Eating Chinese: Recorded, Excerpted

Eating Chinese: Recorded, Excerpted


From 2000 to 2003, Cheuk Kwan and his cinematographer, Kwoi Gin, scoured the world for good eats and intriguing stories from the Chinese diaspora. The films that comprise Chinese Restaurants explore issues of migration, family, history and identity through the lens of Chinese restaurants from Haifa, Israel to Outlook, Saskatchewan. Lily Cho, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the cultural politics of Chinese restaurants in the Canadian Prairies, focuses on diaspora, postcoloniality, food culture, citizenship and affect in her research. Cho and Kwan spent a sunny morning talking about food, film, and much more.

LILY CHO: Tell me, why are you interested in Chinese restaurants?

CHEUK KWAN: I’ve always loved to travel and I would always walk into a Chinese kitchen and say, ‘Hey, I’m Chinese. Give me some real Chinese food, not what you have on your menu.’

LC: That’s something that I wanted to ask you about because there’s a very consistent declaration in your films that there were places that were serving more authentic Chinese food, more real Chinese food, than others. I’ve always been suspicious about the idea that there might be an authentic cuisine. But you feel beautifully unproblematic about it. When you were in Brazil in this amazing restaurant, you were saying, ‘This is really real, and this is really good.’ What is real Chinese food to you?

CK: In my definition, it’s anything that is true to the region where it came from. For example, I grew up eating Cantonese food in Hong Kong and Singapore so I consider what’s there real food.

LC: So what does it taste like? What are the signs?

CK: For Cantonese food, it’s got the purity of taste and the fresh ingredients. And, of course, the way you pair the ingredients together is very different: you don’t have the sweet n’ sour, and those yucky, pink, heavy sauces.

LC: But I love those sauces! (Laughs.)

CK: Sweet and sour is Cantonese, but in Hong Kong the sauce is made with real tomato paste, real Chinese vinegar and nutritious rock sugar. Not the ketchup, red food dye kind you get in North America

LC: And how does it matter to you, the realness of the food?

CK: I guess it’s what I am used to.

LC: Even though the dishes may be changing all the time?

CK: Yes, because there are now a lot of fusion and new wave Cantonese food in Hong Kong. Colette, my chef in Mauritius, works her wonderful fusion magic in her Indo-Hakka-Creole cuisine. Her food is authentic and from that island.

LC: You have such a clear idea about what real Chinese food is and what authentic Chinese food is. And that really interested me because you knew right away. You stepped into a kitchen in one of your films and you saw how everything was being prepared. You knew right away. How did you come to develop this quite clear and very consistent idea around the authentic?

CK: Travelling around, I learned to deconstruct the Chinese food that I get. I got to be a kind of connoisseur of each type of cooking. It’s not that I don’t like chop suey, I think they all have their place, but…

LC: But you just said you don’t like them…

CK: (Laughs.) But if I’m going to spend the money, I’d rather have authentic Chinese food.

LC: Do you think that that leads to notions of ethnic purity that might be complicated as well? I mean, do you think there’s a relationship between food and ethnicity?

CK: There’s a relationship, but not the ethnic purity you mentioned. To me it’s more about the essence of art, or the essence of cuisine.

LC: If you’re going to talk about an essence or purity to, let’s say, an artistic process, it seems to me that that risks reconsecrating a kind of ethnic nationalism. And I think one of the moves right now that I find interesting, in terms of the rise of China globally, is this incredibly romantic and nostalgic recuperation of pre-Communist Chinese culture and its greatness. I’m not saying it wasn’t great, but there’s form of amnesia happening in terms of feudalism and class privilege. I speak of this naively, but it seems to me that this came at the expense of some impressive forms of oppression internally. So I wonder when we talk about a purity of art or essence to a cultural production, I worry that we produce that oppression.

