Saturday, March 15, 2008

Global Chop Suey: Chinese Restaurants in the Diaspora

After watching Cheuk Kwan's documentary, Chinese Restaurants, I've gained a newfound appreciation for Chinese restauranteurs and their families. Kwan's subjects are, overall, portrayed as very hard-working and aspiring, often sacrificing a great deal in order to keep their dreams afloat.

I like the fact that each segment of Kwan's documentary focuses on a specific area of the globe. Of the three parts I watched, my favorite profiles were the ones Kwan did in Cuba and in Norway -- I hadn't even known that Chinese restaurants would be popular in these places. The cultural perspective Kwan provides focuses on the cross-cultural exchange that occurs between the Chinese immigrants and their surrounding locales. I especially found the interviews of the Chinese restauranteurs' children intriguing, because many of them faced the conflict of being a "hyphenated Chinese", caught between their parents' Chinese customs, and those of the country in which they were raised. In Trinidad, for example, Maurice's son says that he thinks of himself as "Trinidadian first, and Chinese second". In Cuba, one interviewee says that "a true Cuban is one part Spanish, one part black, and one part Chinese" -- I hadn't even been aware that there was a sizable Chinese community in Cuba! The Chinese parents of the diaspora often wanted their children to marry Chinese, and to continue the Chinese traditions in their adopted countries. many of the older Chinese people interviewed also expressed a wish to be buried in China, underscoring their strong attachment and longing for their homeland. Noisy Jim's story, in this regard, was especially poignant.

Also interesting was the fact that many of the Chinese restauranteurs had modified traditional Chinese cuisine into a fusion of Chinese and local foods, especially if Chinese ingredients were difficult to come by where they lived. In Norway, I was especially impressed by the dedication the Wongs had -- long, long hours, virtually no vacation time, and little opportunity to spend quality time with their children. Their life seemed very hard, and I wasn't sure if they were really happy or not; they emphasized that this was not a business they would want to pass on to their children.

The Chinese restauranteurs create a rich culture in their adopted countries, mixing Chinese and local cuisine, as well as interacting with the local people. The next time I visit a Chinese restaurant in a foreign country, perhaps I will ask about their story, and I wish, that as Kwan says, it will be one of perseverance and hope.

No comments: