Eat the World

Eat the World

From Madagascar to the Arctic Circle, globetrotting filmmaker Cheuk Kwan gets a mouth of Diaspora.


Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, United States, Saudi Arabia. Japanese, English, French, Mandarin, Cantonese.

These are the places where filmmaker Cheuk Kwan has lived, and the languages and dialects he speaks.

His international lifestyle may sound unusual, but his new 13-part documentary series Chinese Restaurants proves otherwise. Kwan, who now lives in Toronto with his family, created a film that explore the lives of Chinese restaurant owners and their families in countries throughout the world. These people live in more than one country, speak more than one language, and identify with more than one culture.

Kwan, age 54, crossed the continents and the islands of the world filming Chinese restaurants in countries, including Cuba, Turkey, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa and Israel. He traveled close to home, to film restaurants in Saskatchewan. And he also went as far as Tromso, Norway, north of the Arctic Circle, to talk to diasporic Chinese there.

His idea for the documentary came from a visit to a Chinese restaurant in Istanbul, Turkey in 1976. Kwan explains that every time he travels, he looks for Chinese restaurants. But the China Restaurant in Istanbul surprised him. He says he didn’t expect to find Chinese in Turkey. And he had read in Let’s Go Europe guidebook that the man who owned the restaurant had walked from China to Turkey. That was the triggering point, he says. “I told myself that one day I would make a film about Chinese restaurants around the world,” he says.

Kwan says he chose the countries for the documentary “on a whim.” He says he chose some of the countries because they were interesting situations, such as the Arctic Circle. Others appealed to him because he was surprised to find Chinese communities there, such as in Madagascar. He notes that he chose some countries and restaurants surreptitiously, such as Turkey, a country that he visited years before. He puts quotation marks around the word “exotic” when he writes in an e-mail that some countries he chose were “exotic” places that are known to have a Chinese community. These places included Mauritius and Trinidad. He also tried to balance his choices geographically.

Kwan self-financed the entire project. He declined to say how much he spent on the making of his documentary series. “It’s a trade secret,” he says.

People ask him why he chose to explore Chinese restaurants in his documentary. “I could have picked Chinese dentists around the world,” he jokes, adding that that would be a boring choice. But people resonate with Chinese food. “It’s an icon that people can identify with,” he explains.

A Life of Activism

Kwan sees many connections between his life and the lives of the people he features in the documentary. His own life story would fit well in the film. He was born in Hong Kong, and lived in Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan during his youth. He holds a master’s degree in systems engineering from a United States university. In 1976, he immigrated to Canada, where he still lives. Though he put down roots in Canada, he spent eight years in the 1980s working in Saudi Arabia, Japan and Hong Kong. He is married to a woman of Dutch descent.

The making of the documentary wasn’t the first time Kwan worked on a project about Asian communities. His new work as a filmmaker and executive director of the Harmony Movement are the latest efforts in a long history of community activism. Asked if his film marks a return to his activist roots, Kwan responds: “I’ve never left my activist roots.”

In 1978, Kwan co-founded The Asianadian, a pioneering Asian Canadian magazine. A year later, he was a founding member of a committee that protested W5, a CTV news program, for its segment titled “Campus Giveaway,” which involved racist coverage of Chinese Canadians. The 1979 protest had so much support that it became a Chinese Canadian nationwide movement. Kwan has also been involved with the China human rights effort since Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Kwan’s film features Chinese restaurants around the world, but he began his work in his home city of Toronto. He explains he made all his contacts from Toronto because there is a lot of secondary migration to that city. He gives the examples of Toronto’s South African Chinese, Mauritian Chinese and Latino Chinese. Kwan talked to people of Chinese descent who lived in countries other than China before coming to Toronto. These Toronto contacts helped him find contacts in the cities he featured in his documentary.

When he traveled to the cities, he interviewed restaurant owners to see if they were right for his documentary. His main criterion was for the restaurant owners to have a good human interest story. He says he wanted to make sure that the restaurant owners in his documentary weren’t so ordinary that they wouldn’t come across well on television.

And the people he chose to feature in the documentary are anything but ordinary.

New Places, New Identities

The documentary explores how the diasporic Chinese create new lives, face struggles, and form their identities in their host countries. Many of the Chinese restaurant owners and their families are vibrant members of their communities, and they identify strongly with their host countries.