CK: I don’t think that you can argue that purity of food is equivalent to ethnocentrism or internal oppression. To me, French haute cuisine borders on nationalism and is in many ways a class privilege. Unlike the French, the Chinese were never elitists in cooking, unless we are talking imperial banquets, which are now extinct anyway. Chinese, like the Italians, have always had this egalitarian and communal approach to food. If you watch my films you’ll see that I’m trying to defuse this issue of ethnocentrism.

LC: Well especially because I think your films do both things. They take up, really beautifully, the ways that assimilation transforms and challenges all of these notions of authenticity and purity. But I think there are these moments where you sit down to a dish and you say, ‘My taste buds are so happy because I can taste the ginger and the fish’ (Both laugh.). And it’s almost as if you’re doing two things there: there are two moods.

CK: I was in Mombassa, Kenya and I happened to eat at this wonderful Hong Kong restaurant where black chefs were stir-frying with papayas and watermelon. So it was an entirely different experience of eating Chinese food. After that meal, I walked across the street to the Museum of Lost Treasures. Inside was a permanent exhibition of Ming Dynasty ceramics recovered from sunken Chinese junks off the east coast of Africa. The exhibit also tells of how Chinese junks influenced an entire generation of African boat design. That afternoon I made up my mind: I was going to make a film to deal with the spreading of Chinese culture and people around the world, using Chinese restaurants as a motif.

LC: There’s something about Chinese restaurants…

CK: It’s an icon of the Chinese diaspora.

LC: It’s such a strange thing, don’t you think? In my research, for example, what really struck me, and especially in the Prairies, often the first restaurants in any town were the Chinese restaurants, and given the racist culture of Canada at the turn of the century, and given the political climate, it still boggles my mind that the first instances of the public serving of food occurred within the context of, not just with Chinese cooks, but a Chinese restaurant. And there’s something very peculiar to me about that.

CK: Because eating is a very cultural thing for the Chinese. In a Chinese family the whole social thing is about food, you know, family dinners like in Ang Lee’s Eat, Drink, Man, Woman.

LC: But also about a father disciplining his daughters, or trying to…

CK: That’s also part of the authoritarian family culture, and eating is incorporated into that culture. So it was very easy for Chinese immigrants to say, ‘Hey, this is something that’s very important to us and also commercially and economically allowed of us to survive.’ And that’s why you find Chinese cafés everywhere in the Prairies.

LC: But we’re talking about hundreds or thousands of people who start restaurants with absolutely no experience in the kitchen, no experience cooking, which I think, around the world, one of the most difficult businesses to run successfully. So I wonder about what it is about this kind of work that makes Chinese diasporic culture so ubiquitous.

CK: First of all, you have to look at the social economics of it. Running a restaurant is the easiest and the most natural way for new Chinese immigrants to get started in the society. You don’t need the language, you have a demand for your product, the restaurant gives you a social base in the new country, and, as I always tell people, you don’t need to know how to cook well because you can fool a lot of people a lot of times with Chinese food. The last point is very true because people would not know how to judge your product or service, unlike being a doctor or an engineer. So Chinese food becomes very popular and is, in a sense, a market-driven global consumer product.

LC: Are we all dupes of global consumerism?

CK: Well, you get bombarded with advertising everyday: about technology, about services that you don’t need.

LC: (Laughs) So Chinese food was simply at the forefront of this system? You didn’t know that you needed sweet n’ sour chicken…(Laughs).

CK: You create a demand, you create desire for a whole generation of people who say, ‘Hey, I want my sweet n’ sour pork and chicken balls.’ When I made Chinese Restaurants, I had another thing in mind. I wanted to show the Chinese that they’re not as ethnically and culturally pure as they think they are. The Chinese can be very ethnocentric, of course, but they also absorbed all kinds of foreign cultures without realizing it. For five thousand years, sitting as Middle Kingdom, they really had a lot of contact with the rest of the world. Through Zheng He’s fifteenth-century voyages to the Indian Ocean, for example. That’s a full sixty years before Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Those voyages brought giraffes to the Imperial Court.

