Chinese Restaurants (2): On the Islands
This is the part two ~ featured in the 8th Annual Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival ~ of Cheuk Kwan’s Chinese Restaurants series. Please check “Chinese Restaurants: Song of the Exile” for the first glimpse of his film documentary edition.
Date/Time: Saturday, Nov. 27, 2004, 1:00PM
Place: Innis Town Hall at Univ. of Toronto
Duration: 78 min.
Following I quoted the excerpts from the festival’s official booklet.
Colette ~ Mauritius
In the middle of the Indian Ocean sits Chez Manuel, a restaurant run by the owner’s wife Colette. In Colette we discover an innovative self-taught chef who serves up inventive new dishes combining Hakka Chinese, Creole, and Indian flavors. Colette and Manuel, together with other members of the Hakka Chinese community, give us insight into the Hakka Chinese and their conservative traditions and values.
My note: Colette is a humble woman. In her I see all Chinese traditional values: respect for parents and husband, self-perseverance, willingness to advance herself in order to improve and promote her restaurant business.
Cheuk Kwan asks her, “Why didn’t you name this restaurant after your name? After all you’re the cook and person who handles the business.” She responds, “I’m just a simple woman. It’s only a name.” Right after it comes a scene where Colette handles business matter (the firing of one of her personnel) and, Manuel, her husband, leaves her handling it by herself and instead shows Cheuk Kwan around his garden! Colette admits that her parents passed her the values that she guards unquestionably. Her father passed her the savvy ability to cook ~ she used to cook for her big family. Her mother passed her the old-preserved values to be humble and obedient… told her to respect and obey her father when she’s unmarried, to respect and obey her husband and mother-in-law when she’s married. Colette takes her mother’s advice to the bone… she respects and obeys her husband and mother-in-law, even when her mother-in-law treated her badly. On her deathbed her mother-in-law said that she loved Colette very much and thought that she was her most beloved daughter-in-law. In the late eighties Colette closed her restaurant for a couple of months to take a cooking course in Hong Kong. When she returned she re-opened her restaurant by inviting Mauritius’ prominent figures. It’s still the most famous Chinese restaurant in Mauritius. [I saw she cooked noodle with curry sauce!]
There Cheuk Kwan also met Colette’s brother-in-law Joseph ~ a retired government minister and also a university professor. Joseph elaborates on the history of Chinese immigrants in Mauritius and their success factors. The majority Chinese immigrants in Mauritius came from Hakka. Hakka pride themselves for their headstrong and strong women… women work side by side with men on the field, and they never bound their feet as were the custom around that time. So, it’s reasonable that only Hakka’s women were able to move out of the country with their husbands or families.
While English is the official language of parliament, traffic regulations, and school administration, it is spoken by only 3% of the population. French is the native language of Franco-mauritians and is used by the mass media. Eighty percent of the newspapers are written in French, which also dominates the advertising field. Mauritian Creole, or MC, is the national language and is spoken by the majority of Mauritians. Colette speaks French-Mauritian fluently.
Mauritius gained independence in 1968. However, Colette tells Cheuk Kwan her personal view on the change ~ life’s harder during independence than under British occupation. They have to pay for many social services that were provided free during the British occupation. [Well, I think to stand on one’s two feet is not an easy matter if one’s used to be told what to do. Hm… it’s going to be another topic in my writing.]
Follow this link to read about The History of Mauritius.
Maurice Soong ~ Trinidad and Tobago
In the hills of San Fernando is Soong’s Great Wall, the most famous Chinese restaurant on the island. This segment tells the rags-to-riches story of owner Maurice Soong whose passion for quality and service has won him widespread affection and respect. As they dance to the infectious calypso music of the island’s annual Carnival, members of the Soong family reflect on how their assimilation and personal choices will affect Maurice’s beloved restaurant.
My note: A decade after slavery was abolished in 1834; the British government gave permission for the colonies to import indentured labour from India and China to work on the plantations, especially sugar plantations, in Trinidad. Maurice’s father came to this island around the big emigration wave in China in the beginning of 20th century ~ he left his family in China. Maurice later told Cheuk Kwan how he missed his father during that time. He followed his father when he was in his early teen, to help running his father’s shop. At that time it was the only convenient store that provided everything around the area. His father led a separate life in the island, married and had another family. Maurice knew how it affected his mother when she later joined his father. His mother never talked about it. But, I know how it must affect Maurice ~ he politely refuses to talk about his father’s other family.
