I remembered that I read about a Chinese-Canadian film screening somewhere in my crowded email boxes. I forgot the date, I forgot the venue, and I even forgot the title! Fortunately, Jennie Lo reminded me about it and told me to search the CCEVI mailing list for more info.
It read something like this… “After screenings in Asia, Europe and the U.S., Cheuk Kwan’s Chinese Restaurants: Song of the Exile will make its debut in Canada in a fundraising screening on behalf of the CCNC (Chinese Canadian National Council). Saturday, September 25, 2004 at 7:30PM. Eatons Lecture Hall at the Rogers Communications Centre, Ryerson University. $10/ticket.”
I will not lecture you about CCNC :). If you are interested you can surf this link: http://www.ccnc.ca/. If you’re Torontonians, or from Chinese descent, or have concern about community empowerment, then I suggest you to read and gain more knowledge about it. As stated in their website: “In 1979, Chinese Canadians across the country united to protest the irresponsible journalism of a national televised program: “Campus Giveaway”. As a result, CTV publicly apologized for the racist overtones and inaccuracies of that particular episode. More significantly, the participants against W5 from cities across Canada assembled and held a conference in Toronto. Out of that meeting, the importance and need for a strong, national organization became so evident that the Chinese Canadian National Council was formed.” (Note: Cheuk Kwan was one of the founding members of the Ad Hoc Committee Against W5, formed 25 years ago and which led to the establishment of the CCNC.)
I met some familiar faces in this screening—Eric Li (Hong Kong Link/CCEVI), Gloria Fung (CCNC), Dr. Joseph Wong (the founder of Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto), Olivia Chow (Toronto City Councilor) and her husband Jack Layton (Federal NDP Leader) to name a few. Olivia Chow conducted the fundraising prior to the film screening. In a 15-minute span she could raise more than $5,000 not to mention the fundraising during the reception.
In Chinese Restaurants: Song of the Exile, Cheuk Kwan tells the story of the Chinese Diaspora through its most recognizable and enduring icon – the family-run Chinese restaurant. In this 13-part documentary series, Toronto-based filmmaker Cheuk Kwan takes us on a tour of restaurants around the world, bringing us into the lives of extraordinary families as they share moving stories of struggle, courage, displacement and belonging; and what it means to be “Chinese” today.
In Haifa, Israel, we meet Kien Wong, a Chinese Vietnamese “boat person” and an evangelical Christian. In Cape Town, South Africa, third-generation Onkuen Yung deals with the bitter legacy of the apartheid. And in Istanbul, Turkey, Chinese Muslim Fatima Ma had to flee China in 1949 by “walking over” the Himalayas.
I really think Cheuk Kwan’s theme selection to portray the Chinese Diaspora is brilliant! For as long as I know the dining table has become the center stage of family gathering. Food play an important role in family life, community—urban and rural. Virtually all occasions—family or community—are celebrated with food on the table. In modern time most center stages for special occasion celebrations have shifted to the restaurants. Most Asian people try to look for Chinese restaurants when they travel outside their countries—to deliver their ‘homey kitchen’ in a foreign land. Most non-Asian people try to look for Chinese restaurants when they feel the need to ‘travel’ outside their countries 🙂
I believe Cheuk Kwan’s personal approach to his main characters in this film has provided the living witnesses a freedom to tell their stories with their own pace and style. Cheuk Kwan admits that he prefers the film’s characters to develop friendship with him. Thus, they’re willing to tell their stories, as he is one of their close friends. If they are not comfortable to tell their stories then Cheuk Kwan never pushes them to do so. Some reviews stated that the film is dull—probably because Kwoi (the cameraman) did not try to outsmart his characters or his audience. However, I like it as it is—the true essence of message sometimes does not need sophistication. Let the simplicity amplifies the message.
