Thursday, June 28, 2012

It's Not Just About The Food

My sense is that many people are disappointed finding this blog, expecting a site devoted to food, with pictures of luscious fish dumplings, crispy shrimp mashed potato cakes, or lamb rolls with avocado. But the fact is that I'm not a foodie like many of those who write their own food blogs, or populate Chowhound or even Yelp. For starters, I ate very little Chinese food growing up. First of all my parents were both born in Los Angeles, and I didn't eat a whole lot of Chinese food aside from the occasional banquet at the Lime House on Ord Street in the Spring Street district (which was a distinct area close to, but separated from New Chinatown). Secondly, Chinese food back in the 1950s and 1960s wasn't that good. Most all of the Chinese who came to the United States prior to World War II were poor villagers from Toishan, a small rural area outside of the city formerly known as Canton, China. (To set up a reverse analogy, think of it as if all the Americans living in China emigrated from Victorville, California.) As such, Chinese food as Americans knew it in the first part of the 20th century, which had been brought by rural villagers from a single concentrated locale, was quite unrepresentative of Chinese food as a whole.

The event that ultimately triggered my interest in Chinese restaurants and Chinese food was the ethnic studies movement that was born in the late 1960s. In my last quarter as an undergraduate at UCLA, they offered the very first Asian American studies class. Indeed, that was so long ago, it was titled "Orientals In America". Immediately I was captivated by the topic of the experience of Chinese people in the United States. There was a dearth of material on the topic, such that a novice in the subject matter who was principally studying accounting could write a term paper on the history of the Chinese of Los Angeles and immediately have it published in the budding ethnic press. That same person could then go on KNX radio, KCBS television and speak at conferences as an "expert" on the subject, quite laughable given that my credentials consisted of having taken all of two university level classes in Asian American studies, plus doing leisure time reading in the library.

My interest in Chinese food only developed after the convergence of three factors when I started to work and travel. First of all, I made the acquaintance of friends at work from Hong Kong, who showed a passion for food that I had never encountered before. Secondly, my Hong Kong friends had been the vanguard of the late 1960s immigration of Chinese from Hong Kong to the United States. Previously, for many decades, US law barred most persons of Chinese heritage from immigrating to the United States. Even in the 1950s virtually the only Chinese in the US were the rural Toishanese immigrants and their children. Chinatowns and Chinese food in the US had stagnated. But then the immigration spigot opened with the mid-1960s change in American immigration laws, and the new residents brought their food with them. This upgrade in Chinese food sparked an interest in me, as this new and exciting form of Chinese food was so much better than what I was used to. Finally, I started to travel around the United States, and made it a point to eat at Chinese restaurants to the extent possible, as part of a greater interest in seeing what Chinese residents and communities were like throughout the United States. Indeed my one and only printed restaurant review, of Hong Kong Restaurant in Sioux City, Iowa (for the old East West Chinese weekly newspaper out of San Francisco) was as much about the milieu as the food itself. And to this day, eating at Chinese food while traveling is part of my greater desire to experience various Chinese American and Canadian communities.

So as you can see, in the beginning it wasn't at all about the food, and even today the food is only part of the story.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Cantonese vs. Non Cantonese Food

Since my article in the Asia Society's Journal on the Top 10 Chinese Restaurant in The United States has caused some controversy, particularly for being heavily tilted towards Hong Kong style/Cantonese food, I need to expand on that point a little, particularly my comment that most Chinese agree that Hong Kong/Cantonese cuisine is the superior regional style of Chinese cuisine.

I agree that generalizations can be dangerous, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be true. My comment is based initially on the old Chinese saw identifying the best of everything Chinese includes “to eat in Guandong”. Of course personal tastes differ, and I’m not saying that there isn’t good non-Cantonese Chinese food in the U.S. The San Gabriel Valley has hundreds of outstanding Sichuan, Hunan, Shanghai, Taiwanese, Beijing, etc. etc. style restaurants and I've eaten at almost all of them.

