Lone Café

“The special today is…”

The lone Chinese-owned restaurant was a familiar sight in small towns across North America. They all began by offering the usual menu of soup, hamburgers, sandwiches, steaks and french fries.

Such café owners and their family led isolated lives, without the day-to-day company of relatives or other Chinese to interact with and to give their children a chance to keep up their Chinese language. To buy Chinese staples like rice and soya sauce for their own table, they had to drive to Chinese grocers in Ottawa or Montreal. Some would order from stores in Vancouver’s Chinatown for the greater variety and better quality on offer. Such shipments came by bus or train.

On delivery runs from Ottawa to surrounding small towns laundryman Shung Joe would stop by where he knew of a Chinese-owned café to visit. Other families on Sunday drives to the countryside did the same. Each café owner would invariably insist on offering the visiting Chinese refreshments and food. Leip Lor who owned the New York Café in Brockville once told his children: “I could go from one coast to the other in Canada and I wouldn’t have to pay for a single meal.” Such visits were like a telegraph line strung between cafés, carrying news and gossip of the Chinese.

‘Mileage card’ for New York Café, Gananoque, On. (Courtesy of Doug Avery)

After the Second World War, many of these cafés in smaller towns began to offer “Canadian food and Chinese food.” Their Chinese offerings included such standards as chicken balls and chow mein that appealed to western tastes, not what the owners considered to be the ‘real’ Chinese food that their families ate or that their cooks and staff made for themselves.

Golden Lang: “Every year, a Christmas card”

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Copyright © 2012 Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre and Denise Chong

 

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