KAREN TAM at YYZ Artists' Outlet (401 Richmond, #140), to August 12. 416-598-4546. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
Health food consciousness, the lust for "authentic" cuisine and the recent the war on bean sprouts have all contributed to the once ubiquitous family-owned Canadian-Chinese restaurant taking a chop. Will chicken balls with a side of fries become a thing of the past?
Montreal-based Karen Tam celebrates the fading national institution in her walk-in installation Shangri-La Café, A Division of Gold Mountain Restaurant.
She convincingly turns a room at YYZ into a 40-seat restaurant with borrowed and homemade props.
Ten red-and-white silkscreened lamp shades adorned with characters, nature scenes and patterns light the room. The Asian decor, laminate countertop and dated jukebox sporting Wang Chung all shout Westernized Chinese eatery.
But Tam, who grew up in a place like this with her restaurateur parents, deals in more than nostalgia, examining the history of Chinese Canadians from 19th-century CPR days. After building the railway, many Chinese workers were denied any other kinds of work. Some started restaurant ventures, work nearly as backbreaking as driving 9-inch nails.
On wooden tables, a brief guide to Westernized Chinese food disguised as a menu offers facts on the origin of popular dishes and of racial slurs, and a video introduces proprietors of local Chinese restaurants. Another video features Tam trailing her father, Gordon, just before her parents sold the family business, as he makes plum sauce and wontons.
Instructive on the one hand plum sauce is in fact made with canned pumpkin rather than plums it's also touching to see Gordon's pride in his work as his daughter documents him.
The revelation of this largely unconsidered side of the Canadian-Chinese restaurant as a place of familial bonding and a second home is ultimately what makes the show come alive.