Not an Ideal Model, But a Model That Works

This pandemic has shown the glaring inequities in society, and it has had a disproportionate effect on racialized women

Black and white photo of Ann Hui with the logo for The Walrus Talks.

Ann Hui spoke at The Walrus Talks at Home: Shifting the She-cession at the YW Calgary’s Whisper Gala, which took place on March 11, 2021

You can watch all The Walrus Talks speakers from this event here: The Walrus Talks at Home: Shifting the She-cession

Hi, everyone. My name is Ann Hui. I am a journalist at The Globe and Mail and the author of a book called Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Cafe and Other Stories from Canada’s Chinese Restaurants.

The book details a road trip that I took a few years ago driving across Canada in order to learn about Chinese restaurants and the people who run them. One of the most enduring images that I have in my mind from that trip is from a Chinese restaurant in Bonnyville, Alberta. Bonnyville is about a three hour drive east of Edmonton. It’s a typical prairie town of about 6,000 people. In Bonnyville, the restaurant was called the Panda Garden. What I remember is walking into the Panda Garden and seeing at the back of this restaurant, this bar. When I walked around the bar, I was surprised to find a small bed. It was a play area that the restaurant owners had set up for their two daughters.

What does that have to do with a she-cession? We’ve heard a lot today about the glaring inequities that this pandemic has thrown right into our faces. We’ve heard a lot about how the pandemic has affected women in particular, and it’s no secret either that this pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on racialized women. Of course, among that group is immigrant women. I think that restaurants like the Panda Garden give us a snapshot into what that actually looks like on the ground for some of these immigrant women. It’s just a small slice into what this pandemic has done to everyday people and their lives.

Immigrant families like the one running the Panda Garden, for them, this restaurant is a way of creating jobs for themselves. It’s a way that they can work for themselves and hopefully build a better life for their kids. For Karen Lu, who was the co-owner of the restaurant, it’s meant that she’s able to run her own business, that she’s able to have a family while working, and not have to leave the workforce.

This is a model that I saw on my road trip all across the country. The most typical model would be a husband working in the kitchen, a wife working the front of house, so serving customers or minding the cash register. Typically, there would be a kid stashed away in a storage room somewhere in the back.

Is this model ideal? Absolutely not. Do I wish that there were better options for some of these women, especially when it comes to childcare? I think everybody does. But in the absence of those options, this is a model that works.

I also saw a lot of single women, lots of single mothers running restaurants like this all by themselves. I met some single mothers who had only been in Canada for a couple of years who were living in these tiny, tiny towns in the middle of nowhere, running these Chinese restaurants by themselves. Often for these women, their only other option would have been either working minimum wage somewhere or unemployment.

We’ve seen that the pandemic has hurt all restaurants. Food service has been one of the hardest hit industries in this country. But the pandemic has had, I think, an especially pronounced impact on Chinese restaurants. We’ve heard throughout this past year, a lot of rhetoric that’s been specifically aimed at Chinese communities. We’ve heard language that blames Chinese people for the disease. We’ve heard a lot of language that’s evoked the yellow peril of the 19th and 20th century, and we’ve seen a huge rise in hate crimes against Asian communities, many of them violent attacks against elderly people.

One Chinese restaurant owner I know in Thunder Bay actually told me that she was probably the happiest person in her city when local health officials actually started recommending everybody wear masks. This was because she said she actually felt safer being out in public with most of her face covered.

I think it’s fair to say that for most Chinese restaurants, they have actually had to suffer a longer pandemic; and this is because for many of them, their businesses began to suffer long before the lockdowns even began. Just about every single Chinese restaurant owner I’ve spoken with in the last year has said that their businesses have suffered. Many are on the verge of shutting down.

So what does that mean? How does that tie in with today’s theme? As these restaurants suffer, so too will the women behind them. This is what we’re losing in the pandemic. These are restaurants, but they’re also institutions. These are institutions that for generations have been proven to work, have been able to allow for immigrant families and immigrant women to build new lives for their futures.

I know this because my own family lived it. My parents ran a Chinese restaurant in Abbotsford, BC before I was born. My dad was the man in the kitchen cooking the food, and my mom was the one running back and forth between the dining room and a toddler in the storage room. For them, that was something better. It’s how they have built their lives here, and I can only hope that other families will continue to have the same, or hopefully better, opportunities.

Ann Hui