BY CHI HUI YANG
The family-run Chinese restaurant is a global icon of immigration, community and good (or bad) food. They dot even the most remote of landscapes, as cultural outposts of brave sojourners, the bringers of dim sum, fortune cookies and unimagined culinary hybrids. A harder look inside, however, reveals a complicated history of cultural migration and world politics.
The “Cathay Houses” and “Golden Dragons” which populate towns and cities from Africa to South America are intricately bound up in the social schisms and political movements that propelled the world into the 20 th century and beyond. Indeed, an alternate history of the past century with Chinese restauranteurs as its protagonists allows a very different take on world history – one which examines the role of Chinese immigrants as instigators, spreading world-wide and pulling politics, culture and capital wherever they go.
This enormous human movement, the diaspora of millions of Chinese who have for hundreds of years (though primarily in the 20 th century) migrated to almost every corner of the world imaginable, was both in reaction to, and an agent in moving forward many larger processes; from the push-pull of capitalism and communism, to the related political complexities of the Three Chinas (Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan), to the growing globalization of labor, culture and capital.
In his ground-breaking Chinese Restaurants series, Cheuk Kwan draws out this global narrative by linking together the myriad personal stories of chefs, entrepreneurs, laborers and dreamers who populate kitchens world-wide. At the core of his exploration, is the examination of an intriguing paradox, which characterizes almost all of the Chinese communities he documents, from Israel to Brazil .
That is, how at once, Chinese immigrants have resisted (or have been prevented from) complete assimilation into the social fabric of their new homes and maintained a strong sense of cultural identity, but at the same time, how the engine to their economic survival, the Chinese restaurant and its food, have become seamlessly woven into it, an essential and second-nature facet of modern life.
As Kwan travels from the jungles of the Amazon to the rural towns of Madagascar , the tension inherent in this paradox is continually challenged. Illustrated by the stories of dozens of charismatic subjects, Chinese Restaurants draws a through-line from the local to the global, both answering questions and provoking new ones along the way.
Why and how, across multiple generations and thousands of miles, have Chinese immigrants retained such strong connections to culture when so many others have more easily or readily assimilated? The answers are not so easy to come up with, but what is clear, is that despite enormous differences in surroundings and circumstances, this is a question common to many Chinese immigrants. The third-generation, bi-racial youngsters of the Wang family of Istanbul, Turkey, one of the oldest and most established families Kwan documents, face many of the same questions and pressures that the Wongs of Tromsø, Norway face, though the latter are new arrivals from Hong Kong. Neither family is fully Turkish, Norweigian or Chinese, but stand out in their new homes, and straddle the fine line between adopting a new culture, and maintaining their own.
On the other hand, how did the Chinese restaurant become a global icon accepted as a natural fixture of any setting, just as its proprietors are not? When did people around the world start craving Chinese food just as much as the Chinese immigrants who could make it needed jobs? In Peru, Luis Yong’s Chinese cooking television show is a hit, interestingly, just as the shows of countless counterparts in other parts of the world are as well, and in Buenos Aires, the cooking of Foo-Ching Chiang, the “Spring Roll King of Argentina”, is adjusted to the palates of his clientele in quite similar ways to that of Maurice Soong, owner of Trinidad’s Great Wall Restaurant.
As entertaining as it is eye-opening, Chinese Restaurants maps out an atlas of the Chinese diaspora, and charts the synergy of politics, culture and family that have created its incredible stories. Always changing and adapting, the folks behind the counters, the forces bringing them around the globe, and of course the food itself, are forever in-progress, continually shaped by the world surrounding them but, at this moment, captured on-screen for us to take in.
Chi-hui Yang is the Director of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, a presentation of the Center for Asian American Media.