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Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada [Paperback]

Lily Cho
2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Nov. 6 2010 Cultural Spaces

"Chicken fried rice, sweet and sour pork, and an order of onion rings, please."

Chinese restaurants in small town Canada are at once everywhere - you would be hard pressed to find a town without a Chinese restaurant - and yet they are conspicuously absent in critical discussions of Chinese diasporic culture or even in popular writing about Chinese food. In Eating Chinese, Lily Cho examines Chinese restaurants as spaces that define, for those both inside and outside the community, what it means to be Chinese and what it means to be Chinese-Canadian.

Despite restrictions on immigration and explicitly racist legislation at national and provincial levels, Chinese immigrants have long dominated the restaurant industry in Canada. While isolated by racism, Chinese communities in Canada were still strongly connected to their non-Chinese neighbours through the food that they prepared and served. Cho looks at this surprisingly ubiquitous feature of small-town Canada through menus, literature, art, and music. An innovative approach to the study of diaspora, Eating Chinese brings to light the cultural spaces crafted by restaurateurs, diners, cooks, servers, and artists.


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Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada + What's to Eat?: Entrees in Canadian Food History + Let Them Eat Junk: How Capitalism Creates Hunger and Obesity
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Product Description

Quill & Quire

Turning a Ph.D. thesis into a general interest book has its challenges. If a dissertation is written for a group of examiners, particularly in an area as abstract as cultural studies, what appears on the page is really a joust with theorists in the field. Casual readers are left out in the cold.

And so it goes with Lily Cho’s Eating Chinese. She begins with the premise that the typical Canadian-Chinese restaurant, still a fixture in much of the country, is not an endangered entity like, say, the iconic prairie grain elevator. But her real intent is broadening the discussion of the theories that dominate diaspora studies. Cho aims to interpret the significance of the biculturalism that emerges in quasi-public spaces, where a cultural mainstream is fed by outsiders whose status as citizens was once precarious thanks to government regulations like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923.

To do this, Cho refers to the work of Jürgen Habermas, the Subaltern Studies Group, and other theorists, while grounding her discussion in specifics: a range of menus from Alberta Chinese restaurants, songs by Joni Mitchell and Sylvia Tyson set in Chinese restaurants, and a contemporary art installation that mimics the experience of being in a Chinese restaurant.

Although Cho, an assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario, claims her interest is in older Chinese communities rather than newer, more prosperous, urban immigrants, her emphasis on theory and her evident disdain for “historicism” means much of the history of early Chinese migrants is left unexplained. Occasionally, she provides a juicy tidbit: for example, in 1931, one out of every three male cooks in Canada was Chinese. Or she includes an interesting anecdote, like the story of an early 20th-­century lumber camp cook who was said to be a woman disguised as a man. 

But since ethnography is not Cho’s mission (she chooses poet Fred Wah’s nostalgic take on identity and food as an example over the work of novelist Judy Fong Bates, because her fiction uses the restaurant as a mere backdrop for “human drama”), Eating Chinese leaves us hungry for more.

Review

Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada is a fascinating look at the ways in which Chinese immigrants related to mainstream Canadians through the food they prepared and served ... Cho is an engaging, lively writer ... There is much for the general reader to enjoy in the book. (Bruce Ward, The Ottawa Citizen)

Eating Chinese challenges scholars of post colonialism and diasporas to consider how diasporic culture is forged beyond the limits of the cosmopolitan metropolis, at intersections of the past and the present… Her insightful readings of ostensibly disparate narratives enable her to carefully peel back their layers to reveal how identities and structures of power are constituted in and around what some might take to be the most unlikely of places.’
(Jaclyn Rohel , Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies; vol26:2011)

‘Eating Chinese makes a major contribution to Chinese diaspora studies through its attention to small town Canada.’ (Donald Goellnicht)

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful topic, but hard read Dec 21 2010
By Anon
Format:Paperback
As a "CBC" whose in-laws were classic Chinese immigrants working long hours in a Prairie small town Chinese restaurant so that the kids could pursue higher education, I eagerly anticipated release of this book - what a great topic! But as a layperson, I was disappointed to find it was written for academic sociologists. E.g. "What happens when the eruption of otherness occurs in the space of migrancy, the diasporic subject? How do you read for postcolonial agency not just in the slenderness of historical narrative...but also in the precariousness of migrancy?" I desperately wanted to read this book through, but simply could not. I am not saying to not purchase this clearly heartfelt work, but just to be aware this is not a casual read for laypersons.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
This book is a sensitive and illuminating exploration of the place of rural Chinese restaurants in the construction of Chinese-Canadian diasporic communities. Every chapter is peppered with insights into different facets of this arresting topic: on food as anticolonial resistance; on nostalgia for "disappearing" restaurants that never do vanish; on the architecture of the restaurant counter; on the timelessness and timeliness of diasporic culture; on representations of Chinese restaurants in popular music and installation art. Along the way, the reader is treated to truly remarkable discoveries about the history of the restaurant trade, the evolution of Chinese menus, the surprising covert presence of Chinese women in early twentieth-century lumber camps, and the recipe for lotus root soup.

