Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Chinese Foodie Night Comments

For those of you who could not attend SCCLA's Chinese foodie presentation, here are my remarks.

Now I know that some of you have read about me as the crazy lawyer who’s eaten at 6,000 Chinese restaurants, but I’m sure that a lot of you have not, so I will make my remarks on the presumption that you haven’t heard about me.  I had been dining in anonymity for decades.  Then last year, a food writer named Clarissa Wei, who’s sitting right here, found out that I kept an Excel schedule showing the 6,000 Chinese restaurants I had eaten at.  She asked me if anybody had ever written me up and I replied no, why would anybody want to?  She interviewed me and the story ran on the LA Weekly website.  That item was quickly picked up by the Huffington Post, People.com, went viral  around the world, including the Chinese language press, and a whole bunch of celebrity gossip websites, all of which I found quite befuddling except to wonder if there was a new category of public figure called celebrity diner. 

That led to an all expense paid visit to Springfield, Missouri for me and my wife Mary to sample Springfield’s signature cashew chicken at several Chinese restaurants and have our picture taken with the restaurant owners, plus the mayor of Branson gave us the key to the city.  Eventually the furor died down, until this past April when the Los Angeles Times ran its Column One story written by Frank Shyong on my spreadsheet, complete with interactive timeline map of where I ate over the years.     This was followed a feature on the Yahoo News and Good Morning America websites leading to another 15 seconds of fame.  The end result is I have 850 Twitter followers, a Chinese restaurant column on a restaurant website called Menuism, and field requests from strangers asking questions like what’s the best Chinese restaurant in Cincinnati.  To my horror, casual responses to three such short questions ended up as newspaper articles, or in one case, an article on the Canadian Broadcasting Company website so I've learned to always be careful to watch what I say.

At this point I need to issue a disclaimer.   People hear that I have eaten at 6,000  Chinese restaurants and they all assume I’m a foodie and Chinese food expert.  I am not a foodie.  Eric Chan here is a foodie—he takes pictures of all his restaurant meals.  I do not.  My daughter Christina, who is also a lawyer, is a foodie.   When she went to Asia last year and sent us the link to her photos, I found that 80 percent of the pictures were of food.  When I travel, I only take pictures of the scenery.   And I’m no Chinese food expert as sometimes I don’t even know what’s in the Chinese food I’m eating.

Now the fact that I am not a foodie is quite significant, because when I started this journey, it certainly wasn’t about the food and in many respects it still isn’t.  Rather, as the L.A. Times article focused on, it was about a different kind of search.   Because as a Chinese American I grew up in a Los Angeles far different from what most of you are familiar with.  A Los Angeles where Asians, or as we were called back then, Orientals, were under one percent of the population, a mere  20,000 Chinese, not 500,000 like today.   We were such a rarity that when I started my first job one of the other new hires thought I was Mexican because he had never met a Chinese person before.   It was a time when, because of decades of anti-Chinese immigration laws, virtually all of the Chinese residents in America had roots in the seven counties of rural Toishan outside of the city of Canton.  A Chinese community largely comprised of illegal immigrants and their descendants, like three of my grandparents who came to America illegally.  A Los Angeles where many neighborhoods, not just San Marino but places like Glendale, South Pasadena, Inglewood, and parts of the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles were off limits to Chinese Americans and other minorities.  And a Los Angeles where as a little boy I didn’t eat much Chinese food because I found the Chinese food of the day to be largely unpalatable because it wasn’t particularly good. 

For me the triggering event on my journey 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.   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 like myself who was studying to become an accountant 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 a so called "expert" on the subject, and even be keynote speaker at one of the very first Asian Pacific American Heritage month events in Los Angeles, quite laughable given that my credentials consisted of having taken all of two university level classes in Asian American studies.

My interest in food  developed a little later, 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.   My Hong Kong friends had been the vanguard of the late 1960s immigration of Chinese from Hong Kong to the United States, when the American immigration laws changed to permit Chinese to come here in large numbers, 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 published restaurant review written in 1977, of Hong Kong Restaurant in Sioux City, Iowa was as much about the setting of the restaurant near the Sioux Bee Honey factory as the food itself.   And to this day, eating  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.