Food to Power the Body and Soul: Chinese-Albertan Stories
From hometown favourites to fusion, Chinese immigrants make Alberta feel like home
In the 1860s, thousands of young Chinese migrants left their village homes in China for the Gold Rush in California and British Columbia. While the work was gruelling and abusive, it offered wealth to send home and to start a new life abroad.
In the 1880s, thousands more answered the call to build Canada’s first national connector, the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Rockies to Calgary and later, the Canadian National Railway from Edmonton to Winnipeg. Around the same time, Edmonton became its own hub of opportunity; as the gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush, the city developed a Chinese community of its own, with Chinese men taking part in the trek north for gold and other minerals.
Despite social prejudices and racist legislation, many Chinese immigrants joined regional or clan-based “Tong Associations” or “Benevolent Societies” in Calgary and Edmonton, where they gather for food and fellowship to quell homesickness, cope with racism, and pursue success together. One of these organizations is the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA) in Edmonton.
“The history of the CBA consists of the continuous struggle for the well-being of the members of the Chinese community… The Edmonton Chinese community has grown bigger… and pockets of businesses owned and catering to those communities can be found throughout the city.”
From the early 20th century to the 1960s, Chinese food forged a place in Edmonton and Calgary by westernizing the cuisine from the Guangdong Province to appeal to its non-Asian clientele. This changed in the 1970s when businesses, students, and family-sponsored immigrants emigrated from a broader region of southeast China, including Hong Kong. A new era of culinary expression and regional authenticity arrived with the addition of new flavours from the Sichuan, Hunan, and Shanghai provinces – it’s the story of “Tomorrow’s Chinatown” that’s unapologetically itself.
While our friends in the restaurant community continue to strictly adhere to COVID-19 guidelines, Albertans are invited on a Chinese culinary vacation – right here at home.
In 1993, Winnie Chan of T.Pot China Bistro left Hong Kong to plant new roots in Canada with her husband and three children. They toured Toronto, Vancouver, and smaller centres like Red Deer, but Calgary exuded the warmth, friendship, and opportunity her family was drawn to.
Located in Calgary’s Harvest Hills community, T.Pot is an elegant destination that draws upon Chan’s homeland roots and creativity to transform classics. This critically acclaimed restaurant, voted Canada’s best Cantonese Cuisine Restaurant in 2018, offers dim sum, Hong Kong café favourites, and traditional banquet entrées especially for Chinese Lunar New Year.
A humble artist in her own right, Chan’s vibrancy and passion for making dishes inspiring, alluring, and beautiful will transform your understanding of Chinese cuisine from western ‘Chicken Balls’ and ‘Chop Suey’ to artistry like you’ve never seen or tasted before. The menu draws upon many local ingredients including AAA beef while also offering seafood staples including sea cucumber, crab, and abalone. Be sure to try their lobster in cream sauce! With Chan always searching for inspiration, it’s no wonder T.Pot has become a household name in the Alberta restaurant game.
At Great Taste in Calgary’s Chinatown you’ll find down-to-earth restauranteur, Yuki Lin, a Fujian Province native who moved to Canada in 2006 with her husband and in-laws. Before Great Taste opened its doors nearly ten years ago, Lin’s father-in-law, Hai Bao Zhong, operated New Eastern Lake Seafood Grocery alongside Lin, which provided seafood, vegetables, and other fresh ingredients to local Chinese restaurants. But Lin, having restaurant experience, jumped at the opportunity to take her expertise to the next level.
Noting a lack of traditional Shanghai and Sichuan style food in Chinatown, Lin opened “Great Taste”. While Lin would like to serve her native Fujian cuisine, getting access to the same seafood as at home is difficult, however this didn’t stop her from embracing the traditions of neighbouring Chinese provinces.
“I don’t want to copy other people. I want to do something that’s my own,” Lin says, “we do our best for the food quality.”
Others to try include Silver Dragon Restaurant in Calgary’s Chinatown, for those craving dim sum. They have been serving up this southern, tapas-style tradition for more than 54 years. Everything from pork dumplings to Peking Duck (a delicacy served with crepe wrapper, scallions, cucumber, and hoisin sauce) appears on its menu offering comforts and adventures alike.
Emperor’s Palace in Edmonton also offers an array of fresh and affordable Sichuan and Cantonese dishes. This modern location with authentic fare is famous for its soups, so be sure to try their Seafood Hot and Sour Soup and Minced Beef Egg Drop Soup.
Luck, love, and friendship are on tap for this year as many Chinese Albertans celebrate the start of the “Year of the Ox” with friends, family, and of course food. Seated at round tables (a place of equality), the Chinese community turns away from the past and looks to the future – a future that resembles the celebration with its abundance of food, love, and hope.