Editing Modernism in Canada


May 4, 2015

What’s on the Menu? Chinese Restaurants in Canadian Literature

I would like to extend my thanks to EMiC for funding my RAship and facilitating our research on Gabrielle Roy, a French Canadian modernist writer who is too often overlooked in the English-speaking academic world. What began as an analysis of the complex editorial history of Gabrielle Roy’s “Où Iras-Tu Sam Lee Wong?” developed into a broader and richer study of the Asian-Canadian literary canon. On May 30th, 2015, Nathalie Cooke and I will attend the Association of Canadian and Quebec Literature conference (ACQL) to present our findings in a presentation entitled, “What’s on the Menu? Chinese Restaurants in Canadian Literature.” On April 30th, 2015, Nathalie Cook conducted a workshop entitled, “One Lonely Chinese Restaurateur of the Canadian Prairies and a Story with Three Endings,” at the University of Holguin, Cuba. The restaurant setting and the figure of the Chinese restaurateur prove especially useful motifs in delineating the evolution of Asian-Canadian literature. For, as Sam Lee Wong remarks about his job as a restaurant keeper, Chinese immigrants “almost all […] ended up in the same occupation” (53).

Our findings reveal a surge in Asian-Canadian writing after 1981 and a canon that is predominantly English with a few notable exceptions: Ook Chung, Ying Chen, and Kim Thúy (all appearing after 1981). Published six years prior to the watershed year of 1981 in Asian-Canadian literature, and likely written over a decade before, “Où Iras-Tu Sam Lee Wong?” is anomalous not only in terms of its editorial particularities, but also in its place in literary history. Written in French by a non-Asian writer, depicting Chinese settlement in the Anglo-Canadian landscape of Saskatchewan’s prairies, “Où Iras-Tu Sam Lee Wong?” is of particular interest as a story depicting cross-cultural encounter. As François Ricard also notes, the inspiration for the stories appearing in Un jardin au bout du monde (1975) came from Roy’s own experiences of such encounters. In a 1943 article published in Le Bulletin des Agriculteurs, Roy describes a Chinese restaurateur she encountered in Saskatchewan who “paraît toujour s’ennuyer et ne jamais se décorager, celui que partout on nomme Charlie: le restaurateur chinois.” The particularities of Roy’s story may be unique, but the figure of the Chinese restaurateur is an important one in Canadian history—and literature—that requires further study.

It is with EMiC’s support that we have been able to lay the groundwork for future projects on Asian-Canadian literature. I am grateful to the EMiC community and look forward to the future stages of this project.


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