Fatima Ma Wang, a Chinese restaurant owner in Turkey, is one of these people. The story of Wang’s family sparked the idea in Kwan’s mind for the documentary. Fatima Ma Wang’s deceased husband, Wang Zengshan, was the restaurant owner that Kwan read had “walked from China” all the way to Turkey.

Wang Zengshan was the governor of Xinjiang Province in China. The Wang family is Muslim, and they were Nationalists during the Chinese Civil War. The family left Xinjiang in 1949 as the Communists overpowered the Kuomintang, and the Kuomintang escaped to Taiwan. The Wangs joined hundreds of other Muslim Nationalists on a treacherous journey — they walked through the Himalayas to Pakistan, with their horses and camels.

The Wangs lived in a refugee camp in Pakistan for several years, but there were more changes in store for them after Pakistan recognized China’s Communist government. They left Pakistan for Turkey in 1955—this time they made the journey by plane, ship and train. In Turkey, Wang Zengshan taught at Istanbul University, and operated a Chinese restaurant. But Wang died of a heart attack in 1961, leaving Fatima Ma, who was his second wife, and their eight children.

Fatima Ma Wang, now an elderly woman, says in the documentary that Turkey is her home. “I’ve gotten used to living here,” she says. She also appreciates her adopted country for religious reasons. “Turkey has been good to us because we’re Muslims,” she says.

Now that Mrs. Wang is in her last years, the future of her family’s restaurant is uncertain. As Kwan features the life stories of people like Wang, he records moments in history that may soon disappear.

Many of the families featured in the documentary have embraced their new countries. But Kwan also tells the stories of diasporic Chinese who have experienced hardships in their new societies. One of his films, which consists of episodes from three different countries, is titled Song of the Exile. Fatima Ma Wang’s story is in that film. While the episode shows how she made a life in Turkey, it also explores how she and her family fled two other countries for political reasons.

Song of the Exile also includes an episode about a South African Chinese woman’s lifelong feeling of alienation from her country.

Onkuen Lim was born in South Africa, and runs a Chinese restaurant in Cape Town, but she has always felt estranged from her country. “There’s no national pride,” she says in the episode. “We always thought we were sojourning here, the place actually belonged to the whites. We were just encroaching on their space. It was never meant for us to claim.”

Kwan writes in his South Africa journal that Onkuen is a new name for the restaurant owner. Kwan recorded a discussion he had with Lim about the name change in a 2001 journal entry. “Edna tells me over the phone that she has changed her name to Onkuen (or An Kan) Lim, Lim being L.A. Ying’s original surname, and An Kan are her given names,” Kwan writes. “She wrote those characters out to me in her very rudimentary Chinese when I was in Cape Town last year. ‘I want to be more Chinese,’ she tells me. ‘I was prevented from becoming Chinese by apartheid.’ ”

“Survival, prosperity, and adaptability”

While Chinese restaurants are featured in each of Kwan’s episodes, the series brings more than food to the dinner table. “The videos demonstrate that survival, prosperity, and adaptability are almost innate traits of the Chinese everywhere,” says Tony Chan, a filmmaker and professor of communication at the University of Washington. Chan has also looked at Chinese restaurants in Canada in his work, and he produced the film Chinese Cafes in Rural Saskatchewan in 1985.

Seeing Themselves in the Film

Many diasporic Chinese audiences who see Kwan’s documentary at film festivals or other screenings identify with the lives of the people he features. “Audiences in Vancouver, and San Francisco, and Singapore — and Toronto, of course — are very enthusiastic and the reaction is just fantastic,” Kwan says.

Kwoi Gin, the cinematographer of the series, is amazed at the turnout for Chinese Restaurants at the film festivals. “I think it’s like a funky series, but I can’t figure out why it is so popular,” he says. “Like everywhere we go to, we pack the house.

Xiang Cui, a Ph.D. student in history at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver is one of the audience members who identified with the people in the Kwan’s film. She was touched by the restaurant owner in Mauritius, who cried when he spoke about his mother. Cui says she understood his feeling, and she cried when he cried. “That’s the most moving part of the movie,” she says. She says she is an ocean away from her mother in Datong, China. “For some reason, it made me homesick,” she says.