But if this preference for Cantonese food isn’t true, why is the biggest and best Chinese restaurant in any American community having a sizable Chinese community, but few Hong Kong/Cantonese people (e.g., Dallas, St. Louis, Atlanta) still a dim sum/Hong Kong seafood palace? What is a fact is that most non-Cantonese Chinese enjoy Cantonese food. And the flip side, which someone without Cantonese family or friends would not be aware of, is that most Cantonese Americans refuse to eat non-Cantonese Chinese food. That’s the case with most of my family members and most of my friends from Hong Kong. In that regard I’m the black sheep in that I do appreciate non-Cantonese Chinese food. If Chinese food is a one way street for Hong Kong/Cantonese people, but a two way street for non-Cantonese, that is either a sign that Cantonese people are stubborn or that Cantonese food is better. And given the love of all Chinese people for food, I doubt if stubborness would stop Cantonese food lovers from enjoying non-Cantonese Chinese food if they thought it was better.

I might as well also comment on the objections to the lack of any New York Chinese restaurants in my listing, along with my comment that New York Chinese food is mired in the 1990s. I have heard many, many Californians comment (indeed, complain) that New York Chinese food is clearly inferior to that back home. This wasn't always the case. In the mid-1980s New York did surpass San Francisco for the best Chinese food in America and I would discuss with my friends what New York Chinese restaurants should be visited similar to our discussions of where we should eat when we went to San Francisco. But that all changed in the 1990s when Los Angeles leaped past New York and San Francisco in terms of Chinese food.

On the other hand, I have heard many New Yorkers comment on how much better California Chinese food is than what they get back home. However, I have never heard a person who has eaten in the San Gabriel Valley say that the Chinese food is better back home in New York. You have to visit the San Gabriel Valley to understand the breadth and depth of Chinese food there. Think of a Chinatown probably the size of Manhattan in acreage, with 600 or 700 or 800 authentic Chinese restaurants reflecting the continuing influx of cuisine from Hong Kong, Taiwan and what we used to refer to as Mainland China. That's what New York is up against, and as good as the Chinese food is in Flushing (though Mrs. Chandavkl, who is also Cantonese, found nothing there to her liking), it doesn't have a chance.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Return to National Harbor

Two years ago when our group held its annual meeting in National Harbor, Maryland, I wrote here about the mystery of this development, consisting of convention sized hotels, trendy designer stores, but the streets of which were a Twilight Zone like ghost town. I attributed this to conventioneers staying within the confines of their facility during unbearably hot and humid days, and the lack of local residents to support everyday retail activities, such as large grocery or chain drug stores.

Two years later we're back at National Harbor, and I need to modify my observations and conclusions. First of all, walking outside for about two blocks at lunchtime, I actually saw people on the streets. About ten of them in a two block area. Also, there is now a CVS drug store, a gourmet food market, and even a dry cleaners. In addition, all of the trendy stores that were here two years ago are still here, and it looks like a few more have been added. So it's no longer proper to call National Harbor a ghost town. On the other hand, the weather is much more comfortable than two years ago, so if that only draws ten people onto the street at lunch time, this is still a pretty deserted place. Also, I had previously suspected that things picked up at night time, especially in the restaurants, but when I drove out last night at 9 pm, things were fairly dead. I do presume that there is more activity here on weekends, but on weekdays this town is still pretty dead. I guess this means that the conventioneers still stay inside their hotels, and nobody actually seems to live here.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

President Obama Visits My Old 'Hood

Though I moved away 20 years ago, I have lived a majority of my life in what is now referred to as South Los Angeles. Consequently, when I heard that President Obama was going to have a fund raising breakfast in my old View Park neighborhood, where we still have our old family homestead, I was very intrigued even though I'm not a particular fan of his policies. And when I found out that the venue was just a block away from the old home, on Kenway Drive, I thought about staying there overnight just to see what it would be like this morning. Unfortunately that was totally impractical, but I was able to convince my son that the house was not haunted, and that it would be fun for him to stay there. So earlier this morning he went down to the event site and was able to take in the festivities and see the presidential motorcade.

