Thursday, October 1, 2020

Me And General Tso

As many of you know, I made an appearance in the wonderful 2014 food documentary "The Search For General Tso" which had a limited theatrical release and played in numerous film festivals, and is still available on numerous streaming platforms today.   After just rewatching the film here it occurred to me that while I have mentioned some elements of my involvement in this film in passing on this blog and elsewhere, I never did a comprehensive reflection of my experiences with the film.  So now, primarily for my own edification (and perhaps of interest to my imaginary agent Judy I. and my imaginary publicist Linda K.) I'm chronicling the events surrounding me and General Tso.

When Clarissa Wei's 2012 interview with me and my 6,000 Chinese restaurants  went viral, it apparently caught the attention of documentary filmmaker Ian Cheney.  Cheney had been working on what turned out to be a very successful project in Iowa, when looking for a late night place to eat stumbled upon an open Chinese restaurant in the middle of nowhere, where he was stunned to find the same General Tso's Chicken dish in rural Iowa that he was used to eating in New York.  That set him out to solve what seemed to be a mystery to him of how General Tso's Chicken came to be such an ubiquitous Chinese-American dish, and to collaborate with Chinese-American author Jennifer 8 Lee, whose book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles included a subplot involving where that dish came from.  I received a communication from Lily Spottiswoode in Brooklyn, an associate producer on this General Tso movie, who turned out to be the granddaughter of famed character actor Jack Palance, asking if they could interview me when they came to California to shoot some scenes.  Well, why not?

Well, it took quite a few months, but Ian Cheney and his crew finally came to Los Angeles on their way back from shooting on location in China.  Originally their plan was to film at a Chinese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley that served General Tso's Chicken, but I told them this was problematical for two reasons.  First of all, General Tso's chicken was in fact nearly unheard of in California, as the orange chicken dish found here had preempted the fairly similar General Tso's.  Secondly, General Tso's chicken was an Americanized Chinese dish, while virtually all of the Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley were authentic Chinese restaurants catering to Chinese diners.  In combination, these made finding a San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurant serving the dish a longshot.  Consequently, the film shoot was set for Mission 261, one of the better dim sum restaurants in the City of San Gabriel at the time.

The film crew of Cheney, Spottiswoode and director Amanda Murray ended showing up late for our 12:30pm meeting time, as they were delayed at their previous filming location, the corporate offices of Panda Express, where they had interviewed the founders of Panda Express, Andrew and Peggy Cherng.  My interview lasted two hours, during which they asked questions about the history and demography of Chinese food in the United States, not unlike the other interviews I had been doing in the wake of Clarissa Wei's article.  It became immediately evident to me that most of what I said in the interview would not be the part of the final movie, as the two hour length of the session exceeded the running time of most movies.  

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, followed by total silence.  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.

Then out of the blue, a little more than a year after the interview I saw a notice that the film would be premiering at the TriBeCa Film Festival in Manhattan in April of 2014, and received confirmation from the director that I had indeed made the final cut.   What a miracle!  The film didn't die.  Even more amazingly, I was scheduled to be in New York the week of the film festival and while I would not be able to attend the premiere, I would be able to attend one of the scheduled screenings of the movie and actually get to watch myself on the screen.  When I told them of my attendance, they sent me two passes to the showing, and also asked if I would be willing to come onstage after the screening to be part of the post-movie audience Q&A.  Well since I'd be in a suit anyway for my all day meeting, why not?

The festival was not held in TriBeCa, but rather in Chelsea at the Bow Tie Theater.  Mrs. Chandavkl and I took the subway to 23rd St., along with Mrs. Chandavkl's cousin from Los Angeles, Barbara, who was in town to attend her niece's graduation from culinary school. As we approached the theater, somebody yells out “David.”  I turn around and it’s Ian Cheney.  I asked him whether we needed to wait outside (there wasn’t anybody waiting but it was early) and he said he didn’t know the procedure, but he told me go inside with him and meet some of the people who worked on the film.  

