Interview conducted by Lilian Leung with Arlene Chan on November 5, 2020 (via Zoom)
Lilian Leung: I’ll just start with sort of a few questions; What is your full name?
Arlene Chan: Ok, Arlene Chan, formerly Lumb, my family name is Lumb, and then it’s now Arlene Chan
LL: And do you have a Chinese name as well?
AC: yeah, it’s 林瑞玲, or well now it’s 陳林瑞玲.
LL: And can you tell us about your connection with first Chinatown?
AC: Yeah what is my connection with the First Chinatown, My family had a restaurant in our First Chinatown and called the Kwong Chow restaurant which was on the corner of Elizabeth and Dundas street. And also our family when we moved to the downtown area in 1959, our house was at Beverly and Dundas street, which at the time was on the outside of our first Chinatown, but now it’s sort of like right in between first Chinatown and West Chinatown. So because of my parents’ restaurant is, number one, that our family was very involved with the old First Chinatown, and also because both my parents were very active in the community. So as a result it was not only our working at the restaurant but also because we attended a lot of community events and so, first Chinatown was a big part of our lives.
LL: And what type of food did the Kwong Chow served at the time?
AC: Yeah, the Kwong Chow restaurant opened in 1959, and at the time all the Chinese restaurants in Toronto served Cantonese style food because most of the people Chinese people living in Toronto at the time were from the south part of China, from the province of Guangdong. So either Taishanese cooking or Cantonese-style cooking. So the Kwong Chow was famous for the Cantonese-style cooking.
LL: And who worked there at the time? Was it mostly just family run or people immediately in the neighbourhood?
AC: Yeah both my parents were major shareholders and then the rest of the shareholders most of them were family members and so, but who worked at the restaurant was my parents, of course, and then the six of us kids worked there. So it was kind of like a family restaurant, yeah.
LL: And how did your parents decide on a restaurant? Your mother like ran a grocery beforehand, and what was that big switch?
AC: Yeah well, my mother was born in British Columbia, she came to Toronto when she was 16 years old, and worked for her married sister and brother-in-law who had a fruit store and then eventually ran a restaurant in Northern Ontario and my mother came back to Toronto and borrowed $200 and opened a fruit store at Bathurst and St. Clair and then she was able to earn enough money to bring over her family from Vancouver because they were living at Vancouver at the time.
And they opened up some more fruit stores. So there were not too many choices as to what kind of businesses that Chinese could go into. So fruit stores wee one of them, restaurants, and laundries. Those are the three main businesses that the Chinese were involved with in those early years. When I say early years, I mean before the Second World War. So my parents, my mom was married to my dad, and my dad also had a fruit store and it was out in the west end. It’s called Eng’s Produce at Keele and Dundas Street in the Junction.
So when my mom married then they both ran Eng’s Produce until from 1939 together until 1959 at which time my parents decided to sell the grocery store and then invest in a Chinese restaurant downtown. So then they switched over to a Chinese restaurant business and again still in 1959, there was not a lot of options for the Chinese to go into business and so my parents took over an existing Chinese restaurant that was there before that didn’t do well and so then my parents took it over.
LL: And did your parents have a lot of experience cooking and running restaurants and stuff beforehand?
AC: My mom, both of them were not cooks. My father had worked when he came well, he came to Toronto when he was a very young boy and he worked in various restaurants before he invested in the fruit store. So he had some experience and actually, you know, he used to tell me that he was so good at what he was doing working at the front of the house that he got promoted so he became kind of like a supervisor at the front of the house for a restaurant.
So they both worked when they were both working at the restaurant and then my mother started getting more and more involved with community activities and there were six of us kids, they knew that both of them couldn’t put in the long hours at the restaurant. And then my mother being so involved in community affairs, my father had already stepped back from community affairs and then raising the six kids, so what was decided was my father would run the restaurant. He was the one that worked there pretty well six, seven days a week and long hours, and then my mother only worked there part-time so that freed her up to look after the six kids and also to be so involved in community work. So they always hired kitchen staff and they actually brought over a famous chef from Hong Kong to work in the kitchen as well, to run the kitchen, and they had a pastry chef who made dim sum so they always hired good people to work in the kitchens. Yeah.
