Eating Chinese Across the World

Affective Histories: Eating ‘Chinese’ Across the World


Cultural analysts have noted the increasing popularity of food in films, books, and even a whole television channel devoted to its manifold representations. Food, as Roland Barthes noted decades ago, functions as a semiotic system in its own right providing a means for decoding the idiosyncrasies of a culture. The concerns of this short paper are to look at the intersection of food and ethnicity, particularly as these are conveyed by memoirs where writers employ certain tactics to convey the ‘feeling’ of difference. Thus the notion of ‘affective histories’ by which I mean to suggest histories that attempt to communicate what a culture feels like from the inside, marshalling the emotions. Hence the use of food and the notion that through recipes or anecdotes concerning food a reader/viewer may temporarily occupy the position of cultural insider. But while a plethora of ethnic cookbooks provide the celebratory aspect of these diasporic histories there is increasingly a tendency to use the appeal of food to convey the more complex aspects of diasporic histories, including deprivations, racism and other oppressions. My focus in this paper is on diasporic ‘Chineseness.’

In her memoir/recipe book aptly titled Chow, Janice Wong begins with an anecdote in which her Canadian-born father speculatively eyes a peacock in Stanley Park and wonders how it would taste (shades of Timothy Taylor’s novel Stanley Park). The exotic nature of the tale and the entrepreneurial flair of Wong’s father are in stark contrast to the manner in which the daily meals were choreographed and provided by Chinese cafes and restaurants across Canada throughout the twentieth century. As Wong recounts, these places were in effect the first ‘ethnic’ eateries in Canada—particularly in rural small towns. However, as filmmaker Cheuk Kwan’s portrait of ‘Noisy Jim’ reminds us, most of these so-called ‘Chinese’ places were also hyper-Canadian in their efforts not to tease Canadian palates unduly with anything alien or exotic. Their offerings were resolutely Western and if Chineseness strayed onto the menu it was thoroughly worked over to function within the imagined limits of non-Chinese tastes. It was a comparable story in other settler colonies like Australia where the history of Chinese communities and families has also been creatively conveyed through cooking, as exemplified by Annette Shun Wah (a media personality) who published her book Banquet as a way of imparting a semi-popularised history of Chinese Australian immigration and settlement. One might speak of this approach to history as ‘affective history’ since generating affect through food works by mobilising the senses and emotions in order to generate reciprocity or that sense of fellow-feeling. It was a matter of going beyond the facts and events of immigration and settlement to impart as well the ways in which people actually felt living through these events, particularly in the case of Chinese Canadians whose histories were permeated by racisms of various kinds.

Food and family are closely intertwined and in an earlier paper I traced this trope through an analysis of Kylie Kwong’s cooking show (Gunew 2004a). Kwong is the Australian Chinese chef being marketed on the Food Channel worldwide. I suggested that ‘Chinese cooking’ and Chinese restaurants- in- diaspora have become globally cathected as sites for recovering those ‘family values’ that the ‘West’ has supposedly misplaced. I argued that the Kylie Kwong series might be described as the search for not simply family but hyper-family.[i] The series is choreographed around Kylie’s own family history, and in the earlier episodes in particular we are introduced to her brothers, mother, family and niece, as well as the uncle who runs a noodle factory and are referred to the great- grandfather who is described as the patriarch of the largest Chinese family in Australia. Kylie Kwong herself functions as a reassuring auto-ethnographer who is both inside and outside her inherited Chinese culture. With a familiar Australian accent and the reassurance that none of her family actually speaks Chinese she inducts viewers into the ‘alien’ cuisine and culture, domesticating it into their everyday practices. The viewers’ senses are engaged in tempered ways—new but not too new and the ultimate pleasure of friends and family gathered together, is the apotheosis of feasting and communal commensality.

In Cheuk Kwan’s only Canadian episode of tracing the global phenomenon of Chinese restaurants across the world, ‘Noisy’ Jim’s café in Outlook Saskatchewan becomes the hub of family extending into community. We begin with shots of Jim retired but still opening up the café each day for the new owners because he enjoys helping out. He refuses to take money for this service because it would curtail his sense of himself as a free man able to make choices. This ability is in contrast to a life punctuated with the repeated recognition that there was a small repertoire of possibilities for exercising choice for someone in his position. The café is open on all the European holidays and thus provides a service to the community that no-one else does and is also part of a history of male Chinese immigrants doing the work others shun, for example, being relegated to do ‘women’s work’ (laundry, cooking) in the pioneer camps that spread over the West. The lack of choice is contextualized by Kwan as being intertwined with the infamous history of Chinese rail-workers whose labours helped link up the country and who often paid with their lives for this ‘privilege.’ They were repaid by being unacknowledged in the history of Canada’s railroads and suffered as well the Head Tax of 1850-1903 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923-1947. As a result families were ruptured since women were not able to come over and join their male partners. Hence we have the communities of aging bachelors so poignantly described, for example, in Wayson Choy’s novels. And it is largely through these fictional writings that these histories have become part of general Canadian consciousness over the last decade.

Traditionally, the transmission of affect favours the face. Feelings are communicated via facial expressions and the assumption is that there is remarkable universality across the range of expressions. In the close-ups of Noisy Jim, his character emerges. He is dedicated to service and to remaining free to choose to exercise this option. He speaks of ‘serving the community’ including refusing to see the Chinese café next door as a rival. When asked about the details of his life as a paper son Jim’s face initially shows only too clearly a history of reluctance to speak such dangerous secrets in the public domain. Given the Head Tax and Exclusion Act, it is not surprising that this industry of paper relations thrived. We are given a brief history of Jim’s travels across the country to Outlook, afraid to leave the train, fearing that he would be blackmailed due to this secret. But there appears to be no residual bitterness towards Canada as a result of this history. When questioned concerning his allegiances he states emphatically the individualist credo: “I’m myself; I am me!” Names are not clear signs of affiliations or genealogies. But the traditional visual technology of revelation inherent in the close-up and the interview are clearly not those to which he will submit, as is illustrated when he takes out a toy gun and points it at the camera in order to convey what it feels like to be ‘shot.’ Personal interrogations remain intrusive to him and he defines himself far more firmly in terms of family and community. For example, his customers speak of his sense of trust when they are given keys to the café so that they can come in and make their own breakfasts. An interview with a daughter reveals that as children they resented their lack of free time but that in retrospect she is grateful for the discipline and values inculcated into them. Jim himself clearly states that he did not want any of his children following in his footsteps—not for them the long hours and low pay. The final accolade is the community presence at Noisy Jim’s funeral interspersed with footage of an archival film in which a younger Jim performs the role of quintessential rural Chinese cook—flamboyant yet also familiar. The final shots are both an evocation of a stereotype, the confines of a social symbolic and the idiosyncratic individualism that blazes through these constraints.

…parts of the paper omitted…

The affective histories of this diasporic group were partly written in the daily meals they provided for multitudes of small-town Canadians but the gastronomic translations they perpetrated in order to stay in business, in order to erase the conspicuity of their food, gathered force in their repressed corporealities. Reading these texts (cookbooks, memoirs, novels, poems) make us realize what we/they were missing out on all those decades. Now, when these ethnic eateries have finally entered the public domain in their full splendour, they can unfurl their cuisines with fewer restrictions except that we know that all those years where these dishes were served in the interstices behind the kitchen door after hours or in the lodgings above the family restaurants they were always a secret part of everyday life, imbricated in the affective histories of Canada. Through those early decades these offerings were laced with anxieties, whereas now they are acknowledged as comfort food that has simmered over generations.

Paper presented at the What’s For Dinner? The Daily Meal Through History conference, Montreal, November 2-4, 2005.