Kien Wong – Yan Yan Restaurant
In Haifa, Yan Yan Restaurant is run by the Chinese Vietnamese refugee Kien Wong, a community organizer doing his best to raise his young Christian Chinese Israeli family amidst the dramatic tensions of the Middle East.
Kien Wong came to Israel with his families as refugees-immigrants during the prolonged conflict in Vietnam in the late 1960s. He remembered they got warm welcome by the Israelis at the airport. He has four daughters. The youngest was only three years old at that time. He and his family never owned a restaurant and never cook for commercial purpose. Yet, most his Israelis’ neighbours and friends asked him to open Chinese restaurant, saying something like this… “We will teach you to cook Chinese food. People will believe you because you are Chinese and have Chinese looks. We can cook Chinese food but no one will go to buy Chinese food from us.” What an economic insight! 🙂
Two of his older daughters run the family-owned Chinese restaurant in Tel Aviv. They married Chinese Vietnamese immigrants. The third daughter married an Israeli. Despite his family and community disapprovals, he married Wong’s third daughter and converted to Christianity. The youngest one is dating an Israeli and adopts any young Israeli lifestyle except for her physical appearance. She was not sure whether she could marry her boyfriend. Judaism and Christianity do not mingle casually in the tight-knit Israel.
Kien Wong agonized himself for thirteen years—whether to stay or move to another country. He loved his friends in Israel but sometimes the bombs and tensions were unbearable. Finally, he has found his purpose to live in Israel—as a provider for Chinese migrant workers (legal or otherwise). In his own words: “Now I know why God put me in this land. He wants me to help these migrant workers. In this foreign land they have nobody to turn to. They cannot speak and read the language. Sometimes they got cheated and their employers did not pay them their hard-earned salary. I am happy that I can provide them a sanctuary. They know they can rely on me.”
Who are you? Kien Wong said that he’s a Christian Chinese Israeli, but most of all a Chinese.
Onkuen Yung – Golden Dragon Restaurant
Golden Dragon was Cape Town’s first Chinese restaurant, and is run by Onkuen and Maylee, an activist mother-daughter team for whom South Africa’s apartheid is a recent memory.
It’s touching to see Onkuen finally talked and shared her families’ pictures and experience on Cheuk Kwan’s last day in South Africa. She was born in South Africa and married to a Chinese immigrant from mainland China. The law in apartheid South Africa at that time segregated them—Onkuen was deemed colored but her husband was deemed white. On their wedding day they couldn’t dance together because no colored people were allowed to mingle with white people. Onkuen who never worked in a restaurant before finally had to take charge when her husband died. We laughed when the film showed how Onkuen and Maylee take care of their business in the kitchen 🙂 Onkuen said, “I cook the dish with my own style and taste. I am a messy cook.“ She is always smiling and laughing but you can feel she is not happy. Two of Onkuen’s sons did not want any involvement in this family business.
When the white ruled, the Chinese were the perfect go-between the white and black. When the black ruled the Chinese were left in limbo. In Onkuen words: “It seems they don’t need us anymore. We have the feeling that they think we don’t belong in this land… that if we don’t like it here then we can go.”
Through all her life she never stepped outside Cape Town, even to the famous Port Hope, an-hour drive from Cape Town. Cheuk Kwan introduced her to a Malaysian lady-activist in the Indo-Malay’s enclave in the city. They engaged in a friendly discussion about their roles in the society—people should involve themselves in a community if they want their voice heard.
Who are you? Onkuen and Maylee said that they’re in a long transitory phase—too deep-rooted to move, but too tired to keep on going.
Fatima Ma – China Restaurant
In Istanbul, the simply named China Restaurant has been home for the multi-generational Wang family since 1957; they now watch as its youngest members curiously explore their mixed-race Chinese Turkish identities.