 

After meeting the film editor and some technicians, we then went upstairs to the theater.   The Bow Tie cinema was just an ordinary multiplex with perhaps 200 seats per theater, and General Tso was in theater 7.  The theater was still very empty 20 minutes before screening time, which made me wonder whether the film really sold out as I had read.  However, as 9 pm approached, the theater did fill up.  A little after 9pm somebody from the festival went on stage to introduce Ian Cheney.  Ian said a few words and said there would be a “real treat” for the Q&A after the movie because one of the “cast members” would be there.  Who, me?

The movie was great.  My first scene appears about 25 minutes into the movie and it was really weird watching myself, such that I didn't pay attention to what portion of my interview was used in the movie. After the movie Ian went on stage and called me up.  Given that it was Ian's film and I was a bit player with maybe 3 minutes of screen time, I didn't expect to answer any questions. In fact because of this I grabbed the microphone when I was called onstage to make what I figured to be my only chance to say something. You see the film while the film did solve the mystery of the origin of General Tso's Chicken, it also essentially delivered my message about how Chinese food in America was tied to the Chinese exclusion acts, anti-Chinese discrimination and the pure Cantonese roots of Chinese-American food for the first century. So I as a Chinese-American wanted to thank Ian for telling "our" story.  

 

As it turned out I got dragged into a couple of questions where a questioner started out "Both of you..." or Ian responded and then said "What do you think, David."  Fortunately I had become relatively adept at answering the question I wasn't asked if I didn't have a good answer to the real question.  Somebody asked Ian what the best Chinese restaurant he ate at and he kicked that to me, so I responded Koi Palace in Daly City.  Then somebody asked if there was anything good in New York.  I said that I didn’t want to start a food fight, but "No", which drew a pretty loud reaction.   I think Ian was very happy that I was on stage with him for the Q&A because it’s easier having somebody else standing there instead of being by yourself.  Here's a brief clip from the session. 

After the Q&A a couple of fans came up to talk to me about the movie, so by the time we left the theater it was almost 11 pm.  We were all a little hungry since we really didn't have time before getting to the theater to have an elaborate meal, so I thought we’d have a snack.  I was looking for a deli or fast food, but a half block from the theater we saw Chinese Fast Wok was still open.  I would never suggest going to an Americanized Chinese restaurant to Mrs. Chandavkl as she is not a fan of inauthentic Chinese food.  But Barbara said she had never eaten General Tso’s chicken, nor had Mrs. Chandavkl, so they agreed that if the restaurant had it on the menu (which was a foregone conclusion) that it’d be appropriate to eat there. So they did have the dish and we ate there. 

Critical reaction to the movie was very good.  Both Variety and the Hollywood Reporter gave excellent reviews to the movie.  Even though my total screen time was short and there were 25 interviewees in the movie, the Daily Variety review specifically mentions me early in the review, the second interviewee named, albeit apparently as an example of the "assorted characters" in the movie, and also put me near the front of the cast listing in their review.   Therefore I found it surprising that the film only showed up at a few other rather random film festivals in 2014 and nothing remotely close to California.  Oh well, at last I was able to see myself onscreen, which is something that not too many of the other interviewees could say, even though I didn't remember what I said in the movie. 

But perhaps the biggest surprise was yet to come.  At the end of 2014 it was announced that The Search For General Tso was being picked up for distribution by Sundance Films.  While this didn't mean that the movie would be coming to thousands of movie screens in multiplexes throughout the country, it did mean that more than a few people might see the movie and I might be able to see the movie again.  Indeed the movie did actually make it to a multiplex in Phoenix, where coincidentally my former co-worker turned radio talk show host Dave Isaac put me and Ian Cheney on his show to talk about the movie after he and his staff were actually able to view the movie.  Or in Park City, Utah, where my 1970s co-worker Steve Chin attended a screening of the movie, and partway through the showing turned to his wife and said "David Chan should have been in this movie."  Moments later I came on screen, resulting in such an outburst from Steve that after the movie ended he stood up and apologized to the audience, explaining why he reacted the way he did.

