Book Review: Chop Suey Nation by Ann Hui

Chop Suey Nation – Ann Hui (Douglas & McIntyre, 2019)

I will freely confess that I am a Chinese food snob. I’m obviously not Chinese but I was born in Hong Kong and I grew up in Vancouver, a city filled with Chinese people and amazing Chinese restaurants. My family ate Chinese food quite frequently and we were careful to choose restaurants with “authentic” Chinese food. We didn’t eat chop suey or ginger beef. Basically, if you got a fortune cookie at the end, it wasn’t really Chinese.

Hui, who grew up in Vancouver, the child of Chinese immigrants, shared my sentiments. But she grew curious about the prevalence of these “chop suey Chinese” restaurants across Canada, especially their frequency in small towns. Why would there be a Chinese restaurant in the town of Vulcan, Alberta (population 1900) when there were hardly any Chinese people living there? Why did it have similar (fake Chinese) menu items as a Chinese restaurant in Saskatchewan? How did this Chinese menu begin and how did it spread? What motivated the owners of these restaurants?

Hui and her husband begin in Victoria and drive across Canada to Newfoundland, visiting Chinese restaurants in small towns along the way. (You could definitely make the argument that Victoria is not a small town but it does have Canada’s oldest Chinatown so it makes sense to begin there.)

In amongst the stories of their travels and their glimpses into the people and histories behind these Chinese restaurants, Hui weaves her own family’s story, particularly her father’s. She learns of his family’s poverty in mainland China and how he arrived in Vancouver as a young man. And she learns of his own experience cooking in restuaurants and owning his own Chinese-Canadian restaurant in Abbotsford.

What really drives this story isn’t the food so much as the relationships represented by the food. Which, incidentally, is the conclusion that Hui comes to as she hears the stories of Chinese restauranteurs across Canada. I most enjoyed Hui’s re-telling of her father’s history as here her storytelling shines with empathy and interest. When she details the stories of the various restaurant owners there seems to be a greater distance and we don’t get the same feeling of closeness. Whether this was because many of them were reluctant to speak with a journalist or because of Hui’s desire to not reveal too much, I’m not sure. It did leave me feeling like I wanted more but I’m glad she chose to balance the book the way she did.

This was one of my books for my Writers Fest Challenge. I had been planning to read Chop Suey Nation even before I decided to embark on the challenge but now I’m looking forward even more to hearing Hui speak.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Chop Suey Nation by Ann Hui”

  1. Ah! One thing I hope your readers know is that Chop Suey isn’t a Chinese dish at all. They’re smart, bookish people, so I’m sure they do, but I point it out because I didn’t know until a couple of years ago myself. I mean, it sounds so “foreign,” so surely it must be authentic, right? This book sounds interesting. I heard an NPR piece on the radio this morning with a documentary filmmaker about why Vietnamese people are so tied to the nail industry in the U.S. (I’m not sure if it is in Canada). I love these sort of road trip/discovery works people do to help me understand things I’ve come to accepted without question.

    1. That’s a good point – ginger beef isn’t either but I think it’s a uniquely Canadian-Chinese dish. I think not realizing chop suey is “fake” Chinese isn’t uncommon at all, especially depending on where you live and how multicultural it might be. That sounds like an interesting interview re: Vietnamese ties to the nail industry. It is similar here though I had never considered why that might be.

  2. So one thing about living in Calgary-people are VERY proud of the fact that ginger beef was ‘invented’ here-clearly not an authentic chinese dish! It’s so delicious though…

    Ok this is probably a stupid question, but where does dim sum originate from? Is it chinese? And is the dim sum we get not authentic either? God all this talking about food is making me hungry.

    1. Dim sum is Chinese! It’s Cantonese (so Hong Kong and surrounding areas of mainland China) and is typically eaten for breakfast or lunch. It can involve quite a variety of food and different places will have their own dishes but it’s definitely Chinese! (Though it also often involves seafood so I’m not sure what that’s like in Alberta!)

    2. I never had ginger beef until I went to university! It is good, and Hui might argue that it is Chinese, just Chinese-Canadian rather than from China!

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