Burnaby in a Chop Suey Nation

The city plays a role in Ann Hui's book about small-town Chinese restaurants

Chop Suey Nation is by Ann Hui, a staff reporter with The Globe and Mail.

As a child, I had a favourite Chinese spot where I would go to eat: Double One Restaurant in North Burnaby. And for those of us who have at any point in time lived in North Burnaby, we’re all probably familiar with this restaurant along Hastings St., between Gilmore and MacDonald avenues.

I grew up among a group of fellow half-Filipino kids, and because there weren’t any Filipino places to eat, Chinese restaurants were the next best thing. Anytime Filipino friends came over, we’d walk over to Double One to share a meal.

I admittedly haven’t been in there for a while (I now live in New West) but it’s a restaurant I want to take my husband to sooner rather than later; the fear of it disappearing eats at me little by little every day.

My god sister Christine and I seated at one of the big tables at Double One in North Burnaby.

It’s the same kind of fear that was realized when other Chinese-Canadian restaurants would change hands or be completely wiped from city streets: I wasn’t around for this, but the Dragon Inn is a perfect example of a departure due to development.

The ever-changing landscape and the disappearance of nostalgic places to eat at encompassed the mindset I went in with reading Chop Suey Nation by Globe and Mail reporter Ann Hui. While Hui currently lives in Toronto, I was taken aback to see a description of what sounded like Franklin Elementary School (I know, it’s in Vancouver, but it’s a stone’s throw away from Boundary Road!) in the opening lines of her book.

For the uninitiated, the book is a little bit of history, a little bit of memoir as it delves into Canada’s Chinese cuisine. Hui toggles beautifully between the life and times of her family—who seemingly live in Burnaby in the present day—and a handful of experiences past in the context of a chop suey nation. The term ‘chop suey’ is in reference to bits, pieces, or scraps—augmented by the use of ingredients like sugar, soy sauce, and ketchup.

I don’t want to spoil the book, but I think it’s imperative to mention some of the food discussed in the work is—and isn’t Chinese. Hui writes wonderfully about the surprising threads that connect this style of food to not just other parts of this country, but to—what I’ll refer to as the North American dream—something that anyone who has emigrated to this country can relate to.

As an example of a food that is—and isn’t—Chinese, my husband Jon, who had finished Chop Suey Nation last year in just a couple of hours turned to me and said, “that was so good! But uh…Ginger Beef isn’t apparently Chinese?”

My husband was making reference to a section in the book that discusses a visit by Hui to Drumheller in which a man who runs a restaurant there talks about how Ginger Beef came to exist. Overlapping with other instances of an effort to make authentic Chinese food at their restaurants, customers who weren’t Chinese just didn’t seem interested.

“Survival [of a Chinese restaurant] was dependent on winning over white customers. And despite an interest in “exotic” foods, many non-Chinese customers at the time still wanted flavours and ingredients that were somewhat familiar: sweet or salty or a little bit sour. They weren’t ready for tongue-numbing spices or slimy textures. They were adventurous, but only a little,” writes Hui.

Ginger Beef apparently began as an idea based off the French fry, combined with a love for tender Alberta beef, according to Hui. As the food became more and more popular, and spread across the Prairies—and eventually, from coast to coast to coast—people would try to ask for it when visiting a restaurant.

“At the Silver Inn [where it was created],” explains Hui, “the dish was simply known as ‘deep-fried shredded beef with chili sauce.’ But though many customers tried and loved it, few could remember its name. There weren’t many others cooking with chili at the time, so the customers didn’t recognize the flavour. They mistook the spiciness for ginger, and began asking Chinese restaurants across the Prairies for ‘that beef with the ginger stuff.’”

While you’ll be travelling from one end of the country to the other in this book, some of the most important conversations happen in Burnaby, including learning about one of the restaurants her father had run for many years. Along with all the hard work her father took on to find a better life for his family, we also learn of a heartbreaking storyline that plays a major role in the book.

If you’re interested in reading Chop Suey Nation, you can find it at most bookstores now. 

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