LL: And what was that like for you? Like when did you decide- because you went into library studies, and how did you decide on that or did you know that you wanted to go into that sort of documenting Chinatown?
AC: Yeah, I had always, I’ve always been fascinated with my identity as a Chinese Canadian. Am I more Canadian? Am I more Chinese? Am I Chinese-Canadian my Canadian-Chinese? I mean through all that. And since high school I was always looking for books to read about anything to do with Chinese people, anything that had a female or Chinese main character, and I’ve always loved reading since I was a little kid and I was one of those kids that when the lights were turned out, I’d be under the covers with my flashlight reading. I just always loved reading.
So all this time, and I still actually have a lot of newspaper clippings that I had clipped out when I was in high school and going into university, so I went to University of Toronto and I did a General Arts & Science, it was English and Psychology that were my two majors when I went to U of T and when I graduated I wanted to, um, there were things that I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to go into business. I didn’t want to work at my parents’ restaurant. and because I loved reading, I loved researching, then I chose to go and I wanted to use something that would use my bachelor degree so I didn’t want to start over in a first year kind of thing, so I looked and found the library school also at University of Toronto and I said well, I can use my four-year degree. I can continue out with my love of reading and literature and researching and so it seemed like a perfect match for me. And even when I was in university, I still had a few of, quite a few projects that I did that were all related to Chinatown history and Chinese history. So it’s just something that was kind of a side interest and when I started working, I got married, and I had my two boys and then everything got put on hold, of course, because it’s hard to juggle, so little time, to juggle everything that was going on.
So my whole writing career and my real intensification of my interest in Chinese-Canadian history and writing about it was all accidental. And it’s accidental in that somebody, a publisher, had commissioned somebody to write a children’s book about my mother. And it wasn’t proceeding as smoothly as the publisher wanted and so said to my mother, he said:
“Well, Jean, I know you have a daughter who’s a librarian, do you think she might be interested in taking over this project?” And my mother’s immediate reaction was “Oh no, no, Arlene, she’s working full time she’s got two young children.” and “She just doesn’t have time,” so then when she told me, I just kind of went: “Wait a minute. Wait a minute.”
I mean it was kind of like a door opening, there’s a saying that the busier you are- you always ask the busiest people to help out with projects. So it was just kind of like a door opened, and I just thought it was an excellent opportunity, so I contacted the publisher and I said “Well, what I can do is, I’ll write you one chapter and if you like it then we’ll proceed, if you don’t like it then, you know, I totally understand.” because I had done some creative writing in my high school years and I had written short stories that got published in our yearbook. and I did, of course, do a lot of writing at university and I did take English. English was one of my majors so then I wrote that one chapter and the publisher liked it so then that started, that accidental launch with my first book, and then after I finished my first book the publisher said, “Can you write about this topic?” and then that led to other books. So it was, I’m just very blessed that I had that opportunity, that door opened for me and I took that opportunity and, of course, since I’ve retired I’ve got a lot more time now to do research and continue with my interest in the history of the Chinese in Toronto and Canada.
LL: Well, what kind of, I guess, surprised you and you were first doing your first few books and research and stuff like that about First Chinatown? Where’s this something that growing up you didn’t even know in your like “Oh!”?
AC: All through the whole writing and research process. I had so many “Ah-ha” moments and because even with my first book being about my mom, and it was a children’s book, so it’s not very long and it’s not very detailed because it’s written for an elementary school audience, but, I’d heard my mother’s stories over and over again. She would tell us the stories. and then “Okay mom yes, okay, you’ve already told us this story.” but then when I had to really get hear her with the intention of writing about it, it really made me put on a different set of lenses to really interpret what she was saying and then I had to put it in the context of Chinatown and the story of the Chinese in Toronto, so that was a real eye-opener for me, but then when I started doing research about the history of the Chinese in Toronto when writing I’ve written a couple of books about that history. All these people that I had met as, and I was only a kid, and I always remember looking up, because I was just a little kid. These were so I met so many of the early 老華僑 (Lǎo huáqiáo), the early pioneers in our community.
