An installation at the Museum of Chinese in America documents a quickly shifting American culture.
From “Sweet, Sour, Bitter, Spicy,” an exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in America.
There used to be a restaