Chinese Restaurants: Memory, Histories and Diasporas through Films


Cheuk Kwan, Filmmaker and Chinese Diasporic

I came to know about Cheuk Kwan’s films via a screening held at the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas located in New York’s Chinatown. This paper will focus on a series of films made by the Toronto-based filmmaker, Cheuk Kwan, entitled Chinese Restaurants.

Kwan, born in Hong Kong, educated in Singapore, Japan, and the United States and currently living in Toronto, Canada, is himself a Chinese diasporic. An information technologist turned political activist turned filmmaker, Kwan’s vision for the film project is to complete a total of 13 countries using the trope of Chinese restaurants as a tool for investigating the stories of Chinese diaspora as they migrate, assimilate and formulate new identities in their new homelands. Struck by the vast legacy of Chinese travels/migrations dating as far back as the Ming Dynasty and the virtual ubiquity of Chinese restaurants encountered during his travels, Kwan has harbored a dream to make this film series for the past 25 years. Unable to obtain funding from the Canadian government and with the ever-decreasing costs of video production vis à vis digital technology, his project is self-funded.

In his retirement from the field of information technology, Kwan has taken a full-time position as Executive Director of Harmony, a Canadian-based organization “encourages Canadians of all racial, cultural and religious origins to embrace and promote harmony, diversity, as well as equality.” Although he does not view his filmmaking endeavors as an extension of his activism (e.g., promotion of Human Rights in China), his activist mindset certainly informs the types of issues that he weave into his films, as I will discuss later. However, his position as a Chinese diasporic, himself, and having active community involvement in Toronto, with its large population of overseas Chinese migration, lends a particular pitch throughout the films. He has a special access and empathies with the individuals and families he films, feeling particular resonance with individuals who “can be a chameleon among the many nationalities” and states that “I find that I also have this chameleon effect. I can pretend that I am a Chinese, an American, a Canadian, a Japanese, or just someone from Hong Kong.” I will comment further on how the performative nature of identity turns the question of authenticity on its side later.

Global Contacts, Low Budgets

As noted by Faye Ginsburg, the usage of “commodified images of Aboriginal producers, along with Aboriginal art and music, are part of the cultural capital is on which contemporary Australia builds its national image for consumption and circulation in the arenas of tourism, political affairs, and the marketing of culture overseas.” This same phenomenon is also prevalent in other countries such as Canada where ‘Native’ or First World peoples carry cultural capital on the global market. However, in the case of Chinese diasporics, they are not part of a national master narrative, and occupy a rather marginalized or liminal status in the host countries they now reside . This is particularly true in the case of South Africa where the ravages of apartheid policies for all non-whites barred them from full indoctrination into society on economic, political and cultural arenas. The scattered nature of the subjects Kwan is dealing with do not neatly fulfill national agendas for image making, so what kind of redemption can these disenfranchised seek when an avenue for political airing does not exist?

Due to being self-funded, Kwan had to compress both research/pre-production and production, and delay post-production activities. Kwan dedicates about a week to both his pre-production scouting trips on the ground, weeks to months in preparation for production, and about five intensive days of production with a crew consisting of himself, one cinematographer and one soundperson. Although he does not have a storyboarded notion of each project when he goes into production, his travel-production diaries are deeply entrenched in a socio-political, socio-historical sensibility of both the local and transnational aspects that would inform his participants’ lives – a perspective which shapes the sought-after moments. In addition, he does not want to search for the “typical overseas Chinese”, but is more interested in a different life story since he is ever conscious that he has “to make a film for a mass audience, so it has to be attractive enough for the audience to stick to the story for at least half an hour.”

Well-versed in the ‘six-degree-of-separation’ game, Kwan’s network of fellow diasporics he has cultivated through his personal ties, have allowed him to enter into a variety of spaces or worlds. Indeed, the project itself has often prompted eager participation on the part of many of his participants . During our interviews, he related many anecdotes of a chain reaction of contacts that unravels impromptu, even during his scouting trips. He relates to me a Chinese proverb that roughly translates to ‘Within all four seas, all men are brothers’, implying an invisible network that binds those of Chinese-descent together, particularly overseas Chinese, who share some common experiences of displacement (voluntary and involuntary) and periods of adjustment to the new societies they enter.

Despite Kwan’s leaning towards an essentialist notion of identity based on inheritance, I would argue that his films impart a perspective more aligned with constructed, multiply-realized subjectivities.

