Discrimination barred the Chinese from many jobs. Aside from manual labour and laundry work, the only acceptable jobs were as a houseboy or cook.
Before coming to Canada, it was highly unlikely that any of these men cooked or cleaned. In China, that was women’s work. But in Canada, working a domestic job generally meant that you didn’t work quite as hard, were treated better and had better living conditions than the men who worked as general labourers. Once they got these jobs, the Chinese men would have been trained by their employers how to cook and keep house the ‘Canadian’ way. Many stayed in the service industry, moving on to become cooks for hotels, ranches and hospitals. The more daring used their new skills to build their own restaurant and hotel businesses. Such was the case with Philip Pon, founder of the Lingnan Restaurant in Edmonton. His first job in Canada was as a houseboy for the Rogers family in Vancouver. Mrs. Rogers liked the young Philip so much that she helped him learn English and taught him about wines and spirits. His family recalls that he always had an appreciation for good whiskey.
Many of the early Chinese restaurant owners wouldn’t have known how to cook Chinese food. In China, their mothers, sisters and wives would have done all the cooking. Once they were in Canada, they only learned how to cook Canadian food. Even if they had known how to prepare Chinese food, the unavailability of key ingredients would have made it next to impossible to prepare Chinese meals.
Rice was the only readily available ingredient. Soy sauce was imported, originally from China and later from manufacturers in Vancouver. The only Chinese vegetables that were available were those people grew themselves.
Southern Chinese rarely ate beef, and the seafood with which they were familiar was a rarity on the landlocked prairies.
But forget about Chinese ingredients: it was so difficult to get fresh food on the prairies that tinned food was a staple on many menus. Take a look at the menu from the New Dayton Café and note how many tinned items it includes.
Fresh food would have been featured on a typed ‘Specials’ menu, such as the one from the Club Lunch
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Bean sprouts form the basis of chop suey. In China a leafy green such as bok choy would have been the base but in North America, bean sprouts are the one Chinese vegetable that could be easily and quickly grown. Then celery and carrots, both also readily available, were thrown in for texture and colour. Finally slivers of meat were added, initially chicken or pork, but a really fancy chop suey could include shrimp. The components of chop suey could all be easily and cheaply obtained but the cooking of these ingredients in a stir fry with soy sauce made the dish exotic.
The Star of the Show
Feel free to peruse this selection of fine dishes prepared just for you.
Copyright 2014 Royal Alberta Museum