By Glenn Drexhage
For Imogene Lim, a menu isn’t just a list of culinary choices – it’s also a cultural symbol that offers a glimpse into a rapidly disappearing world.
Lim, an anthropology professor at Vancouver Island University, has been collecting Chinese restaurant menus for decades. She estimates she now has hundreds – dating from the 1920s to the present – along with related items such as fortune cookie sayings, chopstick wrappers and takeout containers.
About 70 of her menus are now on display at All Together Now, a Museum of Vancouver exhibition that highlights “rare, unconventional and awe-inspiring objects” from 20 collectors.
While Lim’s overall collection boasts menus from Canada – including Nanaimo and Vancouver Island – the U.S. and beyond, her contribution to the Museum of Vancouver show consists mostly of menus from Vancouver establishments – many of which no longer exist.
“I’m pleased that these are getting presented because I think it’s important information,” says Lim. “Especially when I see how Vancouver’s Chinatown has diminished as a place, given the memories I have of how vibrant it was.”
Lim, who was born in Vancouver and grew up in Burnaby, comes from a foodie background. Along with some silent partners, her father and uncle ran WK Gardens, a now-defunct restaurant that was based in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Lim inherited some menus from her uncle, who nabbed them from other establishments to keep an eye on the competition. She’s collected Chinese restaurant menus on her own since her graduate school days.
Her collecting passion dovetails nicely with her research interests. She uses her menus as teaching tools in her course on food and culture.
“It’s not just about collecting,” says Lim. “I’m an anthropologist – I can take it back into the classroom.”
“She’s focusing on hybrid histories – how cultural encounters and intersections appear in all aspects of our lives, including the way we eat,” says Viviane Gosselin, senior curator at the Museum of Vancouver. “Chinese restaurant menus may be mundane objects, but they are also exquisite primary sources to study how people from various cultural backgrounds come to live together and invent new traditions.”
The collection can also be viewed online at http://viuspace.viu.ca/handle/10613/2695.
Glenn Drexhage is a writer with VIU’s communications department.