Food, Immigration, Our Work
Joe Wong’s Sweet and Sour Pickerel: The Life of a Chinese Canadian Restaurateur
Curated by Lauren Chang
Storyteller: Lynne Hill
November 22, 2021
In small towns all over Canada, there are small Chinese restaurants run by immigrant families that cater to the Western palate. Growing up, I was confused by Chinese Canadian food—I was Chinese Canadian but we never ate chicken balls or egg foo young. I’ve heard my Chinese friends scoff at Chinese Canadian food, calling it inauthentic and fake. Here in Toronto, it’s much easier to get a wide variety of Chinese foods and ingredients, so I understand their hesitation.
However, my experience with Chinese Canadian restaurants gives me an alternate perspective. As I have travelled across rural Ontario, there is always a small Chinese restaurant, usually a family that looks like me in what often feels like the middle of nowhere. After so much traveling, it feels like a piece of home.
I wanted to learn more about rural Chinese Canadian restaurants: How did Chinese families end up in small towns? How did they develop their menus? Where did they come from? In my quest to learn more, I messaged every Chinese restaurant in rural Ontario I could find with a Facebook page and found Lynne Hill through the current owner of her father’s restaurant. We talked about her father Joe Wong, who owned six Chinese restaurants throughout Northern Ontario.
Lynne is a third generation Chinese Canadian on her mother’s side. Her mother’s parents came to Canada in the 1930s and having limited options, opened restaurants in Cochrane, a small town one hour from Timmins, and Moosonee, a town just south of James Bay. All the Chinese restaurants in Northern Ontario were run by people from her grandparent’s village, Lynne remembers. As it was difficult to get women, especially daughters, into the country, her mother got into Canada claiming to be her brother’s wife. Her father, Joe Wong, came into Canada in the mid-1950s from a village outside of Shanghai on a fake passport after he couldn’t get into the United States. Her parents married in 1957 and had Lynne’s older sister in Cochrane shortly after, but soon fled from the RCMP to Winnipeg where Lynne was born. After being granted clemency, they returned to Ontario.
After her grandfather passed, Lynne, her sister, and her mother moved to the Toronto Chinatown in 1964 when she was 3, while her father opened a restaurant in Hornepayne, a small township in the Algoma district. It was very common back then for fathers to go away for work, while the rest of the family rented rooms in the city. She remembers Chinatown being very different back then; there was a small Chinese community and only a few shops and restaurants. Her father’s family had made it to the United States where her grandparents intended to immigrate, so the family moved to the US in 1968. However, her father was unhappy with city life, and the family moved back to Ontario shortly after. Lynne says he loved small Northern towns because of the people, disliking the hustle and bustle of the city.
Hornepayne has a very active Facebook group, so I decided to make a post asking if anyone remembered Joe Wong and his restaurant, Taylor’s Dining Room. In a few hours, I had amassed over fifty responses. Community members shared memories about his famous sweet and sour pickerel, and how he always included toast with his Chinese food. He made the best coconut and banana cream pies, and if you brought him moose, he’d make moose and greens. They remembered that Joe would add peas in his fried rice, and he’d make your fries well done if you asked. When I told Lynne about the overwhelming response, she was unsurprised. He saw his employees and customers as family. She tells me that these are only the people from her generation, and there’d be more responses if more of the older people were on Facebook. “He was well loved,” she says.
When I ask her about the sweet and sour pickerel, Lynne tells me how her dad adapted recipes to fit the palate of the small town. They didn’t have access to bean sprouts or bok choy, so he would substitute with whatever was available. People would go fishing and bring the pickerel to the restaurant, and he’d deep fry it and douse it in sweet and sour sauce. She tells me that she prefers her fish steamed the Chinese way. At home, her father would cook Chinese food. When I ask Lynne how she remembers her father, she says he was very hard working, very unselfish, and provided for his family at the expense of himself. She remembers he didn’t have a car until Lynne’s older sister graduated from high school. Every Christmas Eve, he would host a staff party and invite all his employees, friends, and family, usually totalling around thirty or forty people. They would have crab legs, lobster, and a wide assortment of Chinese and Western food.
Joe Wong passed away from pneumonia in 2011. Although you won’t be able to visit his restaurant, Lynne was kind enough to share his sweet and sour pickerel recipe. I grew up eating at restaurants like Joe’s, where the food is less significant than the community. Chinese Canadian food isn’t inauthentic and fake—in fact, it’s so unique that I guarantee you won’t have tried anything like it anywhere else. When you try this sweet and sour pickerel, remember that it can’t have existed anywhere else but a small restaurant in Northern Ontario run by a man called Joe Wong.
Joe Wong’s Sweet and Sour Pickerel
Like a lot of Chinese cooking, there aren’t precise measurements or amounts. Use your heart when cooking.
Cut your pickerel/walleye into 2 inch pieces.
Marinate in light soya sauce, sesame oil, and a dash of Chinese cooking wine. Let sit in the fridge for half an hour.
Beat enough eggs to cover the fish and lightly mix.
Add flour and water to make a light batter, around the consistency of a crepe mix.
Drop each piece in the deep fryer. The fish should cook very quicky.
For the sweet and sour sauce, add an equal portion of ketchup, sugar, and vinegar according to taste. Mix together and serve.