In Hollywood, the movie played at the 99 seat Arena Theater, where I was able to buy tickets and bring several family members to see the film, and where I could actually concentrate on watching the film.  I found the second viewing of the movie quite interesting since there were details I had missed the first time around.   Also during the movie I tweeted that it felt strange watching myself on the screen.  Shortly thereafter, one of my Twitter followers who saw the movie that same day in New York, tweeted I was great in the movie.  (Yeah, all 3 minutes of my appearance.)

The screening was followed with a Q&A by the producer, Jennifer 8 Lee and moderated by Evan Kleinman from KCRW who once had me on her show, and Zach Brooks, the publisher of an LA dining blog.    I was wondering whether Evan remembered me, but since she had already seen the film she recognized me as soon as I walked in and we had a nice chat.    When the Q&A started, Zach announced there was a “celebrity in the audience” and introduced me, so I stood up and waved.   Somebody shouted out how did I stay so slim eating at all those restaurants.  "Exercise and portion control" was my reply.

After the Q&A I went up to speak with Zach who said he was a fan of mine.  I complimented him on his blog though I only occasionally read it.  I spoke with Jennifer 8 Lee who I had never met in person though we follow each other on Twitter and had a nice talk with her.  Afterwards they served small samples of General Tso’s chicken.  People started coming up to talk to me, including a couple of Chowhound message board regulars, I believe Dommy! and Mattpointset.  (First time I ever met Chowhounds in person.)       Also one of my son's former co-workers, who heard me spoke at a foodie night gathering with the Chinese lawyers association was also there.   Wish I could have stayed longer, but we had a previously scheduled family gathering to attend.

 

But the real audience for the General Tso movie was streaming video, and though I don't think this made General Tso a commercial success (despite once cracking the daily Top 100 streaming videos), it had a viewership far beyond what I could have imagined.  I really didn't tell a lot of people about the movie, nor did I urge them to rent the video.  So it was stunning to be contacted by people I knew who actually watched the movie, without any advance warning that I was in it.  Besides numerous instances with family members and family acquaintances there were interesting examples at my workplace.  One day one of the hundreds of anonymous faces that walked our hallways stopped me and said "I just saw you in a movie at home last night."  Likewise a person in our New Orleans office with whom I worked with peripherally started a phone call about having seen me in the movie.  And just months ago I bumped into a former co-worker who had also just retired who said that he and his son were watching this movie when I appeared on screen.  He went on to gush about my major role in the film, and that I must have been on screen for at least 10 minutes.  I wish.  At Chubby Rice restaurant in Gardena, the guy behind the counter said "Hey, I saw you in that movie last night."  And in my most recent video shoot at Warner Bros., the director of photography, Daphne Qin Wu, asked whether I had seen the General Tso movie.  Well, yes, I was in it.

 

Through Genera Tso I received a real insight on movie making.  I knew from the beginning that most of my scenes would not be included in the movie, but until I saw the final cut I really didn't realize what a massive undertaking, and what skill was required to cut the movie down to size and into a coherent and compelling product.  I also felt fortunate to be included in the movie since I didn't comment about General Tso's chicken, indeed a dish with which I had little familiarity.  And in fact the Panda Express people weren't even included in the movie,   I guess being an assorted character made the difference in preserving my appearance.


     




 




 

 

 

  

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Sam Woo Gets 3 to 9 Years In Prison

Of course there isn’t anybody really named Sam Woo running all those Sam Woo restaurants.  Rather Sam Woo is one of those Chinese businesses that are given lucky or propitious names, Sam Woo equating to something like "Three Happiness."  Still, when Sam Woo opened their first Orange County branch a local OC restaurant reviewer did refer to Sam, the man, as being in charge. 

And Sam Woo isn’t a monolithic chain, but rather various family members in a loose confederation under the Sam Woo banner, mostly in the Los Angeles area.  Consequently when a news item comes out regarding the Sam Woo restaurant chain,  not all branches are involved. With this clarification in place, one of the Sam’s is in big trouble, engaging in various types of tax and insurance fraud, being sentenced to 3 to 9 years in prison and having to paying $3 million in restitution.  The actual length of the prison sentence seems to be tied to the amount actually repaid to the defrauded taxing agencies and insurance companies.  

