Review of "Sweet and Sour" by Raymond Lum of Harvard University in April 10, 2012 issue of China Insights.
Flavor and Fortune, Jacqueline Newman's authoritative but readable quarterly journal on cultural, nutritional, and gastronomical aspects of Chinese food, gave a nice review of my book, Sweet and Sour. on Chinese family restaurant history.
This was an opportunity for me to present a different kind of talk about "Sweet and Sour,' and the social history of Chinese family restaurants at a different type of venue and audience. My past audiences for this book have consisted of Chinese who had some direct experience with Chinese restaurants and Chinese interested in the historical development of this business among Chinese.
Now I was with an audience of mostly non-Chinese, and people, for the most part interested in culinary matters. A leading foodie bookstore provided a lovely and intimate setting for the presentation, which unlike other talks where I could use visual images to enhance my points, was completely devoid of slides, photos, and other graphics. This required establishing good rapport and constant eye contact to engage the audience. Having the talented poet, Nellie Wong, recite the restaurant poems that she contributed to the book was a special component that captivated the audience. Overall, the evening was very successful and Nellie and I joined several members of the Culinary Historians for dinner, where else, but a nearby Chinese restaurant.
I was fortunate to have nice weather and warm audiences for 3 book talks about Chinese family restaurant history in 4 days in the area where I spent my adolescence and college years after moving from Georgia. It was wonderful to see, and recognize, friends from my youth whom I had not seen for 'half a century,' see newer friends again, and make some new friends. Appropriately, after my Chinatown talk, I dined at a Chinese "soul food" restaurant as a guest of my new friend, local photographer and graphic artist, Leland Wong.
Below are photos showing portions of audiences at my book talks at Him Mark Lai Chinatown Library, S. F. Jan.22, the Main San Francisco Library, Jan. 23, and Berkeley Chinese Community Church, Jan. 25. I was especially pleased to be invited to the Berkeley venue where I have spoken previously about each of my three earlier books on Chinese American history.
At the first talk, noted poet Nellie Wong had planned to recite her restaurant poems that she contributed to the book, but was down with a cold; fortunately, one of her friends stepped in to 'pinch-read' for her. At the second talk, her sister Flo Oy Wong, a noted artist spoke passionately about her experiences growing up and working in their Oakland family restaurant. At the third talk, another contributor to the book who grew up in a Lodi, Ca. Chinese family restaurant, Julie Wong Hornsby, related poignant anecdotes about her experiences,
We had over 50 people attend each of the talks and they gave us a positive reception.
I have had many encounters that show how closely the Chinese immigrants from Guangdong, and their descendants, are linked, My trip to speak in Atlanta last month gave me 2 more examples, both in connection with Sweet and Sour!
First, I discovered that Alice, the mother-in-law of my cousin's daughter, Nancy had a relative who married into the family that ran the Mandarin Restaurant in N. Y. (described by Gilroy Chow in Sweet and Sour) that Gilroy's father ran.
The next day, I met Winnie (Yao) and her mother, both who knew John and Lancy Wu whose Canton Restaurant in Savannah was depicted in "Sweet and Sour" by son, P.C. Wu.
What a small world indeed!
In March, I spoke at my sister Mary's Senior Living Residence in Cupertino to about 50 interested people including, much to my surprise, my nephew Jack, from my mother's side, that we had lost contact with for a decade. It was through my location of the Canadian relatives on my mother's side that we were able to get reconnected to Jack who attended the talk with his wife and college age daughter. Now, I am hoping that I can meet two cousins in Vancouver on my mother's side that I 've never met when I go there to speak at the end of May. What a wonderful and unexpected bonus to my research!
I had given up hope that I'd find these relatives from Norquay. The trail had gone cold after a promising start. Fortunately, Joan, the historian contact in Saskatoon had taken an interest in the search. She found the tel number of someone in Regina, whose first initial and surname, Quong, fit the oldest son.
So, another what the heck, I decided to make another attempt. The woman who answered my call was very guarded, and unwilling to say much. Only with some coaxing, and additional explanation that I was trying to locate a relative that I had never met, did we make a little progress. It turned out that the male I was trying to locate was not at this number, but lived in Calgary. However, the woman I was speaking to was his sister. In short, she was from the Norquay Quong family that I was seeking. I explained that her mother and my mother, even though they had never met in person in North America were either sisters (wrong) or niece and Aunt (correct). They did exchange greetings with periodic xmas cards, and I had one form 1982 that my mother had saved, complete with a letter written in Chinese mentioning that the Quongs had 7 children since coming over about 25 years ago to Canada.
Here is the card, and the back side of a photograph with identification of three children, who I assume would be my cousins, or cousins once removed.
I asked my 'cousin' for the contact information for her brother, but she was reticent, which did not bother me as I know one can't be too careful dealing with 'strangers' so I volunteered my tel. number and e-mail, asking her to send it to her brother(s) so they could contact me. Several days have passed, and no one has tried to contact me, so I am disappointed slightly. I don;t think we would likely meet in person, but I thought it would be nice for family members to at least have a chance to be introduced to one another. I also felt I owed my mother an attempt to get in touch with her nieces and nephews in Canada.
I also wanted to ask them for more information about running a Chinese cafe in rural SK, especially since my book would benefit from more insider views of this business. My best source of information came from their 85 year old neighbor, Bob, a farmer in Norquay who frequented their cafe. He described the owners, Wayne and Helen, as very friendly and chatty folks; Wayne worked the counter and dining area, along with help of older children after school, while Helen did the cooking duties. Hours were long, as farmers like to start early, and gather at the cafe for long coffee hours. For a town of pop. 500 or so, the cafe served as a social center for area residents. It's a quiet, but friendly place, I gather, as Bob told me if I ever come up to Norquay, he'd be happy to drive me around, but I should do it soon, being as he's now 85! And, we aren't even distantly related to each other!
Searching Saskatchewan Chinese Cafes To Find Relatives I Never Got to Know
So here I am, hard at work on my Chinese restaurant history book investigating the countless small cafes run by Chinese in rural provinces of Canada like Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba. An “aha” moment strikes as I suddenly remember that my mother had a sister, or was she a niece, who came from rural China to even more rural Saskatchewan back in the 1970s or maybe even earlier. Even though they never got a chance to visit with each other, I do recall that they exchanged annual xmas cards. In fact, I even found an envelope from one of those exchanges dated in the mid 1980s with a return address: Box 535, Norquay, SK, Canada. Checking a map on google, I found it was in the middle of the proverbial ‘nowhere’ with less than 500 people living there. In my research, I had read that all Chinese did in the region was run small cafes. Could it be possible that my mother’s sister or niece also ran one of them?
A few months ago, I checked every web resource I could find and saw no evidence of any Chinese or Chinese café in Norquay. This relative had moved or had died, but even then, she would have had several adult children…. Maybe I could locate them? I then contacted the Norquay city hall or the equivalent thereof, asking if anyone there remembers there ever being any Chinese in this community even though they had undoubtedly moved away or died a decade or so ago? But I gave up as I never got so much as a “sorry, can’t help you” reply.
End of search? No, just a hiatus, it turns out. Then months after my unproductive investigation, while searching the web for photographs of unique looking “Chinese cafes and restaurants” my eye caught one of Steven’s Café and Chinese food located in Stoughton, SK. which happens to be not too far from Norquay.
Steven’s café occupies a undistinguished looking building, aside from it being painted completely in a blushing pink color. A tiny front door stands in the middle between two small storefront windows with awnings. It looks more like a hardware or auto supply store than a Chinese café. So, I contacted the person who posted this photo on flickr and discovered that she was a historian working at a provincial museum in Saskatoon. On a hunch, I decided it would not hurt to just ask her if she was familiar with Norquay, the little town where my mother’s relative had lived. Possibly, she might have known whether it had a Chinese family there, and if so, whether they had operated a café. This was a long shot, but I had exhausted my other means for researching this question.
No… was her answer, but she gave me the name of someone she knew who knew the Norquay ‘scene’ as he published a local tourist magazine. Excitedly, I contacted him and he promptly volunteered some bad and some good news. He himself did not know of a particular Chinese family that met my description, because he was fairly new to the area himself but his wife, a local, did remember their prior presence. Moreover, she knew other locals that would know even more about them.
So I anxiously waited until that evening when I could call my source person in Norquay, a very helpful 85 year old retired farmer who indeed knew Wayne and Helen Quong and confirmed they did in fact operate one of the two cafes in town, both run by Chinese. (In general, he told me, all cafes in this region were run by Chinese).
