If one expression sums up a tasty meal at a Chinese restaurant, it is the Mandarin phrase ‘hao chi.’ In Chinese, the character hao (好) means good and chi (吃) means to eat, so at its most basic, hao chi expresses satisfaction with one’s food.
The same characters (albeit with a different tone) can also describe a person who enjoys eating, perhaps a bit too much, and if ever there is an appropriate time to do so, it’s undoubtedly at a buffet.
The Great Buffet of China in Saskatoon, the largest city in the province of Saskatchewan, Canada, took this phrase to heart when it produced a true advertising gem back in 1996.
It is also a 30-second masterclass in how not to say, “wow, what delicious food.”
The video, which has more than 13,000 views on YouTube, begins with an older gentleman defining ‘How Chee,’ as it’s written on the screen. We then see a trio of white folks take a shot at the phrase, with one guy using a particularly crude accent in the process.
Many Saskatonians (Saskatooners? Saskatoonites?) who were around in the ’90s are familiar with the commercial, and some have taken to the comment sections of Reddit and YouTube to reminisce on the decades-old clip.
“I always remember way back then thinking it was super racist for that white dude to say ‘how chee’ with a Chinese accent… and now it still seems super racist,” reads a Reddit post by Stoon5555.
Another now-deleted account chimed in, “I haven’t seen that in decades, but when I pressed play, I knew all the dialogue. So cringey but a local classic for sure.”
Below are a few others, but a poster under the name Starlite_Decay takes the cake.
Meanwhile, on YouTube, user Brande X quipped, “Apparently they have good Qi in the atmosphere there,” noting the likeness between the butchered pronunciation of chi and the traditional Chinese medicine concept of ‘Qi.’
When I began investigating the story — and terrible Chinese pronunciation — behind the Great Buffet of China commercial included above, I assumed it was a one-off ad from a bygone era.
It turns out there is actually a second advertisement up on YouTube. It shows a family doing tai chi in a local park, and it’s just as memorable as the original.
I first heard about this hidden gastronomical gem in the ‘Paris of the Prairies’ a few years ago while in the city of Guangzhou, after the ad made the rounds on Chinese social media (a gif of the commercial still occasionally pops up in WeChat groups in China). I’ve been eager to visit ever since, although I just couldn’t justify flying from China to Canada to eat at a Chinese buffet.
Now I’m back on Canada’s West Coast, and the two-hour flight from Vancouver to Saskatoon seems reasonable enough for a good meal and a weekend adventure.
A view of the South Saskatchewan River
While not exactly a major tourist destination, Saskatoon does have a few claims to fame: It holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest snowball fight, which took place in 2016 with an impressive 7,681 participants, and is home to what might be the only drive-thru pierogi restaurant in the country (approximately 13.4% of the province is ethnically Ukrainian).
There are 100,000 lakes in the province, and no fewer than three world-record fish have been caught in its waters. Plus, it is the national and global capital of mustard production (suck on that, Nepal).
It is also the hometown of NHL legend Gordie Howe, former Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, and billionaire Jim Pattison, the ninth-richest person in Canada.
Interestingly, one of Saskatoon’s four sister cities is Shijiazhuang, the capital of China’s Hebei province. Fitting, because much like Saskatoon, you’ve probably never heard of it (fellow Canadians notwithstanding).
It is incredibly flat, sunny, and cold — with a record low temperature of -39.2 degrees Celsius last February.
Wandering Saskatoon’s West End, we’re struck by the fact that there are many Asian restaurants here, often beckoning passers-by with large, eye-catching signs.
The Great Buffet of China isn’t even the only Asian buffet in the city. Best Asia Buffet on the east side also boasts decades in business, and there’s at least one other Asian restaurant, Delight+ Chinese Cuisine, offering a lunch buffet for part of the year.
But none are as iconic as the Great Buffet of China.
The Great Buffet of China was opened by Susan and Andy Kwan back in 1995, replacing the pair’s earlier restaurant, Kwan’s Kitchen, to accommodate greater demand than the first venue could handle.
The Kwan family hails from Kaiping, a southern Chinese city in the Pearl River Delta, famous for its 1,800 watchtower-like structures called diaolou. (Believe it or not, there’s a small, now-abandoned community in the city called Canada Village).
It was there that Andy learned most of his cooking technique — skills that he brought to Canada when the couple moved here in the early ‘90s, later refined by working in local Chinese kitchens.
Back then, G-Boc, as the Great Buffet of China is locally known, was one of the few Asian restaurants in town.
“It was always busy,” says Justin Kwan, son of Susan and Andy, who now owns and manages the establishment. “Because we’ve been here for so long, people know the name, and we have a lot of loyal customers, so it has been good,” he says.
Now in his 30s, Justin has been active in the restaurant since he was 13, doing everything from washing dishes to hosting to prep work. His mother, Susan, who used to handle the front-of-house operations, has since passed away, leaving her role to the family heir. Meanwhile, his father, Andy, now 68, remains in the kitchen where he’s been since the beginning.
A collection of awards and accolades proudly displayed on a wall in the Great Buffet of China
With 26 years in business, the place has generated plenty of fanfare. Among the restaurant’s accolades, it is an eight-time Consumer’s Choice Award winner and earned the title of Saskatchewan’s Best Buffet by Prairies North Magazine.
The junior Kwan tells us some customers have been coming for decades — he knows a number of them by name.
“We have a lot of people that come here that say, ‘hey, my grandparents used to come here all the time, and we’re still coming,’” he says. One guy even came in and showed off a G-Boc tattoo he did after losing a bet.
While not as culturally diverse as Canada’s big cities, Saskatoon’s 1996 census lists nearly 3,000 Chinese speakers, 2,645 of whom spoke the language natively — just over 1% of the population. (The census does not differentiate between dialects, so ‘Chinese’ encompasses everything from Cantonese to Mandarin to Sichuanese.)