Of course, we knew stuff like this was going on in the Chinese restaurant community and occasionally we heard a few details now and then.  Indeed in my Menuism article on why some Chinese restaurants frequently change their names, I made reference to a couple potential tax avoidance scams that could be associated with restaurant name changes.  Meanwhile, a few years ago, the unofficial "Mayor of Chicago Chinatown" Tony Hu, who owned a string of Chinatown restaurants, was sent to prison for a year and fined $100,000 on vague tax evasion and money laundering charges.  But the Sam Woo episode is the most specific information that has ever gone public regarding this kind of activity, and given the magnitude of the punishment here compared to that received by Tony Hu, we can imagine the Sam Woo situation was, in the words of the state of California, egregious.

It is interesting to go through point by point as to the schemes that some of the Sam Woo restaurants took part in.  They are detailed in a news release from the State of California as follows.

Sales tax underreporting.    For over thirty years, the Sam Woo branch in Los Angeles Chinatown was one of the busiest restaurants in Chinatown.  It was also probably the biggest one that operated on a cash only basis, which was a pain when dining there.  But now we know why this, and other branches of Sam Woo in the Los Angeles area operated on a cash only basis.  Actually, in the Menuism article I described the more notorious sales tax scam than merely underreporting restaurant sales.  In this scam, after not reporting all of your sales, you then dissolve the corporation operating the restaurant, then open up a similar or identical restaurant at the same location, but in a new corporation and operating under a new restaurant name.   Practically speaking, this reduces the period of time that the government has to catch up with you for sales tax evasion.  It appears that Sam Woo took advantage of this strategy once, back around 2010, when the Sam Woo in Los Angeles Chinatown closed down and was replaced by something called Hong Kong BBQ.  Now they did print new menus, so while the look and feel of the restaurant was the same, I couldn't be sure if maybe somebody came in and bought the business and decided run it in a similar manner, but a waiter assured me it was the same operation.  Now given that the current criminal action against Sam Woo only goes back to 2012, it does appear that they got away with something with their Hong Kong BBQ maneuver.  And as I will indicate later, the waiter had one other piece of interesting information.

Income tax underreporting.  Obviously income tax underreporting goes hand in hand with sales tax underreporting when running a cash only business.  However what most people don't realize is that sometimes it is the desire of employees that drives the restaurant into the underground economy reliance on cash payments.  Many Chinese workers prefer being paid off the books in cash.  As a young accountant over 40 years ago I was surprised to learn that Chinese restaurants used unreported cash income not to line their own pockets by avoiding income tax, but rather to make under the table cash wage payments to their employees, for which the employer received no tax deduction.  While tales of employer exploitation of Chinese restaurant workers are well known and undoubtedly not uncommon, it was interesting to learn that some Chinese restaurant workers could dictate the terms of their employment.

While the obvious assumption is that these workers want to reduce their income tax liability by reporting less income, there are more important factors involved.  There are many government benefits tied to a worker's reported income, such as Medicaid (known in California as MediCal) eligibility. If I didn't realize this is common knowledge in the Chinese community I certainly would have caught on when I encountered a Chinese restaurant owner many years ago who drove a luxury car and casually mentioned he was on MediCal.  The desire of restaurant workers for at least some of their wages to be paid in untraceable cash has actually caused an operational dilemma for some Chinese restaurants as restaurants skew more toward credit card payments by their customers.  These restaurants simply don't have the cash receipts available to make under the table wage payments coveted by many restaurant workers.

Payroll tax underreporting.  In my Menuism article I also speculated about another possible tax scam that I had not heard about, but was suggested by a cryptic comment made by an unnamed waiter who attributed the change in identity as being forced by the government for being in business for so long.  That conversation was actually made at the former Sam Woo turned Hong Kong BBQ noted above and indeed payroll tax fraud was one of the counts against Sam Woo, by underreporting employee wages and also misstating the rate of employee turnover, which lowers your unemployment tax rate.

Last on the list was worker compensation fraud tied to underreporting reported wages.  I suspect this was done to be consistent with payroll tax reporting, and might not have been intended to be a separate source of fraudulent gain.