Both Wayne and Helen were no longer alive, but it was thought that a son, one of their 4, operated a café in a nearby town, Canora. However, my information turned out to not be correct, as Chuck the café owner, although Chinese, was not related to the Quongs. There was still hope, as he referred me to Ben who worked in yet another Chinese café in Canora that might help me.
So I called Ben at the Silver Grill but he was either very busy (8 p,m.) or very suspicious and reluctant to divulge information. He asked me to call later after the café closed. When I called again, he seemed more relaxed, especially after he confirmed that I was Chinese (he asked twice). Now he felt he could tell me he was not a direct relative, but was, I think, an adopted or step-son. I think possibly he was a step brother of Wayne. In any case, he did disclose the name of Wayne’s older sister, Sue, over in Yorkton about 50 miles further south of Canora, who he felt should know the whereabouts of the Quong children.
Sue spoke English but seemed to prefer Chinese, so I made the effort. Conversing in half and half, or more like 25-75, I managed to convince her that I was indeed Chinese, and could be trusted. Once she knew that somehow we might be distantly related, if only by marriage, she offered me the name, Danny, of the oldest son, of the Quongs. He ran Danny’s Café in yet another town, Quill Lake, of about 500 population, which was closer to ‘civilization,’ not too far from Regina.
So, I held my breath, waiting until after their lunch hour to call. But there the trail sort of died, as the woman who answered didn’t seem to have a clue what I was asking about. She even asked if I was trying to hire someone to work in a Chinese café. I may have been given the wrong telephone number; however, the woman was Chinese and she was working in a Chinese café. She had only been in Canada for 2 years, an immigrant from mainland China to Quill Lake to work in this Chinese café.
Where does this leave me? Although I failed to locate the children of my mother’s sister (or was she a niece), the quest was not a total loss. I now had a direct confirmation of what I learned from research, i.e., that every little town in the area has one or two cafes, and that most of them are run by Chinese immigrants and their families. My ‘relatives’ seem to have been involved with such businesses in at least 3 or 4 little towns. And while I have no visual evidence about their restaurants, in my mind’s eye I imagine that they might well have resembled these two photographs of more recent vintage, first one in Cut Knife, SK, and the second one in Wakaw, SK, by my Saskatoon museum acquaintance, the same person who took the photo of Steven’s Café that started me on this trail.
The café in Cut Knife is definitely unassuming. No expense is wasted on frivolity, and there is a simple honesty and lack of pretense. It is a place where eating and relaxing during breaks from daily chores is the main agenda. No need to read restaurant reviews in the local paper, they only serve just plain old home cooked meals. And the owner’s kids will serve you, bus your dishes, and perhaps, as in the photo below in Wakaw, even join you at your table to make you feel right at home and welcome.
I also feel I clearly established that the relatives did run a Chinese café in Norquay (pop. 500 max.), that their children grew up helping out in the café, and that they had all moved away to cities like Regina and Calgary. My hunch is that they are probably no longer cafe owners, but maybe doctors, dentists, or pharmacists. How amazing that my study of Chinese restaurant history should have led me to the brink of locating my Chinese Canadian cousins whom I’ve never met, and probably never will meet! So near, and yet so far!
It turns out that there are several very informative doctoral and master's level theses on aspects of Chinese restaurants that gave me valuable information to incorporate.
Archival newspapers are also a rich source... and I discovered some treasure trove of photos of exteriors and signage of older Chinese restaurants... but not many of interiors or of people at work in their kitchens or dining rooms.
I discovered lots of interesting info about Chinese cafes all over the world, especially in the U. K., but decided I can't go to far afield, and will stick with U. S. and Canada to keep the project manageable. Besides, the stories are pretty similar for all the Chinese in the restaurant business no matter which country they settled in.
Sweet and Sour: 2
Using my Chinese Laundries history book as a model, I wanted to recruit about a dozen people whose families had operated a family restaurant and have them write a narrative about their personal experiences. I felt that this insider perspective would be important to record, as it would reveal how immigrant families managed to survive by running their own business... this time in restaurants and cafes as opposed to laundries, as I covered in a prior book, and groceries, in another.
Fortunately I have about 12 promised narratives... from all over the US and Canada. Moreover, I got lucky, and found two talented artists, a Chinese American and a Chinese Canadian, to not only provide family cafe stories but also contribute some of their wonderful restaurant artwork. And, the Chinese American artist discovered that her sister, a noted poetress, offered to contribute some "restaurant poems:"
What an auspicious start!