Like mushrooms after a rainfall, they sprang up in every little town from Lethbridge’s southern prairie grasslands through to Grande Prairie’s northern boreal forest.
Dotted across the Alberta landscape, Chinese restaurants were the go-to place for an inexpensive, quick meal whether it was a simple plate of fried onion rings or the more exotic ginger beef and mu shu pork.
In looking back, the growth of Chinese cafĂ©s gradually laid a foundation as important cultural icons. But they never started out as cultural entities.
They were born out of necessity, a desperate need for a minority to find financial security in an era oozing racism. The original Chinese coffee shops were started as efficiently run businesses that provided a living and financial security to an otherwise marginalized ethnic population.
Chop Suey on the Prairies: A History of Chinese Restaurants in Alberta traces their roots and the role in our lives. The exhibit, now showing at the Royal Alberta Museum, describes small rural hole-in-the-wall diners where parents cooked while children bussed tables, to palaces of the exotic decorated with chinoiserie, seating 500 people.
“This is a historical exhibit that tells a story. This is a Canadian story. It’s not just a matter of events,” says Linda Tzang, museum curator of cultural studies.
Even as this in-house curated exhibit looks at the past, it is fused with modern technology creating an experimental high-tech multi-media prototype.
Instead of traditional text panels hung on the wall, backlit boxes, an interfacing video projection and 14 iPads packed with information are strategically placed throughout the exhibit. Within two weeks, organizers also hope to offer an audio tour on an Apple app that can be downloaded on smart phones.
“This will provide people with as much or as little information as they want,” Tzang explains.
But don’t expect food or too many original artifacts. Aside from a wok, steamers, carving knives, plates, menus and a few other assorted utensils there is a limited number of artifacts on site.
“The restaurant was a business, not a culture. When a restaurant closed all the artifacts were sold and there aren’t many left to illustrate the story. When the Seven Seas (700-seat restaurant located on Jasper Ave.) closed in 1980, everything was auctioned off. Even if it was nailed down, it was pried up and sold.”
At the entrance of the exhibit is a timeline followed by a wall describing the $500 head tax placed on every Chinese immigrant.
Most immigrants disembarking in the late 19th century arrived from the Pearl River Delta region, a swath surrounding the port of Hong Kong. At that time the area was suffering from severe drought, and what the drought didn’t pick off by weather, the warlords grabbed.
“Which is why they came, paid their $500 head tax and put up with discrimination and racism.”
Many arrived around 1858 during the Fraser River gold rush looking for opportunities for a better life. The Canadian government saw the influx in the United States and the resulting violence and set about restricting the Chinese population’s entry.
“But that posed a problem for the CPR,” Tzang notes. “They could not finish the railway. They actively lobbied to make an exception, to import Chinese workers. Otherwise they never would have finished on time and on budget.”
Chinese workers were recruited to work in British Columbia for the railway’s most dangerous leg across the mountains. The Asian work gangs were paid $1 a day and received a $1 a day bonus if they planted dynamite.
“It was said one Chinese person died for every mile of track. We can’t even begin to understand the financial pressure they were under.”
And the societal pressures from a white culture that had created a bachelor society must have been unimaginable.
“They drank, they gambled and lived in appalling conditions and then were criticized for living in appalling conditions. And they weren’t exactly rented places in the best condition.”
Tzang mentioned that the strength of the Chinese diaspora is its wide network with everyone thinking of themselves as part of one family. As Chinese associations were created, members pooled their resources.
“A restaurant quite unlikely had a sole owner. If everybody gives $5, you can open a restaurant. And of course you repay it with interest. When you enter this kind of an agreement, you have an obligation to repay and help others.”
Ironically, the first coffee shops, many with stool and counter service, served western style food. Sample menus in the exhibit list bran flakes with milk 15 cents, canned spaghetti 55 cents, Denver sandwich 30 cents, leg of pork with apple sauce 35 cents and apple pie 10 cents. But vegetables were pretty scarce, as shown by asparagus tips on butter toast priced at 50 cents and sliced tomato at 20 cents.
While most traditional businesses operate on a Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule, the Chinese restaurant in rural towns was open early for breakfast and late for supper.
In a natural transition, some small town restaurants also served as banks, post office, fire dispatch or taxi service.
“Often they were the only places in town with a pay phone. In one town it was the only place with a colour TV. If you gave the owner 25 cents, he would allow you to watch whatever program you wanted. It was a service. It wasn’t just marketing.”
Tzang also states that on a social level, the Chinese restaurant was a neutral space and served as a major connector for all ages, races, and religions.
“In many small towns, it was the only place First Nations people could go. Similarly, teenagers were welcomed as long as they bought a plate of fries and Coke. It was a publicly neutral place. After church, Ukrainians, Finnish and French would sit next to each other. The owner couldn’t afford to discriminate.”
From 1950 to 1980 changes in Canadian law removed restrictions and a new influx of immigrants arrived. The original families encouraged their children to attend post-secondary institutions and sold their businesses to the new wave of immigrants.
“They didn’t know how to make western food. They made Chinese food and the public was ready for them.”
Although no Chinese cuisine is available, Chop Suey displays several interviews with immigrants discussing how they built their business, and the different food preferences between the Asian and western palette.
There’s even an interview discussing how ginger beef, one of the most popular Chinese foods, was invented in Calgary.
Chop Suey details a story of isolation, survival and triumph. It will also trigger memories and provide fresh perspectives.
Chop Suey on the Prairies is slated as the last in-house exhibit displayed before the museum moves to the new downtown location. It runs until Sunday, April 27, 2014.
Chop Suey on the Prairies
Running until April 27, 2014
Royal Alberta Museum
12825 – 102 Avenue
Admission: $11/adults; $8/seniors; $7/students; $5/youth; children under six free