Chinese Take-Away

Eye Weekly

Chinese Take-Away

Cheuk Kwan’s eatery odyssey on menu at ReelWorld

A complimentary bowl of house soup arrives within moments of Cheuk Kwan sitting down to a table at Kom Jug Yuen, a bustling Chinese restaurant on Spadina Ave. “They treat me nice here,” he says. “I’ve been eating here since 1976.”

Kwan is very particular when it comes to Chinese restaurants. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan, he was a seasoned traveller well before he came to Canada the same year he first ate here. In his career as an engineer and social activist (he co-founded the Toronto action group that would become the Chinese Canadian National Council), he travelled extensively through the US, Europe and Asia. Everywhere he went, he would check out the local Chinese food. What he discovered about the people who served it eventually inspired a documentary project called Chinese Restaurants — the third feature-length installment of which, Three Continents, makes its Canadian premiere at the ReelWorld Film Festival this week. But as Kwan explains over tea and barbecued pork with fried noodle, his primary attraction has always been culinary.

“Basically I have a Chinese stomach,” says Kwan. “I need rice all the time. You get tired of eating other foods. Travelling around, I would seek out Chinese restaurants at least once or twice a week. Then, of course I always get into talking with these guys and going into the kitchens. I would put on my Chinese accent and say, ‘Give me something not on the menu. I just want a home-cooked Chinese meal — I don’t need fancy stuff.’ So I would talk to these people and that’s how I became fascinated.”

Kwan charts the inception of the project back to the late ’70s, when he visited a restaurant in Turkey whose owner had walked all the way from China. Years later, he found himself in Mombassa in Kenya. Not long after dining at the city’s Hong Kong Restaurant, he visited a museum full of relics from the Ming Dynasty. They had been brought to Africa in the early 15th century by Zheng He, a Chinese Muslim explorer who led expeditions to the South Pacific, the Persian Gulf and Africa 80 years before Columbus’ voyages. “This museum had Ming Dynasty pottery vases and illustrations of how the Ming Dynasty ships influenced African boats,” says Kwan. “It was a museum of lost treasures, showing the Chinese influence on the African coast.”

Kwan was fascinated by the ways in which different waves of Chinese emigration had influenced world culture over the centuries. Thinking with his stomach, he knew the best way to approach the topic — which provoked a wide variety of questions about the immigrant experience and cultural identity — was by starting with the cuisine the Chinese brought with them. “I was talking about this idea of a ‘mythical China’ from a producer at the CBC who’s of Chinese descent,” says Kwan. “She suggested there’s this mythical China that always haunts us and follows us around, even though our families may not have been in China for generations. Somehow this heritage has a pervasive link with food.”

After learning the basics of filmmaking at a New York University workshop in 1998, Kwan spent three years visiting family-run restaurants in such countries as Brazil, Israel and South Africa. Though Chinese Restaurants will ultimately take the form of a 13-episode television series, feature-length excerpts of the project have screened at many international festivals since early 2004. The latest and most polished of the three films so far, Chinese Restaurants: Three Continents, includes memorable trips to Norway, Madagascar and Outlook, Saskatchewan. Though the series is full of fascinating details about the effects of the Chinese diaspora, the main reason Kwan’s project is so engaging is for introducing viewers to the likes of “Noisy Jim” (his original Chinese name is a matter of debate), a Canadian émigré who spent decades happily serving morning coffee to groggy farmers at his New Outlook Café, and Michael, a Tromsø, Norway, restaurateur with the manner of a Hong Kong street tough. A conversation with him reveals more about the experiences of the Chinese abroad than any university seminar.

“I’m not looking for historical accuracy or the best Chinese food,” says Kwan. “What I’m looking for is people with stories to tell. Of course, I do try to squeeze in themes that I want to deal with. For instance, when I went to Israel, I knew I’d deal with religion. I just happened to find a guy who was a Christian and a preacher. When I went to Tromsø, I wanted to find somewhere very isolated to see how the place defined the characters there. But with Michael, I found a John Woo character. I kick myself for not having my camera on the first night. We got drunk and everybody was having a good time and pouring out stories. I was trying to get to know them so it was better not to be shooting but I thought, ‘Gee, if I had a camera, I could’ve shot a Hong Kong gangster movie right there and then.'”
Eye Weekly, Thursday April 14, 2005, p. 17