LC: Zheng He had enormous influence in Southeast Asia.

CK: That’s right. In the Tang Dynasty, Islam came in through the Silk Road and through Quanzhou, a very multicultural and international trading port in the southern coast of China. One of the ‘lost’ Jewish tribes also settled in China on their way to the India/Burma border. I dealt with all these in my films. The point is all these imports had enormous impact on the Chinese culture.

LC: And what we know as Chinese food today.

CK: Right. In fact, going back to my other point, there’s no pure Chinese food other than what you grew up with that you know as authentic. If you look at any dim sum menus, you’ll see the egg tarts. Egg tarts came from Portugal. And they became the Cantonese egg tarts. And I made a big deal out of that in my Brazil South story.

LC: And they looked so good. I’ve never seen egg tarts look that good. I loved the egg tarts. So it seems to me that you’re suggesting a kind of realness to Chinese food is deeply subjective.

CK: Chefs and writers will tell you food is all about memory. And memory, by definition, is subjective. So all food is, in one way or another, defined by time and space. If you grew up in Hong Kong in the 80’s tasting all this Western-concept food that your mother incorporated into her kitchen, you’ll come to me and say, ‘Oh that’s authentic Chinese food.’ With egg tarts, the purists will say, ‘Well that’s not Chinese food.’ Well these, to me, are real Chinese food because that’s what I grew up with. So in that sense, there’s a lot of relativism in defining what is pure Chinese food.

LC: I think that comes out very nicely in your films because you ask a lot of questions about the construction of the dishes. In asking people to talk about how they have constructed these dishes, you seem to be asking them to deconstruct their own sense of cultural ethnicity in some ways. So I was wondering if you could speak to this whole concept about incorporating deeply diasporic memory in cooking Chinese food.

CK: It’s a cliché, but food is a metaphor for life. And fusion food is a metaphor for immigrant assimilation. My argument is that the first generation always knows where they came from, but once you get past that you become more assimilated, like through interracial marriages. And the so-called pure Chinese food gets assimilated, just like a generation is assimilated.

LC: In the films you make a real point of following the next generation. And sometimes it’s not easy. In the opening Israel segment, it became really clear to me you made a real effort to talk to the next generation. Was that part of your conscious choice in terms of talking about assimilation?

CK: Yeah, because you cannot talk about a diasporic community without dealing with its future or what will happen to it. I’ve gone through a whole cycle of community activism in the late 70’s and early 80’s within the Chinese Canadian communities; I understand full well what it means to be Chinese and what it means to be Chinese Canadian. Or, to take it one step further, what it means to be Canadian, period. In Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill, he spent a whole chapter talking about his name and how people could not associate him – Wah is only one-eighth Chinese – with a Chinese name like Wah. This problem would not happen to him if he was Italian. People would not blink if they see an almost-white person with an Italian name. But they do a double take when they see an almost-white person with a Chinese name.

LC: So we can’t get away from that stigma…

CK: That’s right. Asian names and Asian faces still carry that stigma saying, ‘Maybe you’re not Canadian.’ It will take a few generations to melt that barrier and, hopefully, that word ‘Asian’ will drop out of the lexicon and we are identified as Canadians and not as hyphenated one.

LC: There is an argument in some Asian-American critical circles against understanding some of these issues in terms of generations. Lisa Lowe, for me, would be one of the primary proponents. She argues that focusing on generational issues, especially the kind of progressive narrative of one generation to the next, risks obscuring the relationships that work horizontally across the community – not just Pan-Asian, but even the non-familial kinds of relations. In almost every part of your films there was a very clear indication on the part of the people who ran the restaurants that they did not want their children to take up their business. It was long hours, hard work, and they didn’t want their kids to be doing it. And yet many of those restaurants won’t just die when these people retire. They might just get passed on to someone else in the village, another new immigrant. And so I wonder if that can be understood as a different kind of passing on.