So in addition to my own parents, I met so many other people who I knew as Uncle Harry, or you know, so-and-so because everybody was your auntie or your uncle and back then when I was growing up, the community, it was very very small and tight-knit, everybody knew everybody. So, when you would meet somebody for the first time the first question would be you know: “What’s your father’s name?” “Oh, you’re so-and-so’s daughter” or “What village is your father from?” which we had to memorize as kids. “Oh, you’re from that village”.
So for me when I was having all these “Ah-ha” moments it was amazing and very very exciting because it was not writing about history that was just something in the distant past, but it was part of when I was growing up. And so I always say that I had a front-row seat to seeing the development of Chinatown, not only our first Chinatown but also the West and East Chinatowns. So I’ve been there seeing the changes that have happened, and it’s it really puts me in a very unique position because so many of the people that I wrote about and their stories, where people that I knew and I remembered, and unfortunately by the time I wrote my first book about the history of the Chinese in Toronto, many of the old-timers had already passed on. So even my own father had already passed on and I kick myself because I did do a very amateur oral history not knowing what I was really doing because now you can find so much information about how to do an oral history, but at the time when I did it with my dad it was just me thinking and “Oh I should ask about this, that, and the other thing.” and there are so many holes in the story that I kick myself for not having the tools and the knowledge and the experience of doing an oral interview with my dad. And even by time I did it with my dad you could hear my mum in the back because I taped it and you could hear my mum in the back saying “No that’s not true it was it was so-and-so.” So I’ve got her voice in the back and it’s really quite funny, but it just shows how late it was in my dad’s life when I interviewed him and his memory was already fading, so my mother correcting him in the background is pretty funny.
And a lot of people, when people post pictures of what they took pictures of our first Chinatown, they bring back a lot of memories. And so people are going through their files and finding oh these are old pictures and a lot of people think these are not important, but I always say “No, keep them, donate them to the Chinese Canadian Archive at the Toronto Public Library” these are so, they might not be important to you, but they really capture moments of our Chinatown history that are not recorded anywhere else. And so the pictures that you don’t think are very useful, even your family pictures, not only who is in the people are in the pictures, but a lot of times just what’s in the background are the capture snapshots of sites that we no longer have access to seeing anymore so I really encourage people to save things and just don’t throw them out. Because the easiest thing to do is just to throw things out, but so I really encourage people to donate them to the library archive.
Arlene Chan：好的，我的名字是Arlene Chan，之前姓Lumb，因為那是我的家族姓氏，但現在我的姓氏改為了Chan。
AC： Kwong Chow餐廳開業於1959年，由於當時在多倫多的多數華人都來自於中國南部，尤其是廣東省，所以我們餐廳也主要以廣東菜色或是台山菜色為主。我們也因此而出名。
“Jean，我知道你有個當圖書館管理員的女兒，你覺得她會願意接手這個項目嗎？” 我母親的第一反應是：“哦不不不，Arlene現在在做全職工作，還要照顧兩個孩子，她不會有時間的。” 但當她轉告這個消息給我的時候，我的反應是：”稍等，讓我想想。“
這就像是打開了一扇機遇的門，越忙的人反而越是容易被尋求幫助。回想起我在高中時期所創作並刊登在了畢業年冊上的短文。同時大學時期的英文專業也使我有著許多寫作方面的練習。於是我聯繫了這位出版商並對他說：“這樣吧，我先給你寫一個章節，如果你覺得滿意，我們就繼續合作下去，如果你不太滿意，我也充分的理解。” 在我完成了第一個章節後，出版商的人表示非常滿意，於是我人生中的第一本書也因此而發行。在這之後，出版商的人又聯繫我說：“你願意繼續寫一些有關這個主題的內容嗎？” 我的寫作生涯也隨之展開
除了我的父母以外，我還探訪了許多其他的人，比如Harry叔叔。因為我們這個社群非常小又非常緊密，大家都互相認識，所以每個人都是我的叔叔阿姨。因此每當你遇見誰，第一個問題總是：”你父親的名字是什麽？“ ”噢，你是那個誰誰的女兒。“ 或是 ”你是哪個村來的？“ 以及 ”噢，你是來自那個村的。“