Mind you these are just the enforcement actions carried out by the state of California.  Federal income tax rates are roughly triple that of state income tax rates.  Can you imagine what the IRS is going to do to them?

Monday, August 3, 2020

Pandemic Silver Lining - Chinese Restaurant Leftovers May Be Healthier For You

In talking with many of my Asian-American friends and family in my age group, I have found that a significant portion of them are diabetic or pre-diabetic and have to alter their diets accordingly.  And for people who live most of their lives eating meals centered around rice, and to a lesser extent, noodles, this is a very painful experience, since Chinese cuisine really isn't Chinese food without these carb loaded foods.   Indeed it is widely known that instead of greeting someone with the words "How are you?"  Chinese may say "Sihk faan mei?" which literally is "Have you eaten?"  Perhaps not as well known is that the word "faan" means rice.  But on the glycemic index, where a rating of 100 means ingesting a particular food is equivalent to eating pure sugar, with some white rice varieities having a glycemic index approaching 90,  eating rice is an unaffordable luxury for many of us.

Turning to the pandemic, the main storyline for restaurants is that survival has meant pivoting to a takeout model.  And with people hunkered down at home, takeout is not necessarily for one's next meal, but going out once or twice a week and ordering several meals to be refrigerated or frozen. But in a strange twist of fate, to the extent you refrigerate your takeout Chinese meal for another day's consumption, you may be able to have your rice (or noodles) and eat it, too.

Even with the backdrop of many of us having to limit or avoid our intake of rice and noodles, there were some anomalies.  For example, fresh rice noodles like chow fun or pho have a low glycemic index putting them in the safe eating range.  Also, Chinese-American folklore claims that fried rice is better for you than plain rice.  While these statements were surprising, I had never bothered to discover any rationale and accepted these as anomalies.

But then I heard something that has turned out to be life changing.  Supposedly, when refrigerated, cooked rice becomes a low glycemic food, infinitely more palatable for diabetic and pre-diabetic eaters.  The operative concept is that of "resistant starch."  Scientifically, this means in this altered form, the affected carbohydrate no longer breaks down and releases glucose into the bloodstream.  Some foods are naturally high in resistant starch, such as beans, lentils and whole grains.  But there's the whole other category of foods which release high levels of glucose into your bloodstream when freshly cooked and eaten hot, but form resistant starch when cooked and refrigerated.  Besides rice, this includes noodles and potatoes.

Of course the obvious question is what happens to a cooked and cooled resistant starch when it is subsequently reheated?  Does the heating make them villains again?  Apparently for rice and noodles, reheating the food does not alter the resistant starch status.  There seems to be some disagreement about reheated potatoes, so I still don't bother with eating them.

So what about fresh rice noodles and fried rice?  What makes eating these items freshly cooked them so palatable with a low glycemic index?  Well with fresh rice noodles I've been told that their production involves an initial cooking and cooling process, which renders the ultimately minted rice noodle a low glycemic, resistant starch product.  However, there may be a caveat to that because I saw a recent report out of Hong Kong which indicated that steamed rice noodle rolls (cheung fun) had a very high glycemic index.  I also know that in the past few years a new style of rice noodle  (distinctively softer and wrinkled) had been invented using stone ground rice flour, so I'm wondering if these are processed differently not to include an initial cooking and cooling of the rice flour.  So quite possibly the old style cheung fun, whose rice wrapper was very similar to the fresh chow fun noodle, could be low glycemic, while the new style one is not.  Just guessing.

And how about fried rice?  Well as all Chinese cooks know, you should use leftover rice for fried rice, not freshly cooked rice, because fresh rice produces a soggy product, while leftover, refrigerated rice has had time to dry out.   When I was a kid, everybody knew restaurants used leftover rice for fried rice, maybe even getting leftovers off the diners tables after they left.  These days, I don't know if Chinese restaurants are permitted to reuse rice like this, so to be safe (from a resistant starch point of view), you might want to refrigerate and reheat your fried rice, too.

There are other benefits to resistant starches besides the lower glycemic index, so much as to garner the coveted "superfood" tag.  In any event my interest is in the effects on blood sugar, and I'm now able to enjoy more Chinese rice, dry rice noodle, and wheat noodle dishes than I could have imagined a year ago, just by eating them as leftovers. 