That may not be a huge number compared to Greater Vancouver or Greater Toronto, where a respective 13% and 7% of the population spoke Chinese as their mother tongue in the same year. However, the Statistics Canada data does indicate that Saskatoon is far less ethnically homogenous than outsiders might believe.
For their part, the Kwans speak Mandarin, Cantonese, and the local Kaiping language of Taishanese (also romanized as Toisanese in Cantonese), in addition to English, and Justin acknowledges that his parents were almost certainly aware of the linguistic fumble in their restaurant’s ads.
“Why didn’t anyone tell them that they’re pronouncing it wrong? I thought that,” says Justin, who was only 5 years old back then. But ultimately, it didn’t really matter. The commercials did wonders for business, and we’re still laughing about them decades later.
Few industries felt the squeeze of pandemic safety measures like restaurants. Being a Chinese restaurant — and a buffet — certainly didn’t help. Fortunately, the Great Buffet of China adapted, closing indoor dining and ramping up takeout service.
“We got on third-party apps, we started doing online orders — we never did online ordering before,” says Justin. “To have people serve, to have only 50% people in there, you’re pretty much just asking for us to lose money.”
Being in the same place for so long, they managed to keep overhead low (no rent payments), but 2020 was still their most challenging year in business.
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But worse than the hit to their bottom line was the rise in racism and bigotry, something as acutely visible to Asians in Saskatoon as it was — and remains — throughout the world.
“I get people saying we support Chinese propaganda, people messaging me ‘go back to where you came from,’” he says, along with a host of racial slurs we’d rather not share.
“It’s definitely picked up tenfold, I’d say, and not only at the restaurant. I feel it … Even though I was born and raised here and I went to school here, even walking around, I’ve gotten it,” Justin says, adding, “I’m just as Canadian as anyone else.”
My partner and I decide that to best experience the buffet, we’ll eat there for lunch and dinner, so we make our way to West 22nd Street around 1 PM.
Once occupied by Chi Chi’s Mexican restaurant (the phonetic similarity to how chee a coincidence, I presume), it’s the same building seen in the ad 25 years earlier. The pink facade has since disappeared, but the imposing neon sign remains, blasting bright red light toward the adjacent street.
Inside is an attractive, spacious venue — clearly upgraded from its early years — with a banquet area and enough room to seat around 380 diners.
The buffet is huge, with individual sections for Chinese, Western, and vegetarian dishes, as well as a salad bar and an array of desserts, fruits, and pastries. There’s also an ice cream machine and a grill open for dinner, where guests can choose from a selection of meat to be cooked fresh by the chef.
We start our culinary galavant through the Great Buffet of China’s offerings by sampling its China-inspired dishes: popcorn shrimp, house specialty shrimp, fried rice, lo mein, wonton soup, a variety of meat dishes, buns, dumplings, and some veggies (to be healthy). As you might expect from any buffet, some items are wonderful, while others are less exciting.
We particularly enjoy both varieties of shrimp, as well as the pork buns and coconut buns. Justin tells us the latter is often ordered for takeout by the dozen.
They offer a modest selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages at excellent prices. A bottle of domestic beer, five ounces of wine, and select cocktails cost 4.50 CAD, while highballs go for 4.25 CAD.
The days of 5.50 CAD lunch and 7.99 CAD dinner seen in the cringe-worthy ’90s ads are long gone, but at 20 CAD, you can still get a good bang for your buck if you show up ready to eat.
The University of Saskatchewan campus
Before dinner, we take a brief walk around the beautiful and sprawling University of Saskatchewan campus. (Fun fact: U of S buildings are connected by underground hallways, so once inside, you never have to step into the cold.)
By the time we return, the Great Buffet of China feels like much-needed respite from Saskatchewan’s relentless winter breeze — the atmosphere made nicer by restaurant staff, who, on both visits, are consistently kind and attentive.
With dinner comes the addition of sushi — a half-dozen-or-so rolls to choose from. We load up on those and sample the Western dishes, too: fried chicken, roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, salmon, corn, green beans, and a personal favorite, pineapple ham. We also try the fresh grilled shrimp and beef (you can choose from three sauces).
Another two or three rounds, and we move to dessert: It’s a genuinely impressive and diverse spread, and everything tastes great. We are crazy about the berry crumble, and in the spirit of journalistic rigor, return for a final bowl of ice cream with heaps of the deep-red baked goods dumped on top.
To say this was an enjoyable day of eating would be an understatement. Of course, we were not only satisfied with two solid meals but also for having boldly dined where virtually every Saskatonian and almost no one else has dined before.
It turns out Saskatoon is a lovely city — they don’t call Saskatchewan the Land of Living Skies for nothing. Maybe it’s not high on your bucket list, but it is absolutely worth a visit, not least for its dining options.
Justin is aware of both the strengths and challenges of the family business. After decades in operation, just about any outfit in the service industry is going to have its golden years and hard times; its share of folks who both admire and admonish. Heck, he sometimes has misgivings about the name of the restaurant and the negative stereotypes it may conjure.
He’s taking it all in stride, though, and constantly working to improve things where he can.
“Overall, I’m still glad we’ve been here so long … We’ve provided a living for our family, and it’s been great,” he says.
“It’s been a wild ride for sure.”
In the process of researching this story, I learned that unique Asian buffet advertisements are their own genre of commercial. In fact, the Great Buffet of China looks tame compared to some of the completely unhinged advertisements I found online. Hungry for more? Be our guest. And if you thought Saskatoon had only one Asian restaurant with an outlandish commercial, well, Ming’s Kitchen has something to say about that.
Cover photo designed by Sabina Islas. Other images via Jesse Pottinger
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