t interested in having these men around, so the Chinese set up their own shantytown – crude huts and temporary shacks … [and] Chinatown was born.”
The author packs her pages full (in Chinese, “bao”) of interesting information charmingly related. Accounts of the author’s father visiting Hong Kong, for instance, capture the flavour of the city: “Everywhere he turned, there were crowds. As he made his way down the street, cars and taxis and buses sped by, blowing hot diesel toward him. He felt dizzy.” The straightforwardness of the writing is praiseworthy.
Chop Suey Nation does little to counter the tradition (so to speak) of ghettoizing Chinese-Canadian writing, which is currently crowded with biographies about distant relatives, memoirs focusing on food and other cultural staples, genre fiction set safely in the distant past, books about the “head tax,” and horror stories about Communism. Readers looking for something outside this rather narrow field of vision might be disappointed; those not put off by this approach will find much to enjoy in Hui’s narrative.
Written in a similar vein, Being Chinese in Canada, by Montreal-based activist William Ging Wee Dere, is a meticulously crafted personal account of the author’s experience with state-legislated discrimination against the Chinese-Canadian community. Dere details the personal and social effects of the head tax and the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act, as well as rampant racism in Quebec. He also recounts the activism that led to former prime minister Stephen Harper’s formal apology for the imposition of the head tax.
Though not an academic work, Dere’s book is nevertheless a dense read that will likely prove useful for high school and even college-level study. Students of Canadian history – especially Asian-Canadian history – will find this a welcome addition to an underexposed aspect of the Canadian story, especially with regard to the ways in which the Chinese-Canadian community shaped its relationship with Canada into what it is today.
General readers are more likely to be curious about Dere’s own family history, which he pieces together painstakingly. “I could not find any of my grandfather’s papers. … [A]fter months of searching, I finally found the entry in the General Register of Chinese Immigration that contained details about my grandfather.” Dere proceeds to replicate the actual entry in its entirety, column by column. The whole book is like this, bursting with historical information. Dere’s grandfather and father worked for three decades at Buanderie Wing On, a laundry they started before the Depression in the working-class east end of Montreal. Dere even provides the address: 4484 Parthenais, “near the corner of Mont-Royal.” All of which is either boring or fascinating, depending on one’s persepective.
More important is Dere’s social activism, which follows in the footsteps of labour activists engaged in the struggle for decolonization throughout the world: Dere takes inspiration from people like the prolific revolutionary writer José Marti. Throughout his youth, Dere joined radical groups with connections to international movements and was even swept away by excitement during the era of Mao’s China. “The name Cultural Revolution itself invoked extraordinary earth-shaking transformations taking place. … Red China became my model.”
This kind of sentiment can be found elsewhere in the book. For example, Dere writes about an encounter in Yunnan in 2015, when it was revealed to him “that the Tibetan people in that rural part of China had great respect for Mao and the CCP. I was surprised to see the hammer and sickle flying in front of many households along with the Tibetan prayer banners. Nowhere else in China did I see this kind of open affection for the CCP and Mao.” Dere presents what could politely be called an uncommon perspective, even granted that his admiration contains a degree of naiveté.
Dere connects past and present effectively. In discussing the Chinese exclusion legislation, he quotes former Liberal MP James Sinclair, the grandfather of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was in office during and just after the Second World War: “We have never separated the Chinese question from the Japanese problem for the same reason that we have found during our experience that they cannot be assimilated or blended into the national life as other groups – Caucasian groups – have been in the past.” The Sinclair quote can be found in various forms easily enough in comments online today, penned by supporters of nationalist projects the world over, ever fearful of “outsiders” – whoever they may be. In different ways, Hui’s and Dere’s books help counter such claims.