The book is not a pop history or ethnography, but a scholarly monograph published by a university press in a cultural studies book series. The tone is lively, engaging and often soulful, with the writing conveying enormous respect for the men and women who frequently endured loneliness and privation in the formation of these diasporic communities. The book holds up a ubiquitous but often overlooked social phenomenon (the existence and persistence of Chinese restaurants in nearly every small town in Canada) to sustained, creative and enlightening cultural analysis.
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2.0 out of 5 stars warning: hyper academic Dec 9 2013
Format:Paperback
Well, I bought this book because this subject is really interesting and personal to me. But it's written in a language only an academic could possibly understand, which is discouraging and frustrating. And by academic I don't mean "went to university", I mean "has a masters in cultural studies theory".

I understand that not every book is intended or ought to be written for a general audience, but I wish someone would "translate" these ideas into regular english, so this non-academic chinese canadian reader could understand what's being written about us...

Some alternate books exploring this loose subject are Chow: From China to Canada by Janice Wong, Lives of the Family by Denise Chong, Canadians at Table by Dorothy Duncan, The Chinese Community in Toronto: Then and Now by Arlene Chan, Hua Song: Stories of the Chinese Diaspora by Christine Suchen Lim, etc.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Dense to the point of being unreadable Jan. 7 2011
By C. J. Thompson TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
I am a serious 'foodie' with a general interest in Chinese food and a particular interest in how its export to the west has actually produced a separate and distinct cuisine in its own right. I was really looking forward to reading this book when I first saw it. I rather expected a broad look at North American Chinese food along the lines of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food except with a focus on Canada rather than the USA. Unfortunately, I was sadly disappointed. This book is not even close to what I was looking for; rather its is an incredibly dense and obscure sociological/philosophical treatise which examines the Chinese diaspora using cuisine as the comparative frame of reference. The author does make an interesting point about 'Canadian Food' being almost exclusively defined by the menus in Chinese-Canadian restaurants and it is clear that she has made an extensive study of the evolution of menus in such establishments. Had these points been developed purely in the culinary sense I would have loved this book. Unfortunately, these interesting points served only as a springboard into ... well, I am not sure what! The writing here was so prolix, dense and jargon-laden that I was not sure if the author really had a valid point to make or was just pouring out nonsense in an orgy of over-analysis. Ultimately, I got weary of trying to find out an answer to the question and gave up about half-way through. Here is an example of the prose:

"In the context of identification, the idea of eating Chinese takes on the significance of a moment of violent incorporation with all of the cannibalistic connotations that accompany the moment of consumption.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 1.0 out of 5 stars  1 review
3 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Dense to the point of being unreadable Jan. 7 2011
By C. J. Thompson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I am a serious 'foodie' with a general interest in Chinese food and a particular interest in how its export to the west has actually produced a separate and distinct cuisine in its own right. I was really looking forward to reading this book when I first saw it. I rather expected a broad look at North American Chinese food along the lines of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food except with a focus on Canada rather than the USA. Unfortunately, I was sadly disappointed. This book is not even close to what I was looking for; rather its is an incredibly dense and obscure sociological/philosophical treatise which examines the Chinese diaspora using cuisine as the comparative frame of reference. The author does make an interesting point about 'Canadian Food' being almost exclusively defined by the menus in Chinese-Canadian restaurants and it is clear that she has made an extensive study of the evolution of menus in such establishments. Had these points been developed purely in the culinary sense I would have loved this book. Unfortunately, these interesting points served only as a springboard into ... well, I am not sure what! The writing here was so prolix, dense and jargon-laden that I was not sure if the author really had a valid point to make or was just pouring out nonsense in an orgy of over-analysis. Ultimately, I got weary of trying to find out an answer to the question and gave up about half-way through. Here is an example of the prose:

"In the context of identification, the idea of eating Chinese takes on the significance of a moment of violent incorporation with all of the cannibalistic connotations that accompany the moment of consumption. However eating Chinese in Canada is not simply a mastery of Chinese otherness driven by the nutritional instinct. It is a repetition of the cannibalistic scene where the desire for violence is both preserved and repressed. It is at once an enactment and disavowal of violence, achieved through positivism of embracing otherness."

Uh... okay. Can I still get an egg-roll with that?
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