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Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada

by Lily Cho

Turning a Ph.D. thesis into a general interest book has its challenges. If a dissertation is written for a group of examiners, particularly in an area as abstract as cultural studies, what appears on the page is really a joust with theorists in the field. Casual readers are left out in the cold.

And so it goes with Lily Cho’s Eating Chinese. She begins with the premise that the typical Canadian-Chinese restaurant, still a fixture in much of the country, is not an endangered entity like, say, the iconic prairie grain elevator. But her real intent is broadening the discussion of the theories that dominate diaspora studies. Cho aims to interpret the significance of the biculturalism that emerges in quasi-public spaces, where a cultural mainstream is fed by outsiders whose status as citizens was once precarious thanks to government regulations like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923.

To do this, Cho refers to the work of Jürgen Habermas, the Subaltern Studies Group, and other theorists, while grounding her discussion in specifics: a range of menus from Alberta Chinese restaurants, songs by Joni Mitchell and Sylvia Tyson set in Chinese restaurants, and a contemporary art installation that mimics the experience of being in a Chinese restaurant.

Although Cho, an assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario, claims her interest is in older Chinese communities rather than newer, more prosperous, urban immigrants, her emphasis on theory and her evident disdain for “historicism” means much of the history of early Chinese migrants is left unexplained. Occasionally, she provides a juicy tidbit: for example, in 1931, one out of every three male cooks in Canada was Chinese. Or she includes an interesting anecdote, like the story of an early 20th-­century lumber camp cook who was said to be a woman disguised as a man. 

But since ethnography is not Cho’s mission (she chooses poet Fred Wah’s nostalgic take on identity and food as an example over the work of novelist Judy Fong Bates, because her fiction uses the restaurant as a mere backdrop for “human drama”), Eating Chinese leaves us hungry for more.