In 1976, Cheuk Kwan had dinner on the Cin Lokantasi, or “China Restaurant,” in Istanbul. There was no pork on the menu – a staple of most Chinese language delicacies. The proprietor, he later realized, was a Muslim-Chinese language man who had fled Mao Zedong’s China, travelling via Pakistan and Iraq, earlier than finally settling in Turkey.
This expertise led Kwan to the belief that, irrespective of the place you might be on the planet, there’s a Chinese language restaurant. That was the thesis behind his 2005 documentary sequence Chinese language Eating places, which follows the filmmaker from Israel to Kenya, and Argentina to Brazil, visiting Chinese language eating places throughout 13 international locations.
Kwan’s e book, Have You Eaten But?, revisits these travels, documenting the historical past of resistance and perseverance behind Chinese language eating places, and the tales they inform of world migration – all with a distinctly 2022 perspective.
The place did the concept for the e book come from?
About 20 years in the past, I made a 15-part documentary sequence that had me going all over the world for 4 years, visiting 13 international locations and 5 continents, to search for Chinese language eating places with tales to inform.
I’d discover a restaurant, poke my head into the kitchen, and say “Don’t make me something on the menu. Make me one thing you’ll usually make for your self.” I’d strike up a dialog with the chef or the proprietor, and I’d all the time be fascinated by the tales of how they happened.
Why did you resolve to show it right into a e book?
What I lined in my movies is simply as present as after they occurred 20 years in the past. You take a look at any of the backstories of Syrian refugees or Afghan refugees, and see the tales repeated again and again. Loads of the individuals I met fled China for a similar causes individuals are fleeing Syria and Afghanistan now. World migration has not stopped.
However with that migration comes racism and discrimination. And that was additionally in my movie, and it’s prevalent in my e book. To carry it ahead to at present, we’ve seen lots of anti-Asian hate for the reason that pandemic, and that brings these points as much as the floor.
How would you describe the impact of the pandemic on these Chinese language eating places?
It’s nothing new to Chinese language eating places in Canada, and Toronto, specifically. We’ve been via SARS in 2003 – when the entire Yellow Peril, ‘Chinese language meals is just not clear’ concept surfaced once more due to the affiliation of SARS with Southern China.
So I consider that lots of the Chinese language restaurant house owners have weathered that storm, and I feel they knew how you can cope with it. It wasn’t as large a deal as earlier than, with SARS, if you needed to have the mayor and politicians eating out in Chinese language eating places to show they’re clear and fit for human consumption at.
What’s it about Chinese language eating places that you simply discover so fascinating?
Meals tradition may be very central to the Chinese language neighborhood, and particularly diasporic communities. By way of meals, immigrants can have a style of residence. They will carry that to a brand new surroundings, and naturally, unfold to new prospects and new markets.
Second of all, eating places are very central to early immigrants’ expertise – the Prairie café, the one restaurant on the town, that’s additionally a neighborhood centre. It’s additionally an anchor not solely to your circle of relatives, but in addition to your entire village – it offers all of them a spot to work.
In my e book, I went to the Arctic, and a restaurant in Tromso, Norway. There have been lots of unlawful migrant staff from China working there. The boss mentioned “I’ve to assist these individuals. They don’t have any place to go.” So he gave them a job, helped them apply for a visa, gave them a spot to remain.
So [these restaurants] inform the politics of contemporary migration. And the way Chinese language eating places generally is a foothold into society.
Inform me concerning the significance of the e book title.
“Have you ever eaten but?” is a colloquial Chinese language expression, which means “how are you?” While you stroll round Chinatown, you greet individuals saying “Have you ever eaten but?” and it’s principally saying “Good day.”
In outdated China, individuals didn’t have sufficient to eat. So ensuring your abdomen was full was a major facet of Chinese language life. In that sense, individuals use it as a greeting, but in addition an expression of care – saying “Hey, have you ever had your meal? Are you okay?”
It additionally speaks to how necessary meals tradition is in China.
How would you describe the distinction between Chinese language eating places in Canada, versus elsewhere on the planet?
All of it is determined by migration. In Vancouver, Toronto, over the past 40 years, you’ve seen middle-class Chinese language coming to Canada, and naturally they bring about with them their exacting necessities of how meals ought to style.
That’s very completely different out of your earlier generations of railroad staff who had been simply attempting to outlive, and making chop suey to outlive. This can be a reflection of the place. Canada now could be acknowledged, the world over, because the place to get “genuine” Chinese language meals.
The opposite excessive is Cuba, the place there was no migration from China after 1959, after the Cuban Revolution. Every thing stopped in 1959. And on high of that, you’ve gotten the financial hardship of life in Cuba, each earlier than and after the Revolution.
In order that reworked Chinese language meals there into nothing. All you’ve gotten are Chinese language faces and Chinese language blood, however not one of the meals or the tradition – till just lately.
So what would I discover at a Chinese language restaurant in Cuba?
In my movie, I had an interview the place I requested somebody “The place’s one of the best Chinese language meals right here?” and he mentioned “Go to Los 3 Chinitos.” And I went, and it was a pizza restaurant.
In case you go to Havana, you see individuals lining up for pizza in Chinatown. It speaks to the type of ingenuity and inventiveness of Chinese language restaurant house owners. When this different factor doesn’t promote, however they know pizza sells, “Hey, no drawback.”
It’s, in a way, a Chinese language restaurant. You discovered one thing that prospects need. It doesn’t matter if it’s Chinese language or Italian. You serve it, and also you prosper. And I feel that’s the essence of Chinese language eating places.
Ann Hui is The Globe and Mail’s nationwide meals reporter, and creator of Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Cafe and Different Tales from Canada’s Chinese language Eating places
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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