Restaurants tell a Story of Chinese Diaspora

Vancouver Sun

Restaurants tell story of Chinese Diaspora


Whenever Cheuk Kwan travels, food is never far from his mind. What happens is that after a few days on the road, he can no longer take the usual fare of hamburgers, pizza and pasta. He starts craving Chinese comfort food: rice, bok choy, and steamed fish with ginger and scallions, his favourite dish.

While backpacking in Istanbul, Kwan had one of his cravings. He managed to get the food he needed at the China Restaurant, the city’s only Chinese restaurant, although he admits the meal was simply “okay.” What really stuck in his mind was an anecdote: his guidebook said the owner walked all the way from China to Turkey. Kwan thought it was probably another one of those urban legends.

At the time, Kwan came up with the idea that it might be interesting to tell the story about the worldwide Chinese diaspora through the stories of individual restaurant owners. The initial connection between Kwan’s stomach and his brain occurred in 1976 but it wasn’t until 1999, after a career as a systems engineer and a return to school to study film at New York University, that he was able to pursue his idea in earnest.

He went back to Istanbul to find out about the China Restaurant. Kwan discovered the guidebook’s information was at least partially true. The widow of the owner said that she and her husband, Wang Zhengshan, a Nationalist governor of Xinjiang, walked out of China to Pakistan to avoid the wrath of Mao Zedong and his Communist comrades in the 1949 revolution. Kwan also discovered that the couple was ethnic Chinese whose ancestors had converted to Islam.

That initial meal in Istanbul eventually led Kwan searching the world for stories of family-run Chinese restaurants. Kwan, who calls Toronto home, has now finished shooting 15 half-hour episodes called Chinese Restaurants. Three installments of the series will be shown Wednesday and Thursday at Pacific Cinémathèque: Three Continents, which will have its Vancouver premiere, and two earlier installments, Song of the Exile and On the Islands. Kwan and cinematographer Kwoi Gin will be at the screenings on both evenings.

In Three Continents, Kwan lands at Le Jade restaurant in the coastal community of Tamatave, Madagascar. Since the first Chinese immigrants arrived on the island off the eastern coast of Africa in the 19th century, the country has grown so multicultural that soupe chinoise — a variation of wonton soup — has become a national dish.

Kwan discovers the woman who runs the restaurant is a third-generation Chinese Malagasy who has never been to Hong Kong, China or Taiwan. But by reading cookbooks she has managed to create memorable Chinese dishes. In fact, Kwan said her seafood dishes were the best he had on his journeys to Chinese restaurants around the world.

But Kwan doesn’t just visit the restaurant and interview the owners and their children. He uses the story of Le Jade restaurant to speculate about the seven naval expeditions of 15th-century seafarers under the Ming dynasty who traded with the Arabs. Did they, Kwan asks, also visit and perhaps settle on Madagascar on their journeys to east Africa?

The most moving profile in Three Continents is of “Noisy Jim” from Outlook, Sask. Even though he sold his New Outlook Restaurant years before, Kwan filmed Jim Kook showing up at the restaurant and pouring coffee at 6 a.m. for his loyal customers — just as he did for more than 30 years as the owner. He became such an icon in Outlook; regular customers would sometimes open up the restaurant themselves, cook their own bacon and eggs and then leave the money on the counter.

Chinese restaurants, as Kwan points out, are as common as grain elevators on the Prairies: almost every town of any size has one. Using Noisy Jim as a starting point, Kwan recounts the kind of discrimination Chinese immigrants had to endure after arriving in Canada in the 19th century to build the CPR.

When Kook died in 2002, Kwan traveled to Outlook for the funeral, which appeared to attract almost everyone in town. Kwan also caught Kook’s hearse making his final trip past his beloved restaurant.

Kwan, now 54, said during the past five years, he’s managed to film about three restaurants a year on a budget of about $300,000, paid for by an inheritance and money saved up from a stint working in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. His goal is to package and sell the series for television.

Kwan, who speaks Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and French, said that living in Toronto has been an asset in researching his series. He said cities such as Toronto — and Vancouver — have large numbers of what he describes as secondary immigrants: overseas Chinese who may have lived in countries such as South Africa, Mauritius and Trinidad and Tobago for a generation or more. He uses these secondary migrants for contacts in the various countries so that when he visits, he has a ready-made welcome.

Oddly enough, he said, while the series has been well received in North America, the response in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China is much different. They see overseas Chinese such as Kwan as foreigners rather than a part of a global Chinese community.
The Vancouver Sun, Monday, May 2, 2005, Arts and Life Section