Those Eggs Rolls Tell a Story
By JAN WONG
When Cheuk Kwan backpacked through Europe in the 1970s, he often craved a bowl of steamed rice. In Istanbul, he headed for the China Restaurant recommended in his guidebook. “It said it was the only Chinese restaurant in all Turkey, and the owner had walked from China.”
In a rush, Mr. Kwan didn’t chat up the owner and learn his story. But ever since, he dreamed of telling the global tale of Chinese migration through restaurants.
“It’s the icon of the Chinese diaspora,” says Mr. Kwan, now 53, who came here from Hong Kong in 1976. More than any ethnic group, he noted, Chinese immigrants would gain a toehold in a new land through their cuisine. Restaurants provided jobs for relatives, required minimal language skills and were windows onto the communities. And apparently, no matter what the country, there was always an appetite for chicken balls in bright red sauce.
“You can fool a lot of people with fake Chinese food,” Mr. Kwan says. His 13-part documentary series titled Chinese Restaurants was shown this year at film festivals in San Francisco, Hong Kong, Vancouver and Pusan, South Korea. In Toronto next Saturday, three 30-minute episodes, on Mauritius, Trinidad and Cuba, will premiere at the Reel Asian International Film Festival.
His series tells the sometimes sweet, sometimes sour stories of Chinese restaurant owners in such countries as Brazil, India, Norway, South Africa and, of course, Canada. Toronto, with its 1-in-10 Chinese population, provided the perfect base of operations. To find a restaurant contact in Mauritius, for instance, Mr. Kwan began by asking his Chinese-Canadian friends from Mauritius.
“They’d say, ‘Oh, go see my sister-in-law,’ ” he says. He found his restaurants in Buenos Aires that way and even the original one in Turkey. Mr. Kwan found the original owner’s widow, Fatima Wang, still running the China Restaurant in Istanbul. The story he coaxed from her is one of the more affecting in the series. She and her husband, the governor of Xinjiang, China’s Muslim northwest border region, walked to Pakistan with their children on the eve of the Communist victory in 1949. Eventually, they got to Istanbul, where they opened the China Restaurant.
Mr. Kwan was born in Hong Kong, raised in Singapore and Japan, and educated in the United States. His wife is the daughter of Dutch immigrants to Canada. He speaks fluent English, French, Japanese and two major Chinese dialects, Mandarin and Cantonese.
A former systems engineer, he quit his job as a project manager for a Mississauga engineering company in 1995. He took an unpaid job as executive director of Harmony, a non-profit group that promotes diversity in Canada. He had the financial means — he had an inheritance and made a pile working in Saudi Arabia during the eighties.
In 1998, he took a 10-week workshop in production techniques at New York University’s renowned film school. “Of course, I was the oldest guy in the class,” he says.
Israel was his first foreign destination. In Tel Aviv, Mr. Kwan found lots of Chinese restaurants, but most were ersatz — owned by Jews, with Thai cooks in the kitchen. Then he drove by Yan Yan Restaurant in Haifa, on the West Bank. “I noticed the Chinese writing was very authentic.”
The owner was Kien Wong, an ethnic Chinese from Vietnam who arrived in 1978 with his wife and four young daughters after an Exodus-style voyage of boat people.
Today, the Wong daughters’ strongest language is Hebrew. One became the first Chinese to serve in the Israeli army and now works as a flight attendant on El Al. Mr. Wong became an evangelical Christian and holds prayer services for Chinese migrant construction workers in Israel each Friday.
In Outlook, Sask., (population 2,129), Mr. Kwan discovered “Noisy Jim,” the gregarious proprietor of the New Outlook Café. Like so many others, Jim Kook used the birth certificate of a dead Canadian to come here, in spite of the 1885 Chinese Immigration Act, more commonly called the Chinese Exclusion Act.
His café soon became a popular meeting spot. Mr. Kwan filmed customers letting themselves in before dawn to make their own coffee and fried eggs — and depositing payment in a box on the counter. When Mr. Kook died in 2002, Mr. Kwan was there to film his funeral. Virtually the whole town turned out to say farewell.
Of all the places in the series serving Chinese cuisine, “Cuba was the worst,” Mr. Kwan says. “My best meal was in Madagascar.” Amazingly, the owner was a third-generation Malagasy Chinese who had never been to Asia, but had studied cookbooks by Lisa Fong, the Betty Crocker of Hong Kong.
On this evening, however, Mr. Kwan is going to a death-by-egg-roll buffet in Mississauga. It’s his son, Nicholas’s, birthday. “We’re taking him to China King Buffet. He’s turning 14. He gets in for free.”
The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, November 24, 2004, National Ed page A2