BY KEN HOM
The simple title of this extraordinary documentary series is almost deceiving. It is not a cookery or a food series. Yet food is the centre of what Cheuk Kwan wanted to share with us. He uses Chinese restaurants as a rich tapestry to weave people’s poignant stories of their lives and to show how they use Chinese food to survive, thrive and indeed, carve a heritage for future generations.
It is the story of the Chinese diaspora in all it mutations in Argentina , Brazil , Canada , Cuba , India , Israel , Madagascar , Mauritius , Norway , Peru , South Africa , Trinidad & Tobago and Turkey . Rather than covering the usual predictable places where Chinese restaurants are best known such as the United States , Europe and Australia , Kwan has cleverly taken us on a less-travelled global romp with surprising results. Brief historical snips help inform the context in which the Chinese have settled in each country.
The fly on the wall technique together with Kwan’s incisive questions allows the gripping human side to dominate. Their stories are fascinating and touching at the same time. The hardship and adaptation of the Chinese diaspora is best revealed when Kwan allows people to speak honestly of their struggles to adapt to the countries that sometimes have isolated them. They preserved their identity through their food thus making a living and surviving. In some places, the Chinese restaurants have become informal community centres where immigrants can come to share their roots and history.
Kwan has also worked hard to edit the series so that the pacing is very good. You are never bored, looking always to the next episode in this never-ending saga. His voice as a narrator is informed and calm, letting his subjects speak comfortably and in a relaxed manner. It is heartbreaking when some people talk about the sense of not belonging but nevertheless resign themselves to their fate in a foreign land. The hunger and pain of wanting so much to go back for some was painful. Others simply looked at their situation and made the best of it, becoming an institution in their city. While others, like the restaurant owner in Israel , take an unusual turn by becoming an evangelical Christian.
Using food as a metaphor was a brilliant way to approach what otherwise could have been a conventional documentary. Kwan’s focus is always firm and determined and he never deviates from using food as the glue to hold all these fascinating strands together. His passion is stamped everywhere in the series. It was an obvious love that took him all over the world filming for four years. But it is his writing and direction that actually pull the series together and make its case very coherent. In this day and age where the subject of immigration is so controversial, Cheuk Kwan’s passionate work contributes a positive slant to our understanding of immigrants all over the world. It is an inspiration and shows us how rich a multi-cultural society can be.
I, for one, am most grateful to Cheuk Kwan for telling these stories. I do hope he will continue. This is a documentary series that should and must be shown everywhere.
Ken Hom is the bestselling author of over 20 Chinese and Asian cookery books. He has presented five prime-time BBC-TV series over 23 years and is widely acknowledged as a world authority in Asian cooking.