CK: Yes, it’s another kind of passing the torch. You’ll find that, very interestingly, a lot of retiring owners will go back to their villages and offer to bring in someone to take over the restaurant.

LC: Do you think that changes or expands or actually just maintains a sense of family, which is not necessarily about blood but about a different kind of genealogy?

CK: Yes, that’s right. And that’s where kinship and brotherhood thing come in. I know for one that I do that.

LC: I noticed in the films that you always introduced yourself by your surname and by your village. You really work that connection shamelessly.

CK: I do, I do. Shamelessly!

LC: See, my name’s Cho and I don’t have a big village network and I’m jealous. It’s like I can’t go anywhere: they all think I’m Korean. So, lucky you, Mr. Kwan!

CK: Well, I have General Kwan from the Three Kingdoms period to thank for that. Everywhere I go, I would see these ubiquitous Kwan temples where he is worshipped as a god for his loyalty and integrity.

LC: Exactly. You’ve got some major history.

CK: I take advantage of that. I would walk into a restaurant and parlay this kinship and brotherhood business to its fullest, ingratiating myself into the goodwill and friendship of the restaurant owner. And there’s something about the Chinese people in general that treasures this kind of blood connection.

LC: And, again, let me push you on this a little bit, because I noticed that when you said ‘brotherhood’ you hesitated, and so… The way gender plays itself in your films is interesting. There are a few key exceptions where the women are the real cooks. The kitchens are spaces managed mostly by men. And this notion of brotherhood seems less easily translatable in terms of sisterhood and I don’t know why. But maybe I’m not reading that right.

CK: When I use ‘brotherhood’, I mean both genders. I have a lot of feminist friends and I’m very conscious that I need to have a good number of women subjects.

LC: That’s true. You have four of them in Mauritius, South Africa, Turkey and Madagascar.

CK: And if you count the two equally strong partner/wife halves from inside the Arctic Circle and from Sao Paolo, we have five. Five out of fifteen is not a bad ratio, especially for restaurant work.

LC: Why do you think that is?

CK: I don’t think it’s specifically a Chinese thing. It’s the restaurant business.

LC: But in terms of the way the perception of family and kinship plays out in those instance – that guanxi [connection] business,I feel it’s different for women.

CK: Well this notion that Southeast Asian Chinese businessmen shaking hands is as good as a contract comes from the whole kinship thing. But, of course, unfortunately, most of these businesses are still run by men.

LC: Was it hard for you to find women proprietors?

CK: No, and I made sure that I had enough representation. I usually find them more interesting than men anyway, especially Hakka women.

LC: Hakka women are impressive.

CK: They’re a very maternal society, so it’s no surprise that many of my women chefs are Hakka.

LC: And you didn’t expect to make a food film when you started.

CK: No.

LC: We say ‘food film’ as if we’ve discovered a genre, but it’s actually not…

CK: If you look at any of these films, it’s not about food as much as it is about art, family and, of course, love.

LC: And Tampopo is about this amazing love story.

CK: Exactly!

LC: And I guess this raises another interesting question for me, and that is at what point does food… I mean it’s both in the background and the foreground in a curious kind of way in your films. And you navigate that in a number of ways. But I don’t think you could say that your documentaries are about Chinese restaurants. And you can’t say they’re about Chinese diaspora entirely. I think that would be not quite right.

CK: It’s got food so that it gets into the Food Network craze. But it’s also socio-political, historical, anthropological and current events. I’m not an academic. I can’t go deep into history.

LC: But you did. I mean there are huge historical sections.

CK: History informs us and we cannot get away from it. But sometimes for the Chinese, they get overtly historical. I mean, every time we have to go back five thousand years to dynasties and emperors, and I say, ‘Oh, give me a break!’

LC: But what I find very moving about your films is that you recuperate huge sections of Chinese immigrant history that many communities want to forget or move past, and most explicitly for me is the history of indenture labour, and the kind of peasant history or underground history, which, I think, you draw out again and again in your films.

