The World is His Oyster Sauce
BY REBECCA LOUIE
In 1949, Wang Zhangshan fled the Communists on foot.
Leaving his homeland, the Chinese Muslim and government official walked for miles – riding camels and horses when he could – over the Himalayas and through Pakistan, finally stopping in Turkey. There, Wang did what generations of Chinese immigrants have done to build a new life. He opened a Chinese restaurant, the first in Istanbul.
More than 25 years later, Cheuk Kwan visited the restaurant and noted its dramatic origins. Another 25 years after that, Kwan abandoned his career in information technology, took a summer filmmaking workshop at NYU and embarked on a four-year global odyssey for his documentary series, “Chinese Restaurants.”
“Restaurants are an icon of the Chinese diaspora,” says Kwan, who connected with the family of the Istanbul restaurant owner for his episode on Turkey.
“It’s the easiest profession any immigrant can get into because they are often barred from practicing law or medicine. It also provides an economic and social entry point, a focal point for members of the community.”
Fluent in five languages, Kwan took a two-person crew and his “love for Chinese food” to countries as diverse as Trinidad, Madagascar and South Africa. He spent his own money to make the digital-film series, which he hopes will land on television in the U.S. In the meantime, he has taken it to festivals around the globe.
One segment, “Chinese Restaurants: Peru, Argentina and Norway” will be presented at 6:30 tonight at the Scandinavia House, 58 Park Ave. (between 37th and 38th Sts.). Tickets are $15 for general admission and $10 for members. The evening includes a question-and-answer session with Kwan.
The episode profiles Lima-born Dr. Luis Yong, who owns a restaurant and hosts Chinese cooking shows on TV; 77-year-old Foo-Ching Chiang, who surrounds himself with tango music, and the married couple who run Little Buddha, one of the few Chinese restaurants above the Arctic Circle.
The Museum of Chinese in the Americas, which co-hosts tonight’s event, shows several episodes of Kwan’s work at 70 Mulberry St. as part of its current exhibit, “Have You Eaten Yet? The Chinese Restaurant in America.”
“Since 9/11, local businesses and organizations have experienced a lot of difficulty,” says Cynthia Lee, deputy director of programs at Manhattan’s MoCA.
“We decided to do a whole theme year centering on restaurants and food, so we could contribute to the public understanding of this ubiquitous institution,” she says. “For a long time, Chinese restaurants were the cultural mediators that exposed people to Chinese culture for the first time.”
Jeff Lin, a graphic designer from Queens, recently stopped in at MoCA after a dim-sum lunch in Chinatown to check out the exhibit and Kwan’s film.
“The great thing about Chinese restaurants in New York is that there is such a variety of foods available,” says Lin, 27.
“A Chinese restaurant can mean anything from a dumpling house to a banquet hall to a kosher-Chinese takeout. I think it’s really neat to put some history behind the foods we eat.”
The New York Daily News, Thursday, January 6, 2005, Entertainment, p. 40