Sunday, March 16, 2008

Chineseness and Chinese Restaurants

As I’ve always been interested in food culture and anthropologically dissecting trends, the series “Chinese Restaurants” naturally appealed to me. I found that the documentaries tackle far more than these basic areas, however, and that filmmaker Cheuk Kwan did an impressive job at provoking questions about heritage and diaspora—at least for me, a Chinese American whose mother and father’s parents made their livings in Indonesia and the Philippines before sending their children off to the U.S., respectively.

I had many thoughts on the film series, so I am attempting to touch briefly on the most important ones here. First, there were certain recurring themes in each Chinese restaurant owners’ story: assimilation vs. Chinese distinctiveness in new homelands (which was sometimes reflected in the food they made), choosing to work hard and make sacrifices for the economic security of the next generation, meager beginnings or humble entries into their destinations, and a Chinese tendency towards business and self-employment. Despite whatever niche each interviewee had carved out in his or her country of settlement, these ideas factored into their stories; perhaps this makes them uniquely Chinese matters.

In Norway, the Cantonese-speaking couple put in long work hours that they knew compromised closeness with their children. The husband had jumped all over Europe looking for decent work opportunities, and finally found this option to be a profitable one. He catered to a distinctly Norwegian clientele, providing a more “Western” restaurant front for customers while holding his employees to “Chinese” work standards. In Peru, the medical doctor and “achifa” owner acknowledges the great sacrifices his parents made for their children; he is firmly grounded in Peruvian culture and embraces his dual identity; his Chinese peers are descendents of indentured laborers—coolies working on railroads and sugar plantations. In Cuba, the Chinese are an accepted presence in Cuban culture—they are said to have “exquisite” tastes and a sophisticated nature, according to the native Cubans. But as the Chinese people have become such an integral part of the population, the food has changed too: it is mostly fried and salty, and the noodles are made in the same way as Italian pasta. Pizza graces the menus of most Chinese restaurants. Here is an undeniable story of assimilation. These stories are all unique, but also have uniquely Chinese aspects to them.

Lastly, each family and restaurant owner in the documentary had so much character; each man or woman represented some part of history, the Chinese narrative in (fill in country of settlement). This stands in stark contrast to the depiction of many restaurant owners in Som’s “Chinese Restaurant Drive Through”—people who opened brand-name buffets that deliberately catered to American tastes at low cost (as the food quality leads one to assume). The author describes a Chinese buffet owner who takes his lunch break and fills his plate with white rice and watermelon. It says a lot about his respect for food from his own kitchen. I’m really interested in the explanations for this phenomenon—maybe American culture has forced the Chinese restaurant tradition into a more unfortunate, even shameful chapter.

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