By Andrew Sun
Filmmaker Cheuk Kwan has an obsession. A frequent traveler, he seeks out Chinese restaurants each time he visits a new country and tries their dishes. Now, he’s turned this interest in immigrant family eateries into a film project. The result will be a series of 13 half-hour programs documenting Chinese immigrants and their restaurants all over the world.
The first three episodes of the Chinese Restaurants series – featuring heartfelt kitchen stories from Israel, South Africa and Turkey – is being presented as Song of the Exile. It will be shown under the banner ‘A Taste of Asia’ as part of the Asia Society Summer Film Series at the Hong Kong Arts Centre.
On the Islands, the installment featuring Mauritius, Trinidad and Cuba, had its world premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in April. Other places Kwan has explored on his culinary crusade include Norway, Peru, India, Brazil, Argentina, Madagascar and the prairies of Canada.
‘The idea started 25 years ago,’ Kwan says from his Toronto home, just before leaving on another trip. ‘The Chinese restaurant is the icon of any Chinese settlement. It’s the easiest business for an immigrant to start. This then becomes a window into the community. And, of course, food is interesting because everybody is into food, and I thought it was the perfect motif to explore the Chinese diaspora. The cuisine is always evolving and it’s a metaphor for Chinese assimilation. Yet, it also retains the Chinese cultural uniqueness.’
But it’s more than about preserving Chinese culture. ‘It’s about how Chinese settlement transcends its own ethnicity and cultural boundaries,’ says Kwan.
‘In every country I go, the food is converted and merged slightly with the local cuisine – out of necessity and inventiveness – so you see a lot of cross-cultural influences. For example, the national dish of Madagascar is Soupe Chinoise or Chinese soup. But it’s essentially wonton soup. Everybody there eats that.’
Kwan himself is no stranger to the immigrant experience of an outsider having to adapt to new environments. He was born in Hong Kong, raised in Singapore, educated in Japan and the US and now makes his home in Canada.
He’s fluent in English, Japanese, French and several Chinese dialects. His filmmaking, though, came later in life. He left a successful career in IT to become a social activist, and started a magazine to promote Asian arts, culture and equality. In 1998, he went to study film at New York University, and started his own production company to work on his restaurants project.
‘I’m proud to be marginal,’ Kwan says. ‘People say, ‘You’re not really Chinese’, and I reply, ‘Of course I’m not. I was born in an English colony, grew up in another colony, and then moved to three other countries’. Plus, I’m not from the mainland, so I have even less nationalism. I basically consider myself an internationalist.
‘Yet, I crave Chinese food. It was the big thing in my formative days in Hong Kong and Singapore. It’s my comfort food.’
In his travels captured on film, Kwan has unearthed fascinating stories about families that are, paradoxically, ordinary and remarkable. Their tales range from the clichéd to the astonishingly bizarre. Although Kwan’s narration is perceptive, it’s the emotional recollections of family members that give the film insight and poignancy.
But, although the lives of the Chinese chefs and owners around the globe are consistently interesting, their menus are often less than imaginative.
‘Sweet and sour pork and egg rolls – these are the staples,’ Kwan says, with a sigh. ‘In fact, the guy I interviewed in Argentina is known as the egg roll king because he popularized egg rolls there in the 1960s. Obviously Chinese food is more than that, but I think it reflects something I consider the new Chinese identity.
‘It’s not mainland or Hong Kong or Taiwan. It’s sort of an international Chinese-ness. There are a lot of what I call second-rounders overseas. Their grandparent might have migrated to, say, Mauritius. Then, the next generation might leave Mauritius to go to Toronto. But these guys still consider themselves Chinese – hyphenated Chinese, but still Chinese – even if they can’t speak a word of their native-language.
‘With this film, I want to show the accomplishments of these people. As a race, we’ve expanded quite a bit settling around the world. But I know some people in Hong Kong and China see overseas Chinese differently.
‘With this project, I want to dispel that myth, and say, ‘Look, we’re Chinese people, too, even though our passports are different’.’
Hong Kong South China Morning Post, July 22, 2004, Film Section