Chop Suey Canada: Karen Tam is Turning Chinese Restaurants Into Art

Karen Tam grew up above her family’s Chinese restaurant in Montreal – and she most definitely had a favourite dish on its expansive menu. “I loved my dad’s egg rolls,” she grins, remembering how she used to dip them in homemade plum sauce, which was actually made with Quebec pumpkins, not plums. “I don’t think anyone made them like that.” 

She didn’t know it at the time, but those early years living above Restaurant aux Sept Bonheurs set Tam down a path that has led her to explore the importance of Chinese restaurants—and other Chinese-Canadian spaces—as a contemporary artist. Over the past two decades, she has investigated the unheralded life of an 1930s-era artist, contemplated the meaning of chinoiserie and worked on Gold Mountain Restaurants, a series of immersive installations based on Chinese restaurants across Canada.

“I think it’s something everyone can relate to or connect to,” she says. There are around 50,000 Chinese restaurants in North America, some of them anonymous urban takeaway joints, others small-town institutions that serve as a gathering place for the entire community. Many of these serve what journalist Ann Hui calls “chop suey cuisine”: dishes made with Chinese techniques and affordable local ingredients, adapted to suit North American palates that favour sweet flavours and crunchy textures. In her book Chop Suey Nation, Hui travelled across Canada to meet the restaurateurs behind these eateries and taste the often surprising creations their kitchens have produced, from fried macaroni in Quebec to ginger beef in Calgary.

Food provides an invisible backdrop to Tam’s work, but what really interests her is the spaces these restaurants have created. They are filled with red lanterns and traditional ink paintings of mountains and bamboo; auspicious names like Golden Dragon and China Garden are advertised in fonts like Rickshaw and Wonton, which mimic brush strokes to evoke a sense of the exotic. “Everything about it brings visitors to this imaginary China,” says Tam. “I try to take those elements and create these visual cues, or aural cues, that lets people know they are entering into this kind of space.”

None of this seemed especially remarkable until Tam began studying art at university. She hadn’t gone to Chinese school as a kid, but as she grew older she became more interested in connecting with her family’s roots – although when she finally enrolled in Chinese classes, it was to study Mandarin, not the Cantonese her family spoke at home. “I was put in Grade 3 with eight year olds,” she says. “They must have thought I was the dumbest adult.”

That coincided with her parents’ decision to sell their restaurant. She began looking around the space with fresh eyes, admiring the red vinyl booths she had loved sitting in as a kid, noting the spackled ceiling and fake brick walls that gave the space “a tavern feel.” When she needed a topic for her Master of Fine Art thesis, she decided to create a quintessential Chinese restaurant. 

Her first installation, No MSG at Friendship Dinner, was exhibited at the Khyber Centre for the Arts in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and it generated enough interest that Tam was able to take it on tour across Canada. Over the next several years, she created installations in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, as well as in small cities like Brandon, Manitoba, and Lethbridge, Alberta. She preceded each installation with a kind of informal residency, spending up to two months interviewing restaurant owners, collecting objects and “finding long-lost relatives,” says Tam.

That happened more than once. In Brandon, Tam encountered a family that had originally opened a Chinese restaurant in Mexico before moving north to Canada. It turned out one of their relatives was from the same tiny village as Tam’s great-grandfather. When she was preparing for her installation in Halifax, she took a ferry across the harbour to the neighbouring town of Dartmouth when she came across the Sun Sun Café. She discovered that the owners had previously worked for a Chinese restaurant in Montreal before moving east. “I told them what my name was and they were like, ‘We’re Tams too!’”

Through these encounters, Tam began to understand what led to the unmistakable appearance of a classic Chinese-Canadian restaurant. “There were definitely conscious decisions to include the lanterns or the seashell pictures,” she says. Some of the objects are hand-me-downs from other restaurants; in other cases, restaurant owners deliberately copied the decor of their most successful competitors. “For some of the restaurants I talked to, it was just a place of work, so they used whatever brought in money.”

This knowledge formed the basis of Tam’s restaurant installations. But it also tapped into a side of Canadian life that hasn’t always been acknowledged in official histories. In the early 20th century, racist laws barred Chinese immigrants from many professions and limited where they could live; in many cases, running a restaurant was one of the few opportunities for a Chinese family to make a living. Over time, those families spread out across the country, establishing roots in small towns where a Chinese restaurant was often the only eatery in town. “It’s a medium of cultural exchange,” says Tam.

Tam’s work doesn’t stop with restaurants. In one of her recent projects, she created an installation based on the imagined studio of Lee Nam, a Chinese artist who lived in Victoria, British Columbia in the 1930s. He made traditional Chinese paintings of birds and flowers and exhibited them in Chinatown, which was where he caught the eye of local artist Emily Carr, who approached him to learn more about Chinese painting techniques. “Some suggest Lee influenced Carr’s brushwork,” says Tam.

Both Carr and Lee were outsiders – Carr a woman in a male-dominated field, Lee a Chinese man in a country that still harboured deep prejudices towards people of Asian descent. But Carr went on to become one of Canada’s most celebrated painters while Lee was all but forgotten. Only one work of his survives – a sketch credited to both Carr and Lee, which now sits in the collection of the Royal British Columbia Museum. 

Even then, Lee doesn’t receive full credit; Tam notes that, perhaps for insurance purposes, the sketch is officially labelled only as Carr’s work. If it weren’t for Carr’s journal entries about Lee—along with an article about one of Lee’s exhibitions that Vancouver Art Gallery curator Shengtian Zhang found in the archives of a Chinese-language Vancouver newspaper—all traces of his career would have been lost. It makes one wonder what other threads of Canadian history are waiting to be unravelled. 

Tam is continuing to pull at that tapestry. She is starting a new project based on historical Chinese-Canadian photo studios, and another on the Musée d’art chinois, which was run by a Jesuit priest in Quebec City for a period during the 1930s. A pair of museum shows this autumn and next winter will showcase Tam’s sculpture works, which cheekily reference Qing Dynasty porcelain, but with humble materials like papier mâché and styrofoam. And she hasn’t lost interest in Chinese restaurants. After several years on hiatus, the series was revived with an exhibition in Toronto in 2017, and it will travel to Hartford, Connecticut later this year. 

It’s a fruitful time for Tam, and yet she is understated about her ambitions. “I guess it’s my small contribution to creating an archive of Chineseness in Canada,” she says. It’s work that unearths things that are humble enough to pass unnoticed—like her family’s pumpkin-based plum sauce—but which shade in the details of a picture that has yet to be finished.

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