Of course as to anything to do with diet and health there are multiple opinions out there and you need to evaluate these on your own.  To me, the fact that fresh rice noodles (as well as converted rice) have undisputedly low glycemic indices which can be explained by the reprocessing inherent in these products is compelling.  And I have the A1C results to show that resistant starches really do work for me.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Chinese Restaurants Battle Through The Pandemic

In my May article on this blog and in my expanded Menuism article on the same topic, I painted a rather pessimistic picture of the effect of the pandemic on Chinese restaurants in the United States through a combination of xenophobia, what turned out to be prescient caution in the Chinese-American community about dining out, as well as a high concentration of mom and pop operated enterprises.  

Things were particularly dark and stark in Los Angeles Chinatown, where during April a good two-thirds of the Chinese restaurants had closed down, and those that remained opened greatly pared their food offerings.  Dim sum lovers in Chinatown were especially distraught as only a handful of varieties were available at the two remaining dim sum outlets, Tian's Dim Sum and Keung Kee, likely the two least known dim sum providers in Chinatown.  The two large dim sum palaces, Ocean Seafood and Golden Dragon, closed down right off the bat, and eventually were followed by Won Kok Restaurant, Long's Family Pastry, Lucky Deli, CBS Seafood, ABC Seafood (which remained open for steam tray but not dim sum) and others.

Meanwhile in the San Gabriel Valley, things turned out not to be as bleak as feared, with a clear majority of the Chinese restaurants managing to adapt to a takeout model, including, surprisingly, some hotpot restaurants.  And in May, many of the Chinese restaurants that had temporarily closed began to reopen, both in the San Gabriel Valley and Los Angeles Chinatown.  This trend continued throughout June, having reached a point where people are lamenting the failure of individual specifically named restaurants to reopen, which while tragic in each such instance, is nothing compared to what we had imagined was going to happen.  Not that long ago people were bracing for a closure rate of 50 percent for Chinese restaurants (and indeed, at this point the national permanent closure rate for restaurants in general has been estimated to be 25 percent).  But the survival rate among San Gabriel Valley and Chinatown Chinese restaurants at this point in time looks encouraging, despite the permanent loss of some restaurants including the original Din Tai Fung in Arcadia, King Hua in Alhambra and Plum Tree Inn in Chinatown, and the conspicuous failure of some of the other larger size restaurants to reopen as of this date.


Equally interesting is the fact that even though dine-in restaurants have been permitted in Los Angeles for a month now, very few Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley or Chinatown have taken up this option.   I only know of a handful of Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley that were open for dine-in on Father's Day, and even now I don't know if the number is more than a dozen and a half.  But with the well justified caution that the Chinese American community showed at the start of the pandemic, continued caution at this point in time certainly is not out of hand.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

How I Became A Writer

As I remember hearing some anonymous person saying many years ago, my most outstanding trait is clearly my humility. So even as people tell me what a good writer I am, such as the comment by a novelist and television journalist, "David is doing some of the best, most idiosyncratic food writing in the country right now," I try to stay humble about this.  And for good reason, because I don't know how a became a good writer, having started out in life as a very poor writer.

Indeed, I think back on my Advanced Composition class at Dorsey High School and I wonder what magic transformation occurred.   I think that the only reason I was even in Advanced Composition was that they used a tracking system such that all the perceived better students took the same classes together, be it English, Science or Social Studies.  I remember one composition was so bad that the teacher read it in front of the entire class, fortunately without attribution, as an example of an awful composition.  Not only was my writing poor, but I couldn't produce anything more than a couple pages long, and only in the formulaic structure that they taught us.

