Monday, March 17, 2008

The métis (a.k.a. the hapas of the world)

Questions of authenticity, nationality, purity, and ethnicity seem to underlie all of the anecdotes in Cheuk Kwan’s “Chinese Restaurants.” The documentary offers a unique lens from which to analyze the Chinese/Asian Diaspora. Kwan’s documentary exposes its viewers to a diversity of flourishing Chinese communities around the world. The documentary reminds it’s viewers that it’s too easy to think of the United States as a unique cultural melting pot compared to the “homogeneity” of other countries. It was intriguing to compare the various nationalistic identities of the interviewees and their relationship to their Chinese identity. Kwan’s documentary reminded me a lot of Renee Tajima-Pena’s “Honk if you love Buddha.” Throughout the movie, Kwan uses his exploration of these diasporic Chinese communities to search for his own family’s history and the meaning of a globalized Chinese identity.

The most interesting case studies featured in Kwan’s documentary was the Chinese community in Cuba and Madagascar. These two communities are examples of opposite ends of the spectrum of reproduction of diasporic Chinese culture. The Chinatown of Havana, once the largest in the Americas during the early 20th century, is now nothing but a ghost town with fewer than a few hundred authentic and “pure” Chinese. In the documentary Kwan frequently refers to the Chinatown of Cuba as a “artificial fantasia,” a government sponsored tourist trap which retains few of its ties to the Chinese. Bringing it back to the food, Kwan (the Chinese food connoisseur) also questions the authenticity and legitimacy of Cuban Chinese food, which he describes as very salty, deep fried, and soaked in soy sauce. The attitudes of the non-Chinese Cubanos in the film towards Chinese food also reinforce and maintain this view of Chinese as distinct, un-assimilated, and foreign.

On the opposite pole, a sustained and large Chinese influence has manifested itself in very different ways in Madagascar. With a history of immigration dating back before the Europeans, the Chinese have been embraced by Madagascar. Soupe Chinoise (similar to Wonton Soup) is even a staple dish of the coutnry. Described as one of the most multicultural societies in the world, the métis Chinese and their fusion food are an integrated part of Madagascar’s mixed race culture. Through both of these examples, Kwan questions the pure/authentic vs. assimilated dichotomy. As can be seen in an array of very different countries, Chinese (food) culture reproduces itself in many unique ways and is not simply a question of assimilation.

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