Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Dirty Dozen, with Arlene Chan

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Arlene Chan

Arlene Chan grew up near Dundas and Elizabeth Streets, in the heart of Toronto's Chinatown — now one of the largest Chinatowns in North America.

Arlene follows up her The Chinese in Toronto from 1878: From Outside to Inside the Circle with her newest book, The Chinese Community in Toronto: Then and Now (Dundurn), an examination of contributions from and challenges to the large and vibrant Chinese community in Toronto.

Today Arlene joins us as part of our Dirty Dozen series, where authors are invited to share twelve unexpected facts about themselves. Arlene tells us about riding in cars with Olympians, chatting with Mick Jagger and the best steak marinade around.

  1. When I was a teenager, I had a big-time crush on one particular Hollywood star. Because many visiting celebrities, like Bill Cosby, Lauren Bacall and Ella Fitzgerald, frequented my parents’ restaurant in Toronto’s Chinatown, I told my dad that if Robert Redford ever went to eat there, no matter the hour of the day or night, he had to call home and I’d be there in a flash. My dad nodded agreeably, then asked, “Who’s Robert Redford?”
  2. I played keyboard in a rock band, Asia Minors, for five years.
  3. Between my third and fourth year of university, I took a year to travel across Europe. I arrived with $200 and came home with the same amount. Working for a few months in Munich, then in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, covered many expenses but my Frommer’s guidebook, Europe on $5 a Day, was the money-saver.
  4. My dream car is the Porsche Carrera, mattering not which model, colour or year. I had the unique and rare opportunity to ride in one belonging to Olympian, Greg Joy, who cleared the high jump bar to win a silver medal in one of the most iconic moments in Canadian sports. As much as I was in the Montreal Olympic Stadium to witness that very moment in 1976, here I was sitting for the first time ever in my dream car with none other than Greg who gladly demonstrated the car’s power and handling on an Ottawa highway. With a Rolling Stones tune blaring over the roar of the engine, we traded stories about meeting Mick Jagger. Approaching us on the other side of the centre barricade was the motorcade of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The whole experience was surreal.
  5. So how did I get to meet Mick Jagger? I was working as a chambermaid at the Hilton Hotel in Munich. I heard through the chambermaid grapevine that he was staying at the hotel. At the end of the shift, my Canadian girlfriend and I changed out of our uniforms into civilian clothing. We knocked on his door and he answered. Time was suspended when we chatted about Toronto and his memories of performing there the previous year with the Rolling Stones. Needless to say, we were disappointed he didn’t invite us into his suite or offer us VIP seating at any upcoming concerts.
  6. One of my summer jobs was working as a pearl diver at the Canadian National Exhibition. At the beginning, the water housing the oysters in the mini pool was crystal clear; however, by the end of two weeks, my job of diving and retrieving oysters was not so pleasant. I’m not sure if these pearls that were mounted on earrings and necklaces and sold as jewellery were as white and lustrous as the earlier ones.
  7. During another summer, I worked at the White Grass Dude Ranch near the towns of Jackson Hole and Moose by the Snake River in Wyoming. How more Wild West can these names sound? Windy, a pinto horse, was always saved for me by the cowboys for riding after my shift of cleaning the guest cabins. The ranch was later acquired as part of Grand Teton National Park and placed on the American National Register of Historic Places.
  8. I love playing Chinese checkers.li>
  9. When my two boys were growing up, I cooked steaks once in a while. I couldn’t afford the expensive beef cuts at the time so I bought one of the cheapest — blade steak — and marinated it overnight to tenderize the meat. Here’s my marinade recipe: ¼ C vegetable oil; ¼ C light soya sauce; 1/8 C red wine vinegar; 2 T lemon juice, dash of Worcestershire sauce; pinch of dry mustard, black pepper.
  10. One of my passions is downhill skiing. During the winter months, I rarely miss a weekday on the ski hills, as humble and low as they are near Toronto. I’ve had the good fortune of schussing down some memorable mountains though, like the Alps in Austria and Bavaria, the Rockies, and the Laurentians. My most memorable ski experience was heli-skiing in the Monashees of British Columbia. When I got off the helicopter at the top of a mountain crest the first time, there was no turning back. That was decades ago when I was much younger and more daring.
  11. My grand-daughter keeps me young.
  12. One of my most memorable experiences was being on Team Canada at the World Dragon Boat Championships in Florida (2011) and Hungary (2013). As a paddler on the Canadian National Women’s Team, we won gold medals for every race event at both championships for a grand total of eight gold medals. Every time I stood on the podium for the singing of O Canada and the raising of the Canadian flag, I had tears pouring down my face. I am so proud to be a Canadian.


Arlene Chan is a third-generation Chinese Canadian who was born in Toronto and spent her early years in "Old Chinatown" at Elizabeth and Dundas Streets where she helped at her parents' restaurant. Her other books include The Chinese in Toronto from 1878 and Paddles Up! Dragon Boat Racing in Canada. She lives in Toronto.

For more information about The Chinese Community in Toronto please visit the Dundurn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the Dirty Dozen interviews in our archives.

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