BY JUNE CHUA
I picked up a copy of Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses at a book exchange in Bolivia during a recent visit. It was a choice between that and the dozens of dog-eared murder-mysteries other travelers had left behind.
In the book, one character communes with the spirit world. She tells the main character a little secret about the yin people of the ghostly plane: those who choose to be reincarnated always want to become Chinese in another life. And you know why? The food! “Chinese food is the best in the world,” the spirit-seeing character declares. I don’t know if it’s The Best, but I must say it’s the most prolific ethnic food in the world. The first inauthentic Chinese resto I encountered was when my family first moved from Malaysia to Canada in 1976 to a small town called Oyen on the Saskatchewan-Alberta border. It had 1,000 people and one Chinese restaurant. People took pains to point out the restaurant. My mother wasn’t amused.
“What’s this ‘chicken balls’ stuff?” she wondered. I don’t think we ever ate there. We soon discovered Chinese were known for their restaurants. When my family visited the biggest perogy in the world in Glendon, Alberta, we ate at the Perogy Hut next door. The owner talked up my father and casually mentioned the hut was for sale and would he be interested in running it? We almost all choked on our food. My dad is a gas and pipeline engineer. He knows nothing about running a restaurant. He declined.
Wherever I go, locals always want to take me to their favourite Chinese restaurant. Don’t they realize it can never measure up? I once told a friend, who had a predilection for chicken balls and that vile, gooey sweet n’ sour sauce, the red sauce was made from the blood of white men. He kept eating. Years later, I’d find myself in Corner Brook, Newfoundland working for CBC Radio. A co-worker insisted on taking me to one of the two Chinese restaurants in town. The food was passable. I remember the strange taste of the curry beef. It was neither Chinese, nor Indian.
On my first visit to Europe I avoided all the Chinese restaurants. There were probably just as many Chinese joints as there were McDonald’s. I was amused to discover an ad for an Italian-Chinese café in Rome. Its name? “Ni Hao Ciao” How brilliant, Chinese and Italian for hello. On my second trip, things would change. I visited my Spanish friend Macu and her family at their beach-front house in southern Spain. Her father had traveled a lot and proceeded to ask me about my heritage. “I’ve been everywhere and do you know what the best food in the world is?” I guessed.
“Chinese food!” he rhapsodized. “It’s so good. They know how to put ingredients together.” With that, he promised to take me to the best Chinese restaurant on that coast amidst my protests that I really wanted to eat more Spanish food.
“Pfft! It’s not as good as Chinese food,” he scolded. “I’ll take you to the Chinese restaurant, it’s much better than any Spanish food you’ll get.” He packed us off to the Chinese restaurant on the coast. They made me do the ordering. All I remember now was the Singapore-fried noodles with little shrimps, egg, chicken and turmeric seasoning. It tasted like home.
By the time I reached Sweden, I had a hankering for more Chinese food. In a small university town called Lund I relented and ordered one of those pre-set three-course meals at the local Chinese resto. I recall devouring the fried noodles blissfully. No more bread and cheese!
The next day, three Swedish businessmen approached me on the street and asked where the Chinese restaurant was. Part of me desperately wanted to berate them: “Just because I’m Asian doesn’t mean I know where the local Chinese restaurant is!” I gave them the directions reluctantly. Since that experience, I have eaten Chinese food in all kinds of places: Prague, southern France, Bolivia and even Jerusalem (I just couldn’t stand anymore falafel).
I’ve been to almost 30 countries now and I’ve found a Chinese restaurant in almost every corner of the globe. There are more than 25 million overseas Chinese in the world, all adapting their cuisine to local tastes.
Most of my life has been about avoiding these faux Chinese joints. The watered-down versions of Chinese dishes made me think of the struggles of every immigrant to assimilate. As a child of immigrants who rebelled against the image of the stereotypical piano-playing, mathematically-superior Asian, I denied that part of myself in order to fit in.
I suppose that’s why I enjoy Cheuk Kwan’s Chinese Restaurants series so much. Kwan travelled the globe for four years seeking the personal stories of the Chinese people who run their restaurants in the far reaches of the world. The stories he unearths serve as a mirror to me — showcasing the depth of Chinese history and culture and most importantly, the force of character that runs through our people.
One of the films in the series made a profound impact on me. The segment I watched is called The Islands and it featured one woman of Hakka ancestry who had settled on Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean.
The story delves into her struggles in starting the restaurant and unearths the history of the Hakka people of China. The Hakka are the explorers of China and have dispersed around the world. Hakka women are especially fierce. When Chinese society decided that bound feet would make women more attractive, Hakka women rebelled and insisted on wearing their flat, wide sandals.
I am one-quarter Hakka, and in that moment the documentary plunged me into thousands of years of history and culture. It seeped into my pores. I felt a vast wave of pride and appreciation. It was as if I had found my spine, heart and soul.
Cheuk Kwan’s series captures the essence of the millions of overseas Chinese around the world – a diaspora that is as rich, complex and flavourful as the food it serves. This is what makes Chinese food the best in the world for me — a reminder of our abundant history from which we continue to thrive and grow from.
This essay was orignilally published in The Globe and Mail, October 2003. June Chua is a writer/filmmaker living in Toronto and counts food, film, flamenco and faraway places as her prime passions. A self-described “recovering journalist”, she was a columnist for cbc.ca and continues to write for various publications and sites. If you’re intrigued about learning more about Asian food, try checking out June Chua’s food column on http://asiancuisine.suite101.com/