Local Filmmaker Makes a Mouthful

The Toronto Star

Local Filmmaker Makes Mouthful


Cheuk Kwan craves Chinese food wherever he travels, and the Toronto man has been dreaming to see the history of Chinese migration through the eyes and stories of Chinese restaurant owners around the world.

That dream became a reality when Kwan completed his 13-episode documentary, Chinese Restaurants, a portion of which will be screened at a fundraising event for the Chinese Canadian national Council at 7 p.m. Saturday, September 25, at the Eaton Lecture Hall of Ryerson University’s Rogers Communication Centre.

Part of the series will also be screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival later this month and at Toronto’s Reel Asian Film Festival in November.

“Chinese restaurants are a home away from home for most migrants. They are the window, and the icon of Chinese settlement,” said Kwan, 53, an information technology professional by trade and a photographer/filmmaker by interest.

“Behind every restaurant, there is a fascinating story ready to be told. Who are these people? How did they get there? How did they adapt to a nice country? How well do they integrate?”

The idea of the documentary first came to Kwan, a native from Hong Kong who grew up in Singapore and Japan, 25 years ago when he traveled to Turkey and had dinner at the only Chinese restaurant in Istanbul.

“I heard that the owner had ‘walked from China.” I was naturally curious. How did this man walk from China?” he said.

Each of the series’ half-our episodes depicts the stories of restaurant owners in 13 countries – from the Caribbean to South America, from Turkey to Norway and from Israel to South Africa, as well as the New Outlook Café near a native reserve in Saskatchewan.

They include the story of Wang Zhengshan, a Chinese Muslim and top government official in China, who trekked over the Himalayas to flee the Communists in 1949 and ended up opening Turkey’s oldest Chinese restaurant in Istanbul in 1957.

There is also the story of Chinese-Vietnamese refugee Kien Wong, who founded the Yan Yan Restaurant in Haifa, Israel, and later used his establishment to preach Christianity among Jews and Muslims on the continent.

Kwan, an executive director of the Harmony Movement, a Toronto-based not-for-profit organization that promotes multiculturalism, said he spent four years on this project with one question in mind, “How do these people survive in a place where they do not belong?”

After trotting thousands of miles around the globe, Kwan, who moved to Canada from Hong Kong in 1976, said he believed he found the answer, “You just do what you have to do, and do not complain.”

In fact, Kwan, who completed a film program at New York University in 1998, found most of the restaurant owners were not professional chefs and did not have knowledge of Chinese cooking, but were forced to start up their own businesses due to discrimination and racism in their adopted homeland.

“They realized they can’t be the lawyers and doctors they once were, and Chinese restaurants are the easiest profession for them to get into,” he explained. “The establishments become the social and employment centre that sustain the (Chinese) people who come after them.”

Kwan argued that personal identity is a fluid concept and the essential issue is now what identity one takes on. “I think all these stories highlight the fluidity and highly personal nature of identity, and the human impulse to connect both with the past and with those amongst whom we find ourselves in the present,” he said.

The Toronto Star, Thursday, September 23, 2004, Movies Section