But the reaction is different in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. Kwan says audience members in this Greater China area react to the film with the sentiment: “That’s interesting, but that’s not us.” Kwan explains, “These countries / territories’ population comprises primarily of ethnic Chinese and were originally part of China, so they have what I call the ‘original Chinese mentality,’ versus ‘overseas Chinese mentality.’ ”

Stories from the Road

As he filmed the stories of diasporic Chinese around the world, Kwan picked up many stories from his time on the road. One of these stories is about the death of the man he interviewed for his Canada segment.

In his Canada episode, Kwan profiles Jim Kook, the longtime owner of the New Outlook Café in the town of Outlook, Saskatchewan. Kook spent his life serving his diner food to the people of the town, and he got to know everyone personally. His customers affectionately call him “Noisy Jim,” because of his loud voice. When Kwan made his documentary, Kook had been retired as owner of the restaurant for several years. But he still came to the café each morning at 6 a.m. to serve the customers coffee.

After Kwan filmed Kook, he wanted to go back for more footage. “I had wanted to go back to Outlook to re-film him because I didn’t think I had enough material on him,” Kwan writes in his Canada journal. But before Kwan finished his documentary series, the elderly man died. Kwan decided to film Kook’s funeral and include it in the episode. The footage of the funeral shows how Kook connected with the Outlook community. At the funeral, the room is packed with the people of the town, including the mayor and the hockey team that Kook sponsored.

Norway presented a different kind of challenge. Kwan and his partner, Gin had to adjust to the “midnight sun” when they filmed a Chinese restaurant in Tromso, Norway. Tromso is 500 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. “The effect of the midnight sun is so pervasive in our lives that it has a disorienting effect,” Kwan writes in his Norway journal. “Our schedule is no longer confined to the clock. Twenty-four hours are available to us. We take dinner at midnight, take naps in the middle of the day, and go out for a jog at 10 p.m. — completely impervious to the clock.”

Gin says the sun never went down. “We literally, like didn’t sleep for the whole week we were there,” he says.

Across the Globe

When Kwan made the film, he made his dream happen. But the film did more than that. He says it reaffirmed his belief in the “globalized connectedness” between people. He had long believed in this connectedness, and says his film proved to himself that people are indeed very connected. “I’ve always had that philosophy in my mind because of my background,” he says.

For Gin, the experience of making the film was profound. Gin was born in Hong Kong, and lives in Canada. He says Hong Kong is like a campground and a transit point, where you have no sense of identity. But he also didn’t identify with Canada.

“I think I kind of felt like a freak all the time,” he says.

During the 1990s, he was living at different times in Canada and Hong Kong. He says when he was in Hong Kong, he would miss Canada. And when he was in Canada, he missed Hong Kong.

The film helped him sort out his identity.

“After I worked on the series, I felt a lot more at peace with myself because I discover a belonging, a global belonging,” he says.

Gin says he doesn’t want to be Canadian, or Chinese, or from Hong Kong — he wants to be a global citizen. He says all the people featured in the documentary are saying what he also feels. And Gin says that statement is: “Hey dude, don’t look at my passport. It doesn’t matter what my passport says. I’m Chinese. I’m a global Chinaman.”

look at my passport. It doesn’t matter what my passport says. I’m Chinese. I’m a global Chinaman.”

Kwan also felt connected to the people he interviewed for the documentary. He feels especially close to the family he profiled in Turkey. In his Turkey journal, he writes:

Kwan also felt connected to the people he interviewed for the documentary. He feels especially close to the family he profiled in Turkey. In his Turkey journal, he writes:

“I feel a bond with the family, especially with the children who are all my generation. I can empathize what they had to go through growing up in a foreign country a part of Chinese diaspora – their experience, their education, their sense of initial displacement, and yet, how quickly they found their sense of belonging, not to one country, but to the world.” _________________________________________________________________________
Kathleen Haley is a freelance journalist in Vancouver. She is of Irish, German, Polish, English and Norwegian descent. She was born in California and lived there until 2003, when she moved to Vancouver to pursue a master’s in journalism at the University of British Columbia. This essay was originally published in Ricepaper Issue 10.1 (Tenth Anniversary Issue).