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.

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