Maurice does his restaurant business seriously. Many local people let their children working in his restaurant because they know Maurice would teach them well. His business is an icon there ~ he himself is treated as a prominent figure on the island. He frequently pays a visit to his primary school’s teacher, whom he acknowledges as the most influential figure in his life. The old lady also praises Maurice, as a man of dignity, who conducts his business respectfully and a good provider for the community.
Maurice’s wife, a once city
girl, came from Hong Kong in the 60’s. At first she doubted whether she could enjoy living on the island. But, after couple children and about thirty years later, she really can enjoy the island atmosphere. While Maurice considers himself the island man, his wife still considers herself Chinese. Maurice’s children consider themselves as the Trinidadians. They participate in the Carnival every year. His only son pursues entertainment business… he isn’t interested in his father’s restaurant business, but owns radio station and bar. All his children respect Maurice’s business conducts. One of his daughter and her husband admit that they can’t speak any Chinese language or dialects but they are keen to maintain their father’s restaurant business ~ “We don’t know how we would talk to the cook when father (Maurice) is not around anymore. Usually father communicates with them in their own language. But we will keep on doing what we can until it happens,” says one of his son-in-law. Even his son admits that if he can run his business 10% as good as his father he will be OK.
This piece was ended in a commotion of Trinidad’s Carnival.
Follow this link to read about The History of Trinidad and Tobago.
Follow this link to read about The History of Carnival.
Alejandro Chiu ~ Cuba
In Havana’s Barrio Chino, the Lung Kong is a charitable clan association run by Alejandro Chiu. The association also runs a home for Chinese elderly and supports itself by operating a Chinese restaurant on the side. Back in Chinatown, we go beyond the “Chinese Fantasy” created by the Cuban government to discover the legacy of a community that dates back to 1847 and has now become truly Cuban.
My note: Many Chinese were brought into Cuba towards the end of the last century as it became more difficult to kidnap and import Africans to work on the sugar plantations. Havana was a witness to the biggest and most vibrant Chinatown in America at that time. Please follow this to read about Chinese diaspora in Cuba.
In the documentary Cheuk Kwan follows Luis, who claims to be part Chinese, to track the Chinese diaspora in Havana. The once vivacious city, now Havana looks like a crumbling city. Behind the old-city façade is its Chinese community, Lung Kong… trying to hold together… providing sanctuaries for the elder. Through Luis, Cheuk Kwan met Alejandro Chiu, the leader of Lung Kong charitable clan association. In the 60’s Alejandro was an actor linked to a left-wing studio in Hong Kong. He left for Cuba when he felt the atmosphere was not suitable anymore for his political thought.
When Fidel Castro seized the power he nationalized all commercial establishments, including Alejandro’s business. It caused major move of emigration from Cuba to the US and Canada. However, Alejandro chose to stay ~ then was trusted to lead a Chinese restaurant to support Lung Kong association.
Luis also brought Cheuk Kwan to the oldest Chinese cemetery ~ where he faces his past. Cheuk Kwan could trace back his ancestors that came to Cuba and paid tribute to them in the underground burial inside the cemetery. This cemetery is also a witness to the affluent Chinese community around the end of 19th century. Until now when one walks in Havana and ask about the Chinese, most people would associate it with good food, good culture, and good friends of Cuba.
The Cubans claim themselves as a third Spanish, a third African, and a third Chinese… meaning the people you meet in Cuba most probably have Chinese bloodline. Due to this ethnic mix it’s hard to find young generation with Chinese heritage ~ according to statistics there are less than 300 Chinese left in Cuba who are not mix, most of them are seniors. Nowadays the government is trying to revitalize the Chinese culture and arts ~ people can find Spanish-looking man teaches kungfu, or Chinese restaurant’s attendants with their red cheongsam.
Follow this link to read about The History of Cuba.
For me personally, the Chinese diaspora portrayed in “On the Islands” are quite unique although not as intense as in “Song of the Exile.” I guess the islands’ relaxed environment has impacted the people who live on their lands.
What bothered me were the annoying close-ups during most of the interview ~ later Cheuk Kwan explained that it happened because that’s the TV format. However, he conveyed his disappointment that the authority gave 18+ television rating system instead of 14+.