What I found interesting was the impact of the Obama motorcade on traffic. Prior to this morning's visit speculation was that the president would travel from the Beverly Hilton to View Park via surface streets like Robertson or La Cienega, or perhaps the Santa Monica Freeway to La Brea Ave. It was also funny to see the listing on a traffic website of "Stalker Ave." as a street that could potentially be blocked off. (It's Stocker St., named after Lucky Baldwin's son-in-law.) However, they ended up taking the San Diego Freeway south to Slauson Ave., which is the exact way I travel from the Westside to the old home. While it was possible that route could actually take him in front of the old home, Eric said it did not go that way. The president may have gone by, however, when he left View Park for LAX.

Strangely, the real impact on traffic was felt greatest in the San Fernando Valley. As the president traveled to View Park, the San Diego Freeway was shut down for a half hour in both directions between Wilshire and Slauson. For those who keep score, the San Diego Freeway is the primary transit route between the Valley and the Westside, so cutting this off for a half hour during morning rush hour obviously backed traffic well into the Valley. And it backed up the northbound 405 to Long Beach. But of equal impact was the domino effect on other freeways. For example, as I drove from the Hollywood Hills to Century City this morning, I crossed over the Hollywood Freeway near Hollywood Blvd. and saw traffic was totally stuffed, far worse than normal, as cars avoiding taking the San Diego Freeway out of the Valley chose to take the 101 instead. All in all it was a mess. And it's a good thing for the president that California is a safe state for him in this November's election, since his numerous fundraising trips to Los Angeles and the ensuing traffic jams have irritated a lot of motorists.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Pac 12 Athlete Bill of Rights - What Would The NCAA Say?

The great thing about living in California is that you are in the forefront of so many things. Proposition 13. Hot new fashion trends. Cap and trade. Medical marijuana. Plastic bag ban. For better or worse, California is ahead of the curve and is the trendsetter for the rest of the country in many ways. A lot of this involves poking the governmental nose where it hasn't gone before. Depending on your point of view, that may be a good thing or a bad thing.

Which brings me into California's latest attempt to establish new ground. The California State Senate has just passed the Pac 12 Athlete Bill of Rights. It would require the four California members of the Pac 12, UCLA, Cal, USC and Stanford, to provide additional financial and educational support for injured and low-income athletes, such as payment of healthcare premiums for low income athletes, protection against medical costs from sports injuries, financial skills workshops, and immediate approvals of transfers, among numerous other provisions.

Personally I don't have an objection to these provisions, but what I'm wondering is how this would play with the NCAA? As all sports fans know, the NCAA is an organization which is known for triviality in its enforcement of its rules of amateurism in some circumstances, while it is often accused of looking the other way with potentially major violations. Schools have been punished for giving away too many T-shirts to prospective recruits or picking a recruit up in the wrong kind of car. Athletes who walk on to a sports team without a scholarship have to pay the cost of team meals out of their own pocket. On the other hand, there is the likely payoff of $200,000 to Cam Newton at Auburn and oft rumored payments to Kentucky basketball players under John Calipari, which have drawn little response from the NCAA.

At the core of these possible violations, both minor and major, is the extra benefits rule imposed by the NCAA. Simply stated, the rule is that student athletes cannot be provided any benefits by a school that aren't available to the student population as a whole. It appears that a lot of the mandates of California's pending legislation fly in the face of the NCAA's extra benefits rule. So if the legislation is enacted, a number of very interesting scenarios may arise. The schools comply with the new state law, whereupon the NCAA places heavy sanctions on each of the four schools for violating the extra benefits rule. Or the schools don't comply with the new state law and are punished civilly or criminally by the state of California. Or the schools extend the benefits to all of their students. I can see it now--National Collegiate Athletic Association vs. State of California in the United States Supreme Court. How will it end?