CK: My South African episode dealt with the whole whitewash of apartheid history by the Chinese South African community. Part of the community didn’t want me to make the film. They asked the restaurant owner not to open up to me. So I spent five days just waiting around for her to open up.

LC: How did they try to stop you?

CK: The first time I went to see her, she would call her friends up and say, ‘Oh come and meet this filmmaker from Canada.’ And when they found out what I wanted to do, they convinced her not to give me an interview.

LC: What were their objections?

CK: They didn’t want to talk about apartheid. The issue really split the Chinese community. Part of the community wanted to stand by and resist alongside with the blacks and the ‘coloureds’ – there’s a photograph of Chinese men standing with Gandhi in a protest march, in solidarity. But the other side would say, ‘Let’s not rock the boat, let’s take whatever crumbs the whites give us, at least we’ll survive.’ That was very apparent when I started talking to the community. I wanted to dig up that part of the community history, the good and the bad.

LC: And you also did that with this incredible story on Havana’s Chinatown…

CK: People tell me that that’s the saddest segment in my series. They couldn’t bear to watch it a second time. It’s all about indentured labourers replacing slaves in Cuban sugarcane plantations. There’s a Cantonese expression, ‘mai ju jai,’ you know: selling little piglets. These piglets went to Australia for the gold mines, to Canada for the railroad and to Peru for the guano mines. It was the poverty in nineteenth-century China that drove a lot of the Chinese men overseas.

LC: And also the Chinese government was too weak to protect its overseas workers.

CK: Exactly.

LC: Part of my own work has been to really ask contemporary Chinese diaspora theorists to think seriously about indenture labourers as a formative episode in all the triumphalism of the new global China and trans-nationalism. It’s so easy to forget that there was this other diaspora that paved their way for most of what we have now in terms of diasporic communities.

CK: And they don’t acknowledge that.

LC: No, and there’s this enormous focus on the merchant class. But the merchant class wouldn’t have been there if there hadn’t been an indentured community in the first place. And it seems to me that your films quietly assert the importance of that history in a number of ways, and it’s incredible that you manage to tell that story in a number of ways and recuperate that history within that context.

CK: It’s about preserving the collective memory.

LC: So what was the biggest surprise for you when you finished the film, in terms of where you thought you would begin and where you ended up?

CK: I became a Chinese food expert (Both laugh.)

LC: You weren’t one to begin with?

CK: No, no. I was just someone who likes to travel and eat.

LC: Could have fooled me…

CK: New York Times Food section came out with this big article on hyphenated Chinese food and featured my series. So I instantly became an expert, getting calls from as far away as The Prague Post to talk about Peruvian Chinese food, of all things. But I’m especially proud that Chinese Restaurants is now in the pantheon of food films, together with such films as Babette’s Feast and Like Water for Chocolate. Atlanta’s High Museum of Art ran a Food in Film program two summers ago. The University of British Columbia has a course on food and literature, and my series is on the reading list.

LC: Congratulations on a tremendous achievement. Your films document a history of Chinese diasporic migration that has been overlooked. Tell me, what is your favourite Chinese food dish?

CK: Like I said in my Norway episode, steamed fish with ginger and scallion!

LC: It sounds delicious. Thank you for this conversation.

Lily Cho is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Western Ontario. Her research interests include work on diaspora, postcolonial studies, cultural studies, food culture, citizenship and affect. She is currently completing a book-length study of diaspora and Chinese restaurants in small town Canada. She is also researcher for Pacific Genealogies, which examines the role of indenture and piracy in the emergence of Asian diaspora subjectivity. Her recent publications include: “Asian Canadian Futures: Indenture Routes and Diasporic Passages” in Essays in Canadian Writing 85 (2006) and “The Turn to Diaspora” in Topia 17 (2007).

Paper originally published in Reel Asian: Asian Canada On Screen, Coach House Press, Toronto, 2007, pp. 48-63