I found it as the most fascinating story in this film. Fatima’s husband was a governor in Shinjiang, a Moslem territory in the greater China. She and her husband had eight children. In the heat of political conflict in China, her husband prepared to flee the country with the family. Taiwan agreed to give them refuge but Fatima’s husband decided to flee China in 1949 by “walking over” the Himalayas. Yes, I mean it… on foot, from Shinjiang to Pakistan. (They lived in refugee camp in Pakistan for several years.) Fatima remembered the steep rocky-mountains, the desert and field of snow. Fatima had to leave her youngest baby daughter on the snow because she couldn’t take her anymore. Yet the youngest baby survived—her older sister said that she was destined to live.
Her husband died and left her with eight little children. Her youngest daughter recalled how Fatima cried and cursed ‘you cheated me’ many times at her husband burial. She had not even reached 40 years of age then. She re-married. Fatima’s youngest daughter was the first child to get married. The family didn’t agree when she told her family that she wanted to marry a Turks. The mixed-races grandchildren were raised by Fatima—they speak Mandarin fluently and perfectly!
Fatima is so proud of her Moslem identity. She does not serve any pork dishes in her restaurant. Once one of her guest brought pork meat to be cooked by her—she said she refused the order. Cheuk Kwan said Fatima’s family becomes so ‘global’ because the renaissance thought of her late husband. He sent all his children to schools in different countries—Germany, Italy, Turkey, Taiwan, and Malaysia.
Note: I was told that the family name “Ma” can tell people that whoever has this last name most probably come from Moslem family in China.
Who are you? Fatima and most of her families in Turkey said that they are the Turks.
I cannot wait to see the next series of this feature-length film—a film that brilliantly and incisively depicts the Chinese immigration history and global politics of the half century. I heard that future episodes would cover Argentina, Trinidad & Tobago, Norway, and many others. I think I should try to recommend Indonesia to Cheuk Kwan :).
Whenever I traveled I would try to look for both the local food and Chinese food in the area. Rice and Chinese food in a long trip always remind me of home. And the local food can always tell the socio-culture of the local people. I can relate to Cheuk Kwan’s story in South Africa and Mauritius. I recalled about a family-run Chinese restaurant in Johannesburg on my trip to South Africa and Mauritius. They came from Beijing. They made one of the best pork feet and abalone dishes I have ever tasted :). They told me that they moved to South Africa to find a better life. From my Japanese friend I got a story about a Chinese-owned restaurant in the middle of nowhere in Iran. This particular restaurant did not offer Chinese food but caviar 🙂 Hm… probably the Chinese has inherent globetrotting spirit—not only in this global era but also in old times. Cheuk Kwan said that in Mauritius his travel agent (who happened to be Hakka Chinese) could speak in four languages perfectly—Parisian French, Mauritius French, English, and Hakka. They could flip from one language to the other easily. In Mauritius, people speak French but all government documents have to be in English.
Who are you? Who am I? Who are we? Some people need to have roots, some people are just happy to hop around the globe and become the citizen of the global village. Kwoi (the cameraman) shared his experience to search for identity—whether he’s Chinese or Canadian. He admits that it doesn’t matter anymore. He had come to terms to his place in this world. Aren’t we all on the same boat, having the same journey? 🙂
For those of you who live in Vancouver, please mark your calendar—November 5-8, 2004—this film will be shown at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival. It is worth your time to see it.
“The family-run Chinese restaurant is a global icon of immigration, community and good (or bad) food. They dot even the most remote of landscapes as cultural outposts of brave sojourners, the bringers of dim sum and fortune cookies. A deeper look inside them, however, reveals a complex history of cultural migration and national politics.”
—Chi-hui Yang (from the 22nd SF International Asian American Film Festival)
Who are you?
Can you identify your own struggle in Kien Wong, Onkuen/Maylee, or Fatima Ma?
Does a streak of Chinese in you mean anything at all to you?
Maybe you are still searching,
or maybe you have found the answer,
or maybe you don’t care.
The global village has become smaller,
maybe because the globetrotting ‘travelers’
have left their prints in each fleeting places on their journeys.