My writing troubles continued at UCLA where you had to write a composition before the beginning of your first semester to see if you were required to take "Subject A", a.k.a. "Dumbbell English" if your composition wasn't good enough.  I failed.   I remember just a couple of things from the first day of Subject A.  The instructor was a 60ish woman named Catherine Wheat, and she already knew one of the other students, Mr. Johns, a burly African-American with a southern accent.  It didn't take long for me to figure out he was a football player who had previously flunked the Subject A class.  What I didn't realize until later was that he was a Senior, and in fact had completed his football eligibility in the previous semester, so I guess we have to hand it to him to keep plugging in class even though his football career was over.   And on the first day, everybody got a second chance to write another composition and waive out of Subject A.  I think the topic was a letter of advice to someone planning to go to college, so I wrote my imaginary letter to my second cousin Carl, who was a grade behind me at Dorsey.  So guess what?  It was good enough to waive out of Subject A, and indeed the instructor read my essay aloud to the class before being excused from the class.  In hindsight I'm thinking that the conversational nature of this composition might have been the difference in my flunking the original composition but waiving out.

Nothing during my undergraduate years at UCLA would indicate anything that would have improved my writing skills.  I think I only wrote two term papers in my four plus undergraduate years, as I took mostly business and economics courses.  And my only "C" grade as an undergraduate was in English 1.  Yet something happened to my writing skills during those years.  The second of my term papers was written in my very last semester at UCLA, for the pioneering "Orientals In America" class.   As I have written in the past, that was a transformative class for me, and my term paper was a history of the Chinese in Los Angeles, which the organizers of the class also ran in the pioneering Asian American movement publication Gidra.  The thought didn't occur to me at the time (and indeed first hit me while writing this essay), but it must have been relatively well written from them to have chosen my paper for publication.

It wasn't actually until  a year later that I consciously had any clue that I might somehow be turning into a good writer.  I had a summer internship at the Big 8 CPA firm Touche Ross & Company (which subsequently became part of the merged Big 6-5-4 CPA firm of Deloitte & Touche) during the summer between my graduation from UCLA Business School and beginning UCLA Law School.  As a summer intern I was obviously at the bottom of the audit team totem pole, and was responsible for writing up the engagement's summary of procedures and observations.  In so doing, the senior on the job, Chris Massey, a former swimmer at USC and subsequently longtime Big 8 CPA firm partner in Los Angeles, told me that I wrote excellent memos.  (He also told me how USC was going to smash UCLA in football that fall, and I could only nod my head.  Final score:  UCLA 45, USC 20.) 

So somehow even before starting law school, and without doing much formal writing, I was beginning to develop writing skills.  After that it was a matter of improving those skills.  It's hard to go to law school and not become a good writer, as law school is all about writing and making convincing arguments.  Meanwhile, I was following up on my published article on the history of the Chinese in Los Angeles with similar pieces even while I was still in law school, and continuing when I started working for the CPA firm of Kenneth Leventhal & Company.  And even though I had to stop writing historical articles in the early 1980s due to professional and family responsibilities, my job at Kenneth Leventhal, which eventually merged into Ernst & Young, was really a writing job.  Essentially I would write legal tax memos analyzing and applying tax law to specific factual situations, but most often as an advocate for the client, as opposed to the impartial position of a judge.  As such, I realized that I was writing in a storytelling format, perhaps influenced by the historical writings I had previously done on the side.  And whether it was writing a tax memo, a historical article, or a restaurant article, use of a storytelling type of framework results in a product that is very pleasing to readers.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Solving The Broccoli Beef Mystery

Even as Chinese food in the United States becomes more and more authentic, there also seems to be renewed interest in Americanized Chinese food, as indicated by the invitation I received to be interviewed about Americanized Chinese food on the Jim Jefferies podcast, which I declined as it involved going into a radio studio during the lockdown.  As I have explained in the past, there were two separate and distinct sources to today's Americanized Chinese food.  There's the category of food which was rooted in the Toishanese immigration to the United States, from the time of the Gold Rush in the mid-19th century until the late 1960s repeal of discriminatory anti-Chinese immigration laws in the United States.  Basically this was rural Cantonese food as adapted to ingredients available in the United States, as well as to the taste buds of the American public.  In this original category one finds classics such as chop suey, egg foo young, sweet and sour pork, and wor won ton soup, which most of America erroneously believed representative of food eaten throughout China.

