Across Canada, Asian restaurants offer a particular type of comfort food. Their neon signs glow in almost every community — even in the smallest wind-blown Prairie towns, where main streets are struggling to hold on to grocery stores, gas stations and banks.
You can find them under the shadow of a grain elevator, with a steady clientele of homogeneous faces — though frequently very different from those of the restaurants’ staff.
Families often run the businesses, and their stories reflect an important part of Canadian identity: new immigrants have a hand in propping up small towns clinging to existence.
Dung Tran sent her sons to Canada first. In 2014, the Vietnamese-born Tran boys settled in Saskatoon and pursued their studies at the University of Saskatchewan. It would be five years before Dung was able to leave her job at a seafood company in Vietnam and join them on the Prairies along with her husband, Chien.
She had always been passionate about cooking and was keen to purchase and run a restaurant when she arrived in Canada. The family stumbled upon Blaine Lake.
The community of a few hundred people is an hour’s drive north of Saskatoon. It is one of the first stops on the way to northern Saskatchewan, where the prairie landscape of the south gives way to the forest, rocks and lakes of the Canadian Shield.
“We saw that it is a gateway to the lakes, and people travel through here a lot. It’s a nice setting,” said Trung Tran, Dung’s eldest son, translating for his mother as they sit in their restaurant, the Gateway Grill.
When the family purchased the restaurant, Trung moved to Blaine Lake to work there, even though he had already completed an education degree and had a life in Saskatoon in the financial sector.
“Without me, she can’t really run the restaurant. I guess I’ll sacrifice whatever time it needs. I’m not worried about it,” he said.
Dung’s other son, Bao, and her husband split their time between Saskatoon and Blaine Lake. They both have jobs in the city — working as a mechanical engineer and in industrial machinery maintenance, respectively — but come up on weekends to work in the restaurant.
The arrangement works, and the restaurant has a steady clientele. With Dung’s ambition to open a restaurant satisfied, she has time to ponder other opportunities.
“She is very ambitious,” Trung said.
“You know dim sum? She wants to try it out.”
Many new immigrants come to Canada with professional skills that are not recognized in their new home, leading some Asian newcomers to open — or acquire — a restaurant as a means to make money. Some will work in a restaurant for years to save up for a down payment, but many buy businesses outright.
Unlike many native Saskatchewanians or people who move to the province from elsewhere in Canada, they sometimes eye up opportunities in smaller rural areas.
Saskatchewan’s rural population has been on the decline for decades, and with that rural businesses and services have struggled to survive. The vast majority of immigrants to Saskatchewan set up shop in urban centres, but there are exceptions — two of which are featured here. Both Rosetown and Unity saw population increases between the 2011 and 2016 censuses, with new immigrants contributing to that boost.
Pak Chan, whose family is from Hong Kong, opened a restaurant in the small community of Rosetown. But after years toiling in other people’s kitchens, then working for decades “seven days a week, 13 hours minimum,” Chan’s father, Wun, looked to sell the restaurant.
“We put an ad in a couple Chinese newspapers that distribute to Asian grocery stores and we had so many callers,” Chan said.
“From Ontario to Manitoba, we heard from entrepreneurs and skilled workers, in part because of the Saskatchewan immigrant nominee program. People want to be permanent citizens.”
But the Chans wanted people with experience.
Along came Henry and Judy Mah.
Henry grew up in Hong Kong and came to Canada when he was 12 years old. At first, he lived in Eston, a small town in west-central Saskatchewan. After graduating from high school, he moved around, working in restaurants in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, but he settled once again in rural Saskatchewan after marrying his wife, Judy, who joined him from China.
They bought their first restaurant, near Swift Current, because they liked to work close together and wanted to raise their sons in a small community.
When the Mahs approached the Chans to buy their restaurant, they could only offer a down payment — unlike others who could buy the place outright — but Pak had a good feeling about them. They struck a deal and the Mahs moved in, renaming the restaurant Mah’s Kitchen.
Their goal: “Make money!” Henry said.
Living in Rosetown helps the family keep costs low.
“There’s not much shopping around,” he said.
For now, the restaurant is doing well, but the Mahs have encountered a surprising problem for rural Saskatchewan: competition.
“They’ve opened a restaurant over there and across the street,” Henry said, gesturing.
“And Rosetown isn’t over 2,500 people.”
Many restaurant owners such as the Mahs purchase more than one restaurant business over the course of their entrepreneurial careers.
When Ben Liang came to Saskatoon from China in the early 1990s, he planned to work as an electrician, just as he had back home. His credentials, however, weren’t recognized, so he went to work in a local Mandarin restaurant.
Liang’s wife, Muling, came from a farming family and moved to Saskatoon about a year after her husband. She worked at the well-known Golden Dragon restaurant in Saskatoon.
The Liangs had soon saved enough money to purchase a business. They looked around rural Saskatchewan and found a Chinese restaurant in Colonsay, a town about 60 kilometres southeast of Saskatoon. The couple ran the restaurant for 25 years.
They then expanded their portfolio and purchased a gas station at the intersection of two highways nearby. It was losing money — lots of it — every year, and the Liangs took drastic steps.
“When we bought it, we both put in lots of hours to get it going,” Ben said.
Once they signed the papers, they cut the staff from 26 to just the two of them, and they still ran the restaurant.
“For the first year, we didn’t make a penny for ourselves. We got a really good deal, but you have to work hard to build up the business.”
The couple spent $30,000 on the women’s and men’s restrooms at the gas station, and soon people started to linger a little longer, usually buying something on their way out.
They sold the gas station after a few years and focused their energy on just one business: a new restaurant 230 kilometres away in Unity, Sask., called Muse on Main.
Their menu features Western fare, from grilled cheese to veal. Muse on Main also offers perogies, a Saskatchewan staple.
At the back of the menu, patrons can find the Emperor’s Special and chow mein.
These small, locally owned restaurants are stitches in the fabric of rural Saskatchewan. In towns where there are only a handful of places to eat, people support them whenever they can.
As these communities observe the never-ending cycle of planting, growing and harvesting, their treasured restaurants follow a cycle of their own.
“The typical experience of the first generation of immigrants is making sacrifices so the next generation can have a better life,” Pak Chan said.
He recalls his experiences in his family’s restaurant with fondness and speaks of his parents with great respect. Chan worked alongside his father “not because of indebtedness,” he said. “It was more of a collaboration.”
His parents have retired comfortably, but the cycle continues.
The restaurant becomes home to a new family, serving old customers, filling it with the smell of their own recipes.