The Waving Cat issue.05
Growing up between the sticky diner booths of a family owned Taiwanese restaurant
J written and told by Megan Chen Everyday, I would see it’s cheery plump cheeked expression, it’s paw waving to and fro in front of me as I bounded into the restaurant after school as a child, as I sauntered in with my chatty friends as a tween, and as a moody young adolescent during the end of my high school years. The restaurant has been closed for a while, but even today I remember exactly the jingle of the bell each time the door opened. I remember the rumble of the finicky refrigerator. I remember the tilt of that one uneven table in the corner. I remember all these things, but the one thing I will never forget, is the waving cat. The lucky cat statue represents much more to me than just a knick-knack. For me, it reminds me of the hardships my parents had to face as immigrants to a new country. They immigrated to Canada in 1994, and from there it was like taking a wet cloth to a dryerase board–a new slate, foreign and uncharted territory. I can’t imagine how terrifying that must have been, navigating not only a new physical landscape, but a much more important and abstract cultural landscape as well; filled with it’s unspoken nuances that one can only learn through living within it. I am often caught off guard by how much pure WORK my parents had to put in just for me to be here, where I am today in my current state. It would be a lie for me to say that reminiscing on the restaurant my parents had doesn’t make me emotional to some degree. I spent the bulk of my life growing up between those wobbly tables and sticky counters, sneakily chipping off pieces of the pale pink wall, creating characters out of the weird stains on tables, and taking a midday nap in a fold out beach chair in the supply closet. The day my mom told me the restaurant would be put up for sale was a bag of mixed emotions for all of us, I think. Even in the moment, I knew it was inevitable. The months leading up to that the business wasn’t
doing so well; my heart would clench with pain seeing my father’s stressful reaction unfold as he counted the meager bills and coins we had accrued for the day. It’s a weird feeling, being self aware of financial problems even as a little kid. Still though, I enjoyed many times at the restaurant. Some of my fondest memories revolve around how my friends and I would always hang out between the sticky purple booths after school. We would cram ourselves into the largest booth whilst chattering incessantly about the daily grievances one has as a 15 year old. My mother would cook up a storm for my friends and I, and I always prided on my friend’s jaw dropping, “oohing and ahhing” responses to my mother’s cooking. The popcorn chicken was always popular – bite sized chicken pieces fried to a perfect golden crisp, so fresh out of the fryer that you swore you could’ve heard echoes of the hot oil popping as you took the first bite. Breaking the crunchy skin with your teeth, a gush of flavour flows into your mouth, piping hot enough to almost surely burn the roof of your mouth, but you don’t care, do you? No, you prevail and keep chewing. If the skin outside is the perfect crunch, then the meat inside is the perfect amount of tenderness. Your taste buds would have been dancing with joy by now, choreographed by the perfect medley of MSG, salt, and pepper – otherwise known as The Holy Trinity of my mother’s home-cooking. It’s the perfect mixture of everything you’ve ever wanted in a snack; crunchy yet tender, salty enough to keep you coming back for more but not turn your mouth into the Sahara Desert, and not annoyingly small like some finger foods are. I also can’t tell about my childhood without bringing up my mother’s dumplings. Little pockets filled with flavourful pork and chive, an explosion of flavour that came alongside the soupiness inside as well. The dumpling skin is the perfect
My best friend Michelle had her 17th birthday at my family's restaurant. Pictured here is all of us in the largest booth.
