Growing up in Canada, I was often asked if I ate chop suey, General Tao’s chicken, sweet and sour ____, crab rangoon, or the most egregious of them all -- chicken balls. I had only seen these foods exist in a Manchu Wok at the local suburban mall, and was baffled at the long lines of people waiting to satiate their craving for chicken balls.
“This is not Chinese food. This is blasphemy,” I thought. “This is just some shit coated with extra hoisin sauce and sugar that they made for white people to eat.”
While it may have been a stretch for my younger self to call it blasphemy, I wasn’t exactly wrong about the origins of the food itself. Most of the dishes considered to be “Chinese cuisine” in North America are largely unheard of in China or had drastically morphed from their original counterparts. The fact that cuisines and foodways change should not be surprising; much of it is a product of migration, colonization, war, trade, and contact with other cultures and peoples.
For example, the Korean hot pepper paste (gochujang), which is central to Korean cuisine today, was believed to be a product of 16th century global trade with Japan, China, Europe, and the Ryukyu islands, which introduced red chili peppers and fermented soy paste to the peninsula. Can you imagine Korean food without red peppers today?
If changes in cuisine were constant and inevitable, I wondered why Chinese food in North America was so different from the food eaten in China, and perhaps more interestingly, why some of us (including me) are so quick to dismiss it as not “authentic” Chinese food.
To trace how Chinese food spread across the Pacific to Canada is also to understand the story of how Canada was born. The earliest “Chinese food” eateries that popped up in Canada were started by Chinese labour contractors sent to work on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), stretching from Montreal to Vancouver and connecting British Columbia with Eastern Canada. A similar process was also happening south of the border -- Chinese workers were travelling to America as labourers for the transcontinental railroad and as miners during the Gold Rush.
Many of these early labourers came from the Canton (present-day Guangdong) region of China, working under unsafe conditions for a fraction of their non-Asian counterparts. Even though industries were eager to hire Chinese labourers, the ordinary white public was not receptive of this “yellow peril”, fearing“mass immigration” and “cheap Chinese labour”. When the railroad was completed, many of these Chinese workers were left without work and were deemed expendable by the CPR and the Canadian government.
Various immigrant groups to Canada – such as the Japanese, Ukrainians, and Germans – faced different forms of institutionalized racism. However, for the Chinese, this took shape in the form of a punitive “head tax” that was instituted to limit Chinese immigration to Canada. This, coupled with restrictive legislation barring Chinese from many professions, made life extremely difficult for Chinese immigrants in Canada.
Therefore, food – whether through opening restaurants or cooking in hotels – became the main avenue through which Chinese Canadians could earn money and connect with Canadian society. Many of the workers who stayed after the completion of the railway either opened small, inexpensive eateries or worked as cooks in hotels, camps, or the homes of upper-class (read: rich, white) families – despite the fact very little, if any of the workers were trained chefs.
Even though racist attitudes towards the Chinese still existed, the eating of Chinese food spread across Canada in the form of small restaurants. They became so ubiquitous in Canada that every small town would have at least one thriving restaurant selling Chinese food. Adapting traditional Cantonese recipes to Western tastes and local ingredients, Chinese food in North America gradually became something of a hybrid – mixing dishes from different regions in China, making it difficult to be categorized just as “Canadian” or “Chinese”. Even large, upscale Chinese restaurants with a large Chinese clientele would serve popular Chinese dishes created in North America, in addition to more traditional cuisine.
However, with the recent wave of immigration from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China, Chinese food in North America grew more diverse. My parents, who immigrated to Toronto during the 1990s from Taiwan, did not eat Canadian Chinese food but instead frequented restaurants offering varied regional cuisines that catered primarily to other recent immigrants.
With this disconnect between older and newer generations of immigrants, debates of “authenticity” erupted again over which was the “real” Chinese food. In Toronto, the once-famous restaurants on Dundas Street closed in the late 1990s as the ethnic Chinese population moved towards the newer suburb areas such as Richmond Hill and Markham. Chinese Canadian cuisine slowly faded in popularity in much of the metropolitan areas, as diners opted for more “authentic” Chinese cuisine.
What I always wondered was why there was such a futile search for “real” Chinese food, while something like pizza, another ubiquitous North American dish with many regional variations brought in by immigrants, could exist without attacks on its supposed (lack of) authenticity. Sure, it was nothing like the pizza people ate in Italy, but it tastes damn good. Eventually, after a long night out, I got over my preconceived notions of what Chinese food was and fell in love with deep fried chicken slathered in a mystery sweet and sour sauce. It didn’t matter anymore that it wasn’t “real” Chinese food – just that it satisfied my taste buds.
More importantly, dishes such as chop suey, sweet and sour chicken, and chicken balls paved the road for acceptance of Asians in Canada, while creating a cultural space in which immigrants could thrive. Without these earlier forerunners, Chinese food would not be as accepted in North American society. As Eddie Huang – American son of Taiwanese immigrant parents and proprietor of BaoHaus, a small Manhattan eatery selling creative versions of the Taiwanese gua bao – elucidates well:
Writing: David Wang
Illustration: Kevin Lee