Song of the Exile
BY JUNE CALLWOOD
Chinese Restaurants is not a travelogue and is not a cooking show. It is an original, fascinating, charming and sensitive examination of human tenacity and decency at its best.
In one the fascinating television shows about Chinese restaurants in unlikely places, Cheuk Kwan, who conceived the unique concept, pensively asks, “How do you survive in a place where you do not belong?”
The answer is found in his indomitable subjects – the Chinese Nationalist official who in 1949 escaped overland by camel, horses, trucks and on foot to Turkey with his wife and six children to start the only Chinese restaurant in Istanbul; the proprietor of the Yan Yan Restaurant in Haifa, Israel who escaped Vietnam as a “boat people”; the founder of the Golden Dragon Restaurant within sight of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, and so on.
The answer is, you do what you have to do, and you do not complain.
The street scenes are an astonishing feature of the series. Teeming with peddlers and delighted children and old men sipping tea from tall glass cups and women buying chickens, they frame the lives of Chinese families who somehow manage to flourish in alien cultures. Their children join the Israeli army, or they become Muslims, or they learn to cook fried rice – whatever it takes, and their wives are valiant, fierce, and stoical.
They opened restaurants because they were not welcome to earn a living any other way, though none were cooks. It wasn’t hard, the man in Haifa said with a grin. “If you know how to make almond chicken, green peppers and beef, sweet and sour pork,” he comments, “throw in egg rolls and a salad and you’re in business.” That man, an evangelical Christian, started a church in Israel and teaches lonely Chinese construction workers to sing hymns. His children speak Hebrew.
The restaurants are minor players in the series. Bits of history crop up, and seashore vistas, and memorable music pulls the pieces together, but the impression that lasts longest is wonder at the dignity and strength of people who refuse to be demoralized or even intimidated by adversity. When these shows have been seen around the world, as they should, they belong in the archives of human achievement
Celebrated writer, journalist, social activist and volunteer, June Callwood spent much of her life working to improve the lives of others. She has helped found over fifty social organizations including Canada’s first AIDS hospice, and has been recognized with three Orders of Canada and some seventeen honorary doctorates.