Our business hours sign, we were always closed Mondays and Sundays
The waving cat · megan chen
amount of chewiness – Q – is what my mother used to describe it in Chinese. I also can’t talk about my mother’s home cooking without talking about pork sauce on rice. The simplest dish ever to come out of Taiwanese cuisine, but quite possibly one of the best. What I love about it, is that each mother seems to have it as their signature dish, each one adding their own unique touch to the classical comfort food canon. The idea is quite simple really, it’s a bowl of white rice topped off with a generous portion of pork braised and stewed in a magical medley of various sauces and spices – creating a delicious mouthful of rich, hearty, and smooth flavour. The Lucky Cat also reminds me of the blatant discrimination that Chinese people faced in Canada. It is not well known that the Canadian government actually barred many Chinese people from entering certain workforces, restricting them to only running laundromats, small corner stores, and restaurants. Where in the history books does it mention that Chinese people were once branded as “Yellow Peril” by Canadian citizens? While that obviously doesn’t happen today, I can’t help but think about how this “multiculturalism” that Canada is touted for, seems more and more everyday like one that is satisfying a nationalistic agenda – one that only values cultures as novelty acts, food in the ethnic aisle, and costumes on holidays, while skipping over the often turbulent history and unresolved narratives of lived experiences. Each time I see a lucky cat waving from a window, I can’t help but think of them waving away in a small mom-and-pop family restaurant, wishing good luck and prosperity to the hardworking families toiling away, running the kitchens. In many ways, the restaurant has been an integral part in shaping who I am today – my work ethic, the values I have in life, and the guiding principles that I hold myself and the people in my life accountable to. Growing up in a restaurant meant that I had to help out and do my part as well. I was often cleaning tables, pouring tea and seating customers, or
rushing to and fro between the kitchen and the front-of-house. When I wasn’t working, my time was spent doing homework at one of the rickety tables. Head beant low over a textbook, the sound of cutlery, slurping of soup, light conversation was my lo-fi beats soundtrack to work to. This was the everyday scenery for me, and one that will forever leave it’s melancholic fingerprint in my memory. Seeing the fruits of my parents' labour – the work that they put in, nursing this small thing born out of necessity for survival, blossom into a hub where people I knew and loved and members of the community could gather for a comforting bowl of Beef Noodle Soup. Friends were made here, and my parents saw a handful of kids growing up here too. Parents who were also Taiwanese would trek out again and again over the years with their children to enjoy some classic comfort food. I can see it as clear as day in my head now, my father’s face breaking into a massive grin – the smile wrinkles that appeared on his face would always remind me of the wrinkle your favourite pair of jeans have, comforting and familiar – as he pulled out his stockpile of snacks and crackers that he kept as an after-meal treat for the kids. I don’t go out often to eat Chinese food nowadays, why should I when my mom’s cooking can beat any Michelin star touting restaurant? But on the rare occasion that I do, nostalgia hits me like a wave and I’m immediately transported into another realm – one in which I remember the hiss and crank of my restaurant’s tea machine booting up for the day. I remember how the booths would stick to the back of my thighs during a hot summer day. I remember the slow bink and flash of the OPEN sign. I remember all these things, but the one thing I will never forget, is the waving cat.
A receipt from the restaurant. My dad used to hand write all receipts!
“MSG, salt, and pepper...The Holy Trinity of my mother’s home-cooking.”
The restaurant's sign in all it's glory, note the massive arrow pointing downwards. For the longest time we were next to a Shaolin Martial Arts studio and a massage parlor that we were sure was actually secretly a "rub-and-tug" place all along.
An interior shot of the restaurant. We had 5 tables in total ( it was a small place!) but they were numbered 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 â€” skipping the number 4 completely since it's considered a very unlucky number in Chinese culture! I remember the interior of the restaurant having this purple and green purple scheme that was on the floor tiles, the tables, etc...
My parents would always go grocery shopping early in the mornings before the restaurant opened for the day. We would often go to small family-owned supermarkets such as this one pictured above â€” New Hong Kong Supermarket, which was actually owned by my friend Selena's family!
By far the restaurant's most ordered dish, stinky tofu! The name says it all, the tofu gives off a very strong pungent smell and comes with a bit of house made chinese pickled vegetables and spicy sauce, also homemade. I remember being able to smell the entire process of my parents fermenting the tofu for this dish. They had a big ceramic jar that they would pack with vegetables to soak the tofu in, giving it's signature scent...
â€œnavigating not only a new physical landscape, but a much more important and abstract cultural landscape as wellâ€?
Popular dishes include these combo like meals: a bowl of rice in the middle with pork sauce, and a meat of your choice: pork chops, braised pork belly, popcorn chicken etc. On the side, you'd find spicy tofu, a tea egg, and some brocoli.
Another popular dish was the oyster pancake pictured here. I remember always being excited when someone ordered this because my mom would call me into the kitchen and put the sauces on top in various zig zag formations and such.
march 24 2020 · Vancouver, bc 2
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A publication dedicated to re-examining the everyday and the stories that they tell.
Growing up between the sticky diner booths of a family owned Taiwanese restaurant.