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.