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Chop Suey on the Prairies

Lauren Wheeler

This is the first in a series of posts for the upcoming temporary exhibit about Chinese restaurants in Alberta opening at the Royal Alberta Museum in April 2013.  Over the final months of planning and mounting the exhibit this series will give a glimpse into what goes into creating a museum exhibit as well as share some of the stories that are too long for an exhibition.

From November 2010 to February 2013 the exhibit “Chop Suey on the Prairies” by the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM) will have travelled Alberta, sharing an abbreviated story of rural Chinese restaurants and collecting information about small town restaurants.  Eighteen community museums hosted the exhibit and, in return for free use of the exhibit, provided the RAM with the history of their Chinese restaurants.  There are few academic studies of Chinese immigration outside British Columbia and works like Brian Dawson’s Moon Cakes over Gold Mountain and Alison Marshall’s The Way of the Bachelor: Early Chinese Settlement in Manitoba.  focus on the Chinese side of the story.  The RAM travelling exhibit looked at both sides of a Chinese restaurant in Alberta through the evolution of the menus and the role of the restaurant in a community’s history and identity.  The research local museums did about their Chinese restaurants showed how important these places were to the community, even when the owners were subjected to varying degrees of racism.  The narrative that emerged from town to town is remarkably similar: the first Chinese restaurant opened in the early 1900s; the owners worked hard; the restaurant was a gathering place for the community; and the town is very proud of their Chinese restaurant.