By Shawn Zhang
Lee's Garden Restaurant | Courtesy of American Public Television
“If Catholics are having a crisis of conscience, they go to the church, if Jews are having a crisis of conscience, they go eat Chinese food.”
This is what an interviewee of Day’s Lee told her in the documentary “Meet and Eat at Lee’s Garden” when trying to illustrate the idea that the restaurant, opened by Lee’s father in Montreal in 1951, became a landmark for both the Chinese and Jewish communities.
There was something about the past generations’ unwillingness to reveal much about themselves, especially their pasts to their children. And there is a very strong reason for that. In 1923, Canada issued the “Chinese Immigration Act,” also widely known as the “Chinese Exclusion Act.” This law was issued by the government of Liberal Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. The law, which lasted over 20 years, banned most forms of immigration from China to Canada.
This context is important to take into consideration because most of the Chinese immigrants that were of that era were affected not only by the Immigration Act but also by the societal environment, which was particularly unwelcoming for them. Under such a social setting, many people, like Days Lee’s father, had to endure great hardship in order to live a normal life and support their families.
That being said, the overall purpose of this documentary is for Day’s Lee to trace back her father’s history of owning a restaurant; and explore the bits and pieces of the lasting memories by taking us through multiple in-depth interviews with the Chinese and Jewish communities’ sons and daughters who forged profound connections with Lee’s Garden half a century ago.
Lee’s Garden was widely considered the place to “see and be seen.” It is a place for people to gather around, share their stories, and most importantly, savor the absolutely delicious dishes that flourished through the blend of Chinese and Western cultures. A popular example would be the fan favorite “Lo-Mein Buns” (which was rumored to have strong ties with Boston, too).
Lee’s Garden’s massive success didn’t just come out of the blue, though. The growth of popularity of this restaurant was purely the result of bold decisions and venturous entrepreneurial spirit. When the Immigration Act was finally repealed in 1947, Day’s Lee’s father and a few other immigrants decided to form a partnership and open a restaurant. It was considered risky for them to make the decision to open their restaurant serving Asian dishes outside of Chinatown. As it turns out, the partners also decided to go one step further and reinvent their dishes. So the Lo-Mein Buns that became the “community favorite” was actually the combination between Asian-style crunchy noodles and hamburger buns. The restaurant’s buffet-style dining also created a space for multiple groups of people to gather and bond.
Years after the restaurant closed down, Day’s Lee made her decision to do this documentary with the sole purpose of exploring the ties and bonds made between the Asian and Jewish communities through meeting and eating at Lee’s Garden. Reflecting back on her journey, she said that it is always great to consider “not just the food that comes into the table, but also the lives behind the counter.”
In Lee’s closing line, she addressed her appreciation and admiration for her father’s hard work and devotion to not just a restaurant, but also a community hub for the two underrepresented groups. She says, “My father had always wanted to build things by hand, but he did not have much of a choice back then, so he opened up a restaurant; he didn’t build things that people can hold in their hands, but instead built things people can hold in their hearts.”
This show will be premiering soon around May, and it will be aired by American Public Television (APT).
We live in a world where things are constantly changing and moving at blinding speed, maybe even to the point where it feels like it even feels rare and precious to sit down, take our time, and enjoy the food on our tables. That said, I believe we all have a place like Lee’s Garden in our hearts, it might not be the most expensive or even fanciest food that’s been served to you, but it will always take you back to being … just you.