A Melancholic Chinese

Buenos Aires, Argentina
July 26, 2003

I met this French diplomat, Valerie Tehio on my last research trip. Valerie is a mixed race Parisian married to a well-known Chinese poet and Tiananmen dissident. My friend Mary Stephens, a filmmaker and Hong Kong expatriate living in Paris, had introduced Valerie to me. Valerie just happens to be in Paris on vacation and has generously offered us her amazing apartment with maid service for our entire stay during the shoot.

Our second camera Ajay and his wife Sarada is already at the apartment when Cheuk and I come in from the airport. They had come a few days earlier for a bit of sightseeing. I have also arranged for Luz, a local interpreter, to meet us there. Luz gets adjusted to our unorthodox ambiguous fluid working style. She’s puzzled but, I think, pleasantly surprised. I remember how Chris Doyle once said, “the Argentine mind works as rigidly as the grid this city is built around” which sums up everything.

I take the crew down to Casa China on Viamonte. Chiang isn’t around and I am getting a Havana déjà vu. He eventually appeared from his apartment above the restaurant looking stressed out. He seems to have aged about ten years since I saw him last. I hope he’s OK. After lunch, we do a little warm-up interview with Chiang in his courtyard as I had planned. Cheuk is interviewing him in Mandarin. I’m a little disappointed with his lack of passion this time around. Did something happen over the last seven months during my absence? I hope it’s not because Cheuk is pushing the issue of his wife too early.

Argentina Interviewing Chiang
Argentina Interviewing Chiang

We continue our interview in Spanish. The Chiang I met on my last trip is resurfacing… perhaps he feels more emotional when he speaks in Spanish, the language of passion… maybe not… as Luz points out that his Spanish is actually abominable. Whatever the reason, I’m glad his fire is back. He talks about his passion in building Casa China and spreading Chinese culture to the barbarians like it was his gospel mission. He makes references to Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” as if it was his Bible. Perhaps this has influenced his stoic solitude away from family, away from love. He sees female companionship as a liability… or time and energy that he prefers to put into more pressing priorities in his life. I wonder if he truly believes in this or is it merely a bitter old man’s way of dealing with a painful past.

I had warned Cheuk about this strange Argentine ritual of devouring a whole cow in one sitting and now he gets to see it first-hand at Stephen Wu’s ranch. There’s probably enough meat here to feed an average Chinese village… OK… I’m might be stretching it a little. Chiang and Wu urge us to fill up, as I’m getting nauseous with the smell of burning dead animal flesh alone.

Wu opens Chiang right up with wine filling our bottomless glasses. The old buddies badger back and forth about love and mistresses, Chiang’s absent wife, the universe, the world, liberation from woman and family entanglement. By this time, everyone is pleasantly sloshed. But the drinking continues with after-meal brandy as we walk around the huge garden picking at fruits from trees. I’m glad we came out even though it is a repeat exercise for me. Since I didn’t have my camera the last time, I need as much footage of a loosen-up Chiang as I can get.