Chinese Restaurants: Film Analyses

Using the trope of the Chinese restaurant in each of his episodes, Kwan’s films use that space as a gateway for examining the life stories of a particular individual or family, embedded firmly within historical frameworks, both transnational and regional. By making the countries a “second character” within the films, Kwan asserts a specificity to each of these installments, making the series as a whole perform as a bricolage of Chinese diasporas, in dialogue with each other, but distinctive and defying absolute definitions of disparate experiences. The restaurant framework works on several levels, including, the restaurant as public space for social gathering/community building (commensality); place of business – good entry point for immigrant with little knowledge of host country (playing off the stereotype of a ‘natural’ trading mentality of the Chinese); site of bodily/sensory memory of homeland (‘real’ and ‘imagined’); ubiquitous, in a grassroots McDonald’s phenomenon way.

These nodes of examination offer rich points of departure, in the traveling sense such that “we often need to consider circuits, not a single place” appropriate to the ‘ethno-travelogue’ flavor of the films. The series as a whole, conjures up images of Kwan globe hopping to locations often enmeshed in or emerging from post-colonial histories and particular relations to the field of anthropology, itself. For the purposes of this paper, I will focus primarily on Kwan’s first film Song of the Exile comprising three episodes shot in Israel, South Africa, and Turkey.

All three episodes have a running thread of political persecution and/or self-imposed exile on the part of the participants. Aside from broad strokes of Chinese cultural heritage, what these overseas Chinese have in common is a condition of displacement and adjustment, though not of the linear assimilationalist variety, but a “processual configuration of historically given elements – including race, culture, class, gender, and sexuality – different combinations of which may be featured in different conjunctures.” In addition, the individuals in Kwan’s first films are secondary and tertiary transnationals, their displacements taking place over several geographies and even across generations. In considering Clifford’s model of diaspora versus immigrant, I would suggest that what these films represent is a liminal state in between the two.

Aside from the plots or storylines, visually, there is an undercurrent of montage shots depicting the ‘local’ throughout each episode. Each installment is structured around a series of ‘talking-head’ interviews with the participants, narrative voiceovers by Kwan filling in historical details and other scaffolding for the story, interspersed with these localized montage shots. Noting that in the past (and to some extent in the public imagination) these destinations have often been ethnographic Others and sites of ‘exotic’ destinations, does this layering of the ethnographic Other of the past with that of the present, level the hierarchical field of Self versus Other? Or do they “perpetuate some dangerous tendencies…ignor[ing] the ways in which experiences have been constructed historically and have changed over time…rely[ing] on notions of authenticity and the return to positive values not represented by the dominant other”?

Israel Episode: An Evangelical Christian in a Jewish State

The Israel episode opens with a sequence of Kwan walking through the streets of Haifa, overlaid with his voiceover:

I’ve always looked for real Chinese food wherever I traveled. I was disappointed to find that most Chinese restaurants in Israel employed cooks from Thailand. They bring a distinctive Thai flavor to Israeli-Chinese cooking. One day I found Kien Wong and his restaurant in the port city of Haifa. They serve authentic Chinese food.

This opening monologue essentially acts as an overall introduction to the entire series, indicating one trajectory of Kwan’s films as a manifestation of his own personal, lifelong quest akin to Food Network television programs such as A Cook’s Tour or the Food Hunter. Instead of seeking food adventures, Kwan is looking for “unique life stories” contextualized within political histories. Kien Wong is the featured participant of the Israel episode, who is at once a Chinese diasporic residing in Israel, a Chinese restaurant owner, Boat Person fleeing the Communist regime of 1978 Vietnam, and evangelistic leader of his Chinese Alliance Church. These multiple subjectivities have evolved over the course of Wong’s life, from our perspective, out of a combination of personal choices and political-historical circumstances; from Wong’s perspective, they have been a result of God’s will at work. Yet, his Chinese identity, which is featured prominently during his interviews, certainly has and continues to mark out territories of mobility and restriction, as he relates how he got involved in the Chinese restaurants business:

Opening a restaurant is something I didn’t want to do. I knew it was tough. Besides, I didn’t have the necessary skills. I had never worked in a restaurant. A lot of Israeli friends asked me to help out. I told them I don’t know how to cook. They said, ‘We will teach you.’ I told them, ‘You are teaching me how to cook Chinese food?’ They said, ‘I can cook, but I don’t look Chinese. You look Chinese.

This belies a non-essentialist and more an almost ‘functionalist’ notion of Chinese-ness, where a Chinese identity is used strategically for survival, in tension with Kwan’s search for ‘authentic’ Chinese-ness.

