Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Search For General Tso--The Saga Ends

Shortly after my first 15 minutes of fame that followed from Clarissa Wei's piece on the crazy lawyer who had eaten at 6,000 Chinese restaurants, I was contacted by Lily Spottiswoode, associate producer at New York based Wicked Delicate Films (and unbeknownst to me at the time, the granddaughter of actor Jack Palance), regarding a documentary film they were shooting on Chinese restaurants.  The film was titled The Search For General Tso and was based on a segment of Jennifer 8 Lee's book, the Fortune Cookie Chronicles, which searched for the origins of General Tso's Chicken, an Americanized Chinese dish commonly found in the eastern United States.  The filmmakers' plans were eventually to travel out to the west coast to shoot some interviews and they asked if I was available to speak about regional differences in Chinese restaurants across the United States.

It took six months for the interview to take place, where I met with Lily, along with film director Ian Cheney and producer Amanda Murray.  At first they wanted to shoot the interview at a local Chinese restaurant that served General Tso's chicken.  However since General Tso's chicken is as rare in Los Angeles as it is common in New York, we ended up at Mission 261 in San Gabriel.  Our interview lasted over two hours, well in excess of what the film's running time would be, so it was clear to me that most of what I said would never make it into any film.  Since my interview was one of the last they conducted, they indicated that they would soon start the editing process.  I don't know anything about filmmaking, but I figured it would take maybe 6 to 9 months to pull the film together.  I did get a short informational request four months after the interview.  However, as the months rolled on I started to suspect that the film would not get finished, my guess being funding problems being the culprit.   Not only did I not hear from anybody, but the General Tso account on Twitter fell silent.

So it was a bit of a surprise that last month, a little over a year after the interview, the General Tso Twitter account revived to announce that the movie would be screening at this month's TriBeCa film festival.  The movie really has two parts--the successful search for the origins of General Tso's chicken, and an account on the Chinese restaurant landscape in the United States. The movie premiered two days ago before a sellout crowd of 500 viewers at the Bow Tie Cinema in Chelsea.  This Thursday's showing is also sold out, and I'm looking forward to seeing the film with great anticipation.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Thanks To The Asia Society For Expanding The Audience

It’s been nearly two years since food writer Clarissa Wei plucked me from obscurity to profile me as the crazy attorney/CPA who had eaten at 6,000 Chinese restaurants.  Within days I was contacted by the Asia Society to do an article on my picks as the 10 best Chinese restaurants in the United States.   Eating at so many Chinese restaurants didn’t make me an expert on Chinese food, as my knowledge was about Chinese restaurants, which is a completely different thing, but I gladly accepted the challenge.  The Asia Society article led to the opportunity to write articles on Chinese restaurants on the Menuism website on a recurring basis.  This has opened the door for me to publicize the Toishanese roots of Americanized Chinese food and the Chinese community itself, along with important facts about Chinese American history, such as discriminatory immigration laws that barred Chinese from coming to the United States for decades, and the post-immigration reform shift in the mix of Chinese immigration.  There’s not a single traditional restaurant review among my writings.

However, it’s only at this point almost two years later that I recognize what an opportunity that the original Asia Society article has provided me.  First of all, it’s given me an insight I would not have otherwise had into how the internet works.  No, I’m not talking servers and stuff like that, but how content originates on the internet, and then how that content speeds its way around the world.  Secondly, I also now just realize what a chance that first article provided to reach so many people with what I had to say.

When I wrote my Top 10 Restaurant story I had no idea as to the attention and controversy that would follow.  And it’s really all thanks to the Asia Society because my intended article was merely a listing and description of 10 restaurants, hardly anything to garner a wide audience.  The one thing that I wanted to explain to the editor when I submitted the article was that my list was different in that I made no effort to be geographically correct, and explaining in detail why all the restaurants were in California, and specifically why none were in New York.  These comments were meant solely as an aside to the editor and not for public consumption, so when I saw that the raw introductory comments were included at the start of the article, I cringed at seeing my unfiltered comments in public. 

What I didn’t realize, but Asia Society’s editor did, was that the purpose of internet content is to drive traffic, and nothing drives traffic like controversy.  And in those terms, the article turned out to be a blockbuster.  Through well placed links in social media and on restaurant message boards, a firestorm of commentary ensued, much of it negative from outraged New Yorkers who felt that had been dissed.  Indeed, reaction was so negative that I didn’t bother to re-read my Asia Society article again until just recently.  And when finally visiting the article again I was shocked to see the statistics on the page–3,200 likes on Facebook (probably an even larger number of dislikes, if there were such statistics kept) and over 300 tweets on Twitter.  Given that a minuscule percentage of web surfers bother to affirmatively interact with a like or tweet, the readership for that article must  have been staggering.   I could only dream about reaching those kinds of numbers again.   And it was due entirely to the inclusion by the Asia Society editor of what I intended to be off the record remarks.