Paul Yee's Chinatown Christmas

Photo courtesy of Paul Yee (pictured above, far right). 

As a child in Vancouver during the 1960s, I wasn’t deprived of Christmas. Mine was just different. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I discovered Christmas shortbread, and 40 when I learned that “tree trimming” didn’t mean cutting it down. It was then that I set out to master cooking a Christmas dinner, to prove I was truly Canadian.Now, I’m known for my excellent roast turkey. I plan ahead for extra stock, brine the bird, and serve silken gravy. Kids love my giblet gravy, and for dessert, I make sticky toffee pudding. All this I learned from The Joy of Cooking.

But I don’t put up Christmas lights, even though they were a big part of my childhood.

My aunt (who I just call Aunt) had a treasure chest of Christmas trimmings that was decades old, as was her decorating scheme. She ran one string of exterior Christmas lights inside the house, from front door through living-room into the kitchen. It stretched high enough to hook good-sized Chinese lanterns over the bulbs. In one window, Aunt hung a double-sided lamp the size and shape of an attaché case that, when lit, showed a candle glowing in the centre of a wreath. When all these lights lit the dark, our skid-row house in Strathcona became a wonderland. 

Our Christmas tree was short but magical. Aunt had long cultivated an evergreen bush in a pot in her garden. Every December, the tree was carried inside and decorated. Tiny porcelain bells bore seasonal greetings from local department stores. Metal reflectors clasped bulbs and enlarged the colours. Four special bulbs came with up-pointing pins, upon which sat paper lampshades the size of muffin liners, each painted with wintry scenes. The heat of the bulbs set the lampshades spinning all day. 

One year Aunt broke tradition and purchased something from Chinatown: strings of Christmas lights where each bulb was a tiny Chinese lantern with tassels and gilt. When she found her tree had no room for new trimmings, she mounted a garden trellis behind it and draped her new strings there.  

Aunt didn’t believe in Santa Claus. My brother and I had arrived in her life as orphans when she and Uncle were in their sixties. As our guardians, they never gave us Christmas gifts. When family friends sent us toys, Aunt let us open them and put them under the tree. On Christmas Day, there was no fuss about opening gifts. Everything had already been unwrapped. 

Christmas dinner was the single western-style meal our family ate together each year. On the other 364 days, if Uncle couldn’t come home for dinner, Aunt (a Canadian-born Chinese) might cook pork chops or beef tongue. Uncle, however, only ate Chinese dishes. One of his favourites was fermented bean curd stir-fried with watercress.


The Christmas turkey was roasted at the Pender Café because Aunt couldn’t manage it in the wood stove. It was served with stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, Brussels sprouts, canned peas, and cranberry sauce. The same guest came every year: Uncle’s brother-in-law, a farmer from Richmond who had no family here. The men toasted each other with Scotch. After dinner, Aunt, my brother and I listened to “The Gift of the Magi,” or Dickens’ A Christmas Carol on the radio. Uncle didn’t know enough English. Of course there were turkey leftovers, and Aunt made rice congee from the carcass.

I don’t do Christmas cards either, even though Aunt was a maniac for them. She bought each year’s cards early, in January, at the post-holiday sales. She and Uncle had a mailing list over a hundred names long, mostly Chinese Canadians. Aunt had proudly mastered this job. She had custom rubber stamps made with the Chinese pictographs for “Merry Christmas Happy New Year” and the family signature line. Two other stamps had the family signature line in English, as well as the return address. To do her Christmas cards, she stamped away with an ink pad. The only penmanship required was the writing of recipient’s address.

Why did Aunt go to such trouble? We were not a Christian family, no family friends dropped by during the season, and no extended family joined us for the holiday. It had, I believe, everything to do with Uncle’s occupation. He was a gambler in Chinatown, and filling the house with red and bright lights and good wishes was a way of ensuring that good luck came his way.

At Christmas, our world strives for joy through giving and getting gifts. I’ve tried my share of shopping, gift-wrapping, baking Christmas cookies. But I have to admit, Christmas isn’t something I feel in my bones. I understand the family nature of Christmas, but somehow I lost it.  One Christmas Day when I was twenty-something, friends invited me to the movies. Usually I spent the day with family, but that year I wanted an escape. At the Odeon Six downtown,I was astounded that Chinese Canadians were 90 percent of the audience. I wondered:


“What’s the matter with us? Shouldn’t we all be at home with our families?”

Maybe that’s why I was so keen to master cooking the Christmas feast. It’s another way of bringing family -- and chosen family -- together again.  

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