Many if not most Alberta towns and cities have or had Chinese Restaurants. Please use the map to locate one in your area.
History of Restaurants in Alberta
The earliest evidence we have of a Chinese restaurant is an archival photograph from 1895. But there is anecdotal evidence of men selling food as early as the late 1880s.
In the early years, urban and rural restaurants followed parallel paths of development. They all served Western food: their customers were not Chinese but ‘white’ people who made up the majority of the population. Rural restaurants were known as cafés and were often given generic names. The most popular appears to have been Club Café.
For generations, Chinese people on the prairies went into the restaurant business because they saw little opportunity elsewhere. The situation began to change in the 1970s. Now, families who had been in the restaurant business for two to four generations could see a different future and they actively discouraged their children from taking over the family business.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s a new wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in Alberta. Like others before them, they saw the rural Chinese restaurant as a way to build their fortunes. Taking over these businesses, they continued to offer the standard menu items. But they also introduced the Chinese dishes that they knew how to make. For the first time, Chinese food became a regular feature on the menu in rural Chinese restaurants.
The new immigrants also opened Chinese restaurants in the city. But instead of making Chinese-Canadian food, they introduced the ‘authentic’ food of their homeland. It took a while for urban dwellers to accept this new form of Chinese food, but eventually a divide opened up between those who preferred the chop suey cuisine of their childhood and those who insisted on ‘real’ Chinese food.
The urban Chinese operated two types of eating establishments–cafés that were indistinguishable from their rural counterparts, and restaurants that traded on their exoticism.
Restaurants serving Chinese food first made their mark in Alberta in the late 1930s. Offering chop suey cuisine, they were designed to create the allure of the Orient. Lanterns and fans adorned the walls and ceilings. Decorated storefronts shouted out to passers-by, “this is the place to come if you want to indulge in something different..
The urban Chinese restaurant experienced a rise in popularity in the 1950s. In the 1960s, it reached the height of extravagance. Interiors were intricately decorated and themed, and many of the better restaurants offered cocktail lounges, live music and dance floors.
People dressed up for dinner and expected their surroundings to be similarly stylish.
Edmonton’s Lingnan Restaurant is a perfectly preserved example of a restaurant from this era. With its waiters and bus boys in Chinese silk tops, heated plate warmers,
cocktail bar and lavish interior, the Lingnan reminds us of a time when eating out was truly a luxury.
Most of these palaces of exoticism and fine dining had disappeared by the 1980s, replaced by restaurants with less ambiance,
bigger dining rooms and more traditional Chinese food. Dim sum appeared on menus, introduced by new immigrants from Hong Kong,
and fewer fine dining restaurants offered menus featuring a choice between steak and chow mein.
The Customer Base
Chop suey was sold in cities as early as the 1930s, but it was rare to find any type of Chinese food in small towns before the 1960s. Chinese food only became common on small town menus in the 1980s. Even then, it was placed side-by-side with Canadian foods such as sandwiches, cutlets and raisin pie.
The reality was and is that the Chinese restaurant is a business. You sell what your customers want. In many small towns, the majority of the customers were travellers, salesmen, drivers, and railway staff–who wanted their food fast, familiar and cheap.
The locals would come to the restaurant when they came to town to go to Church,
do business at the bank or post office or drop off their harvests. Eating at the restaurant was a treat because it offered a chance to socialize with their neighbours. Coffee and baking were always available and, for a special treat, ice cream or soda for the kids.
The Chinese restaurant always opened early to serve breakfast. Sometimes it stayed open late for a different crowd. The Philips brothers of Milo recall that their local Chinese restaurant stayed open late on Saturdays because that was the day when the farmers came into town to do business. Afterwards, many spent most of the evening drinking in the local bar. The restaurant stayed open to serve those who wanted a coffee or something to eat before going home.
The Chinese restaurant has taken on an iconic identity in rural Alberta.
Statements such as “there’s one in every town” and references to the “inevitable” Chinese restaurant demonstrate the prevalence of these businesses.
Many communities have had Chinese restaurants from their very beginning.
A local history of Daysland notes that there were Chinese businessmen from “the first year that the town was developed.” In Acme, the Chinese restaurant was one of the first places to eat and in Rockyford, as lumber was being unloaded for the town, a Chinese man sat on a pile of wood waiting to build his restaurant.
Yet the Chinese who operated these rural restaurants weren’t intending to create an iconic institution. They built their businesses out of economic necessity. Opening a restaurant offered a chance of financial success, but it didn’t come without cost.
In addition to the hardships confronting all rural Albertans, Chinese restaurant owners faced cultural isolation, long hours of work for little return and faced racial prejudice that sometimes turned into physical violence.
Under these circumstances, turnover was high. Many failed. But just as many succeeded, eventually selling their businesses to move on to bigger towns, more hard work and greater opportunities for profit. The result is an iconic institution that has transcended its cultural origin. In the past, a restaurant was “Chinese” not because of its food but because of who owned it and who worked there. Now, as long as it was once owned by someone Chinese, the restaurant is “Chinese” even if the current owners are not.
We All Went There
The rural Chinese restaurant is a community gathering place. It is the place to take in local information and catch up on the latest gossip. While the rural community may have several gathering places, it is generally only at the Chinese restaurant where anyone and everyone from the community can meet.
The rural Chinese restaurant is a socially and culturally neutral space. There are no restrictions on age, ethnic background or gender, and no limits on the amount of time people can linger. Throughout its history, it has been one of the few places where children could hang out without adult supervision, where First Nations people were treated the same as any other customer, and where immigrants from all countries could interact with each other without obvious prejudice.
This neutrality was unique to the rural Chinese restaurant. Chinese restaurant owners couldn’t afford to discriminate.
They needed to blend in with the local community and even ingratiate themselves in order to survive.
Life Outside The Restaurant
Chinese restaurant owners worked long hours. The café opened early and stayed open late into the night. Thus the opportunity for a life outside the restaurant was rare. However, faced with cultural isolation and the need to fit in, many rural Chinese found ways to participate in outside community life.
The most common activity outside the restaurant was sport. Curling, golf and hunting were particularly popular. Wong Pond of Olds was an enthusiastic curler who supplied a set of curling rocks and the Wong Pond Curling Trophy for the town’s annual bonspiel. Joe Mah in Elk Point and Lee Hon of Acme provided transportation for local sports teams. Hip Sing of Nobleford was known for his hunting dog and for the banquets that he served after a successful hunt. Philip Pon of Hughenden (and, later, Wainwright) was an avid hunter and golfer.
Many restaurant owners were active in civic organizations such as the local Lions Club and Chambers of Commerce. They also contributed to political life. Henry Poon, proprietor of the Club Café in Stettler, was the first Chinese to hold a seat on a town council in Canada. Calgary restaurateur George Ho Lem became a city alderman and MLA.
The Restaurant as Social Support
From the front of house, the Chinese restaurant was simply a place where food could be purchased. But for the Chinese, the restaurant was more than just a workplace. While rural restaurants were operated by families, urban restaurants relied on a continual influx of new immigrants to work in the dining rooms and kitchens. In cities, the restaurant became an information centre for new immigrants. It not only provided many people with their first jobs, it was the place where they could gather information about Canada and how to live here.
Unlike other jobs, working in a Chinese restaurant meant that you could work in your own language. Restaurant owners would often help their workers find a place to live, teach them English, assist with immigration and tell them about Canadian culture. There are stories of restaurant owners teaching employees how to drive, translating documents and representing them at meetings with government officials. Working at the restaurant also meant that you were learning the business. Many kitchen workers and waiters went on to open their own establishments.
Copyright 2014 Royal Alberta Museum