However after the change in American immigration laws, Chinese people of different backgrounds began to come to the United States.  In the 1970s these were the urban Cantonese from Hong Kong and the Mandarin speaking Taiwanese, most of whom themselves had evacuated the Chinese mainland to Taiwanese as the mainland fell to the communist regime.   Taiwanese chefs, many of whom had arrived in Taiwan from Hunan and Sichuan provinces two decades previous, arrived in New York and starting serving what they remembered as Hunan and Sichuan food.  But since they were serving these dishes to native New Yorkers, not natives of Hunan or Sichuan, of whom there were very few in the United States at that time, new styles of Americanized Chinese dishes became featured--mu shu pork, General Tso's chicken, and sizzling rice soup to name a few.  

While we're now used to seeing a mashup of Cantonese and non-Cantonese dishes at Americanized Chinese restaurants these days, the difference between the two was originally like night and day, except perhaps for the presence of white rice at both styles of restaurants.  Furthermore, since during the first half of the 20th century, there was little migration from China, and what migration there was consisted almost exclusively of friends and relatives of the Toishanese already here, Chinese restaurant menus during this period were remarkably stable.

Which leads to my mystery of broccoli beef.  This dish is not found on Americanized Chinese restaurant menus in the early 20th century.   Yet, it had become a standard dish in Americanized Chinese restaurants before the second wave of Americanized Chinese food in the 1970s.  Plus as a mild stir fry mixture of meat and vegetable, it clearly fell into the Cantonese style of cooking.   So why did this dish arise during a period of time where there was little evolution in Chinese food in America?

As it turns out, there was a simple reason there was no broccoli beef in the early 20th century.  It was because there was no broccoli, period, in the United States at that point in time.  Broccoli did not arrive in the United States until 1920s when it was brought by Italian immigrants.  And it didn't become a mainstream vegetable in the United States until the 1940s.  So it was an evolution in American food, rather than anything specifically due to Chinese food or the Toishanese community, that led to the introduction of the classic broccoli beef.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

My First Celebrity Sighting

For something that happened over 60 years ago, I can vividly remember my first celebrity sighting.  It was around 1957 that I saw the legendary Buster Keaton, song and dance man Donald O'Connor and glamour girl Ann Blyth make personal appearances in the Thrifty Drug Store in the shopping center on the corner of La Brea Ave. and Rodeo Road, now known as Obama Blvd.  I particularly remember O'Connor being introduced and coming out in a brightly lit area with a fair number of spectators ringing the scene.  (Thanks to a parallel thread I started on a neighborhood message board, that was in the area normally occupied by the Thrifty diner.)

While I have thought about this event occasionally over the years, it never occurred to me to figure out the nature of that event.  I mean why those stars and at that location?  I guess one reason is that there really wasn't any way to get an answer, except maybe to ask my parents while they were alive.  But like so many other things, as I once wrote a few years ago, unknowable facts in the past become easily answered in the internet age.  And a simple Google search today for "Buster Keaton Donald O'Connor Ann Blyth" revealed instantaneously that Donald O'Connor and Ann Blyth starred in "The Buster Keaton Story" which was released in 1957.  So that appearance by the trio was a promotional event for the release of the movie.

It took a little more searching to figure out why they appeared at that particular location.  We moved into the adjacent Crenshaw area in 1952, and even then it was a largely a minority neighborhood, predominantly African-American, but with a relatively large concentration of Asian-Americans and a few holdover whites.  I could see such event at the nearby Crenshaw Center (now Baldwin Hills Plaza) which featured department stores and specialty shops, and whose 1947 opening indeed was star studded with Mel Torme, among others, celebrating the opening of this shopping center so newsworthy that it was covered in Life Magazine.  But the La Brea/Rodeo shopping center only contained Thrifty Drug Store, Alpha Beta Market, and a small arcade area that included a small barber shop, maybe a shoe shine stand, and a couple of other stores.  However after a little digging I discovered that the Thrifty drug store was the largest location of that chain in the country at the time and was reminded that the property was also home to Thrifty's corporate headquarters.  And when the complex opened in 1952, there was a star studded celebration that included Anne Baxter and Tony Martin.

So who knows what other big name celebrities may have passed through that modest looking shopping center over the years..