Kwan continues this line of investigation “of how one integrates into a new society” by turning to the next generation, Wong’s four daughters and their significant others. The two older daughters are juxtaposed against the younger two, who have become “full-fledged Israeli citizens.” So, the question of identity is entangled with citizenship, language, and to a point, self-declaration. Kwan’s line of questioning elicits responses from his participants along a dividing line of being Chinese or Israeli or some hybrid of the two. For the elder daughters, Cee and Nee, both continuing in the restaurant business, being Chinese becomes a one-way street, as Cee’s husband states, “It’s difficult, a lot of our friends studied here, grew up here, were born here…but they can’t escape the Chinese restaurant business. It’s a small circle.” The younger two daughters, both with non-Chinese, Jewish men, on the other hand, identify themselves as Israeli, effectively rejecting their Chinese-ness. However, this ‘hybridization’ comes with a price as the husband of the third daughter, Dao, attests to how,

Being a mixed couple, like me and Dao, in Israel, you’re opening big opportunities of getting into trouble. Sometimes offensive behavior from government offices or people pointing at you and saying, ‘Hey, he married a foreigner’…

The film ends with Kien Wong telling the viewer, “I always tell people, I am sixty and I have three nationalities: Chinese, Vietnamese and Israeli. Who am I? I am Chinese. No matter what nationality I have, I’m still Chinese.” This parting shot leaves one wondering how to reconcile transnational identity formations as “less something one has than something one does” where impulses to lodge identities firmly within “exclusivist paradigms” remain and are continuously revitalized.

South Africa Episode: A Stranger in Her Own Land

The South Africa episode has the most probing thrust of the three countries. While walking down the street, Kwan opens by telling us that:

I’m looking for the Golden Dragon restaurant. Long time residents of the town have told me that it was the first Chinese restaurant of the city. I wanted to find out how the restaurant had survived that dark and terrible period of South African history.

The first Golden Dragon restaurant was opened in 1947 by Lam Al Ying, with the third and current incarnation opened in 1986, now run by Ying’s widow, Onkeun Lim (a.k.a., Edna Ying). Although not part of the narrative of the film, Kwan told me that though initially interested in doing the film with him, Onkeun became increasingly hesitant in the ensuing months after Kwan’s research trip to Cape Town, South Africa. Kwan’s journal entry of February 16, 2001, a month before his production trip back to Cape Town, relates that:

Edna tells me over the phone that she has changed her name to Onkuen (or An Kan) Lim… “I want to be more Chinese,” she tells me. “I was prevented from becoming Chinese by apartheid.” Onkuen has very strong feelings about being Chinese and has totally rejected the Anglo environment to embrace her Chinese heritage.

When he arrives for shooting a month later, Onkuen is “having second thoughts” about being filmed based on,

…advice from Harry and Kelvin [fellow Chinese diaspora]…that by opening up to us to tell her life story, she is endangering the close-knitted [sic] Chinese community in Cape Town. Onkeun is now thinking maybe she would let us do it, but only if she can charge for it. How close-knitted is the Chinese society in Cape Town? How are they still suffering from a degree of apartheid? I have no way of telling and we can simply wait. I suspect it will take a lot of convincing on my part.

There is a lot to unpack in those two entries, which act as pre-texts to the film, such as the issue of compensation and consent on the part of the participant. In addition, there is a metamorphosis in progress of the participant, perhaps even speeding up as a result of the encounter with Kwan and his project?

The film when read in combination with Kwan’s film journal, synthesizes a picture of instigating moments, akin to Jean Rouch and his cinéma vérité, although the actual moments of probing are outside the frame. Onkeun has led a very insular existence in Cape Town, like many of the Chinese basically growing up during the period of apartheid. The restaurant has been her portal to the world, particularly when her much older husband passed away in 1992. During the course of her interviews, on the last night of shooting, Onkeun invites Kwan and his crew to her home for more intimate portraits of her life, relating a horrifying anecdote about the effects of apartheid on her wedding reception:

At the wedding reception, Chinese had to be at a divide with the…you couldn’t mix socially. The locals were classified as Colored or Non-White – they weren’t supposed to mix with the Whites, who were some of our clients and of course, the older generation of Chinese born in China.

Kwan acts as a mediator to the world outside the Chinese community, trying to tease her out of the insulated world the Chinese community took refuge in during apartheid, by taking her on trips to the Cape Point, the Noon Gun Tearoom in the Malay Quarter, and the Bo-Kaap museum. Considered major Cape Town attractions, Kwan is surprised that Onkeun has never visited although she has resided there her entire life. Arranged by Kwan, one of the most powerful encounters in the film is the conversation between Onkeun and Shereen Habib, who discuss the recovery period since the official repeal of apartheid policies in 1990. Kwan’s characterization of Onkeun as a “typical Chinese who all but disappeared during the apartheid struggle” occupying a liminal no-man’s land, where “they are not White enough to be White, nor Black enough to be Black” is in stark contrast to Shereen who is “politically active and was in the frontline of racial struggle.” As they talk, it is obvious that the distance from apartheid history is not so far and the pain is still quite fresh to these two women.

Shereen begins by contemplating the speed of merging in cuisine versus slow integration of people with each other. Both women struggle to understand and simultaneously deriding the arbitrariness of apartheid categorizations of people, with Onkeun recalling signs posted at railway stations barring ‘Natives, Chinese and Dogs’ entry. Shereen continues, saying:

I don’t know what know what picture they had people who had to be Black people in this country, because Black was under African, Indian, Malay…Bushmen,…and they were very confused when the Japanese came – because they didn’t know whether they had to make this Black or White – this was a big issue, you know. We were laughing so much at this.

The conversation then veers toward impatience with the recovery period, and concerns about economic survival. At this point, Onkeun intervenes and authoritatively, states:

In any learning, the learning curve means you start with a lack of knowledge and you gain some knowledge, but there must be a time of inner growth. So, this is what’s happening now, it’s the mutation period where people need time to absorb this new knowledge that they never had before.

Despite being born in South Africa, Onkeun claims to never have felt a national pride for her place of birth, saying, “I think we always thought we were sojourning here, the place actually belonged to the whites. We were just encroaching on their space.” When Kwan presses further, asking if she ever felt that she could claim this as part of her history? She responds, “Never. Never claimed it. Not emotionally, not at all. We regarded it as a paradise we were sharing but not ours to have…Now, the Blacks say, ‘Let go, let your grasp go.’ It’s said with energy and fervor. ‘Let go, you don’t belong here, you don’t like it here, just go.’ You see? The drive is there.”

In this moment, the “entangled tension” that “diasporas are caught up with and defined against the norms of nation-states and indigenous, and especially autochthonous, claims by ‘tribal’ peoples” comes to a head. Onkeun cannot leave, yet she is relegated to the periphery by competing narratives unleashed in the aftermath of apartheid, and so she waits patiently again for new knowledge to become absorbed. Her story epitomizes how “ diasporic consciousness ‘makes the best of a bad situation.’…This constitutive suffering coexists with the skills of survival: strength in adaptive distinction, discrepant cosmopolitanism, and stubborn visions of renewal. Diaspora consciousness lives loss and hope as a defining tension.” (Clifford 1997:257)

Turkey Episode: The Passing of a Generation

For Kwan, the Turkey episode is the most deeply personal of the three films. During interviews, he indicates that the Chinese-Turkish family profiled was the one he most identified with since their experiences paralleled that of him and his family. In addition, returning to Turkey was like revisiting a time of “major transition in [his] life”, even recalling details like eating on October 31, 1976 “at the only Chinese restaurant in the city in the basement of 22 Lamartin Street”, ordering “mushroom chicken and stir-fried vegetables” . That was when Kwan first heard about the restaurant’s owner who was rumored to have “walked from China.” Twenty-five years later, his personal journey to root out the story behind Wang Zengshan, the man who walked from China, leads him to encounters at home in Toronto, Canada, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Istanbul, Turkey, that reveal Wang’s story and the legacy of his widowed wife Fatima Ma and their eight children.

In the film, Kwan narrates that “this is a classic story of Chinese diaspora. Four of Fatima’s children were born in China, three in Pakistan, and the youngest, here in Istanbul. The family is now spread all over the world.” After the opening sequence, in the remainder of film, Kwan’s presence is peripheral, but persistent, as we hear his voice both in voiceovers and diegetically, as well as catching glimpses as he accompanies Fatima on her trips to the market. Additionally, he attests to his entanglement in this story, by being “almost…too involved…I felt very close to them. I guess I was so close, I could only see certain things. So, my first cut of Turkey, nobody liked – oh, no, it’s too complicated – but a good editor will help you in the cutting process to distill the story.” Whose story does it become then, as the layers of authoring becoming blurred?

Like in his other films, Kwan situates the Wang’s story within the larger global context of political unrest in China, in this case, during the civil war between the Communists and Nationalists in 1949. Wang Zengshan and his family belong to China’s Hui minority, ethnic Chinese who converted to Islam, and the ensuing double displacements out of China over the Himalayas to Pakistan and then finally to Istanbul. However, the heart of the story revolves around the China Restaurant, which was opened in 1957 by Wang to supplement his salary teaching Chinese at Istanbul University, where he passed away in 1961 while giving a lecture.

Powerful memories are recounted by Rosey Ma, the keeper of their family history, and incidentally a social anthropologist, who recalls,

I couldn’t remember how we buried Father. What made a deep impression was that Mom wanted to jump into the grave. She kept shouting: ‘You cheated me! You cheated me!’ Later I understood what Mother was thinking about at that time. Mother was less than 40 years old alone with eight children – penniless, no relatives and in a foreign country. We didn’t learn Turkish until Father died.

So, the China Restaurant became a hub for the family after Wang’s death, acting as both insulation from and interface to the outside world. For some of the family members, it goes beyond being a gathering place, like the second youngest daughter, Feride, for whom it acts as a link to the past as well as an incubator for their Chinese heritage. Many of Fatima’s children send their own children there to be cared for by their grandmother, who then passes on her Chinese heritage to them, via language, food and stories.

The film ends on quite a wistful, almost romantic note, a premonition of the imminent closing of the restaurant, which in fact did shut down shortly after the making of the film. During the time Kwan was filming, discussions within the family about what to do about the sinking profits of the restaurant and the role of their mother. Although the eldest son, Isa, officially ran the China Restaurant, he was gone half the year in a neighboring seaside town where he runs a resort/restaurant. Feride insists that:

I would not close if it were up to me. We never had much income anyway. But it gives Mom a purpose in life. She can go to the restaurant everyday, go to the market and make the rounds. Her world will collapse if we close. I don’t think it’s time to close yet. Mom always said she is tired. But what will she do at home? She has gotten used to this way of life. I have no idea what she’d do without the restaurant.

However, in the next sequence, Fatima declares, “I am old. I can’t do it anymore. I only come here at noon to stay awhile. I don’t come at night, I just hand it over to them.” For Kwan, the older generation is ‘dying out’ and their stories are disappearing with them. So, his project takes on a nostalgic turn with this episode as a door to part of his own past is also closed both figuratively and literally as the viewer is left with last shot of locking up and turning off the lights of the China Restaurant.

Journeys from the Deep Past to Future-Presents

The foregrounding of external relations and displacements of a ‘culture’ is apparent in Kwan’s films. In particular, he makes heavy use of contextualizing his participants within a political-historical framework. Yet, he does not focus on just ‘modern’ history, but makes references to ‘deep’ pasts, nearly 2000 years ago. For instance, in the Israel episode, there is a reference to 7th century Chinese-Arab trade relations along the Silk Road and in the Turkey episode, he refers to Chinese princesses being married off to Turkish princes for more than 2000 years. Yet, unlike Chris Marker’s San Soleil with the fictive temporality of 2000 years in the future referencing the ‘past’-present, Kwan is asserting a continuum in time from this deep historical past to the actual ‘future’-present. Does the Kwan’s deep past perform as Marker’s past-present? Marker wants to distance himself from the present to neutralize the politics of representation, whereas, Kwan wants to engage more intimately with the past to infuse the present with the manifestations of global and national politics.

This layering of time-space trajectories opens up the question of how to conceptualize identity in terms of a widely dispersed, quasi-collective public memory versus highly fragmented sets of individual, personal experience. The dialogue within diaspora and transnational scholarship needs to address these types of issues. According to James Clifford:

In the current theoretical climate of prescriptive antiessentialism, diaspora discourses such as Gilroy’s refuse to let go of a ‘changing same,’ something endlessly hybridized and in process but persistently there – memories and practices of collective identity maintained over long stretches of time. Gilroy attempts to conceive the continuity of a ‘people’ without recourse to land, race, or kinship as primary ‘grounds’ of continuity. What, then, is the persistent object of his history? How to circumscribe this ‘changing same’?

Catherine Russell suggests the form of the diary film and video to “produce new forms of subjectivity. Through hybridity, postcolonial subjects as well as other identities can potentially escape the limits of nation and gender.” So, there is a movement towards destabilizing the notion of ‘ethnicity’ or ‘inherited identity’, which “disperses that history across a range of discursive selves.” Kwan’s films draw a complex series of histories together that span geographies and timelines to produce images of Inappropriate Others to which Russell refers. His participants constitute Inappropriate Others, not in an avante garde sense, but rather in terms of subverting a notion of a ‘typical’ overseas Chinese, producing representations of exiles, immigrants, transnationals or hybrids of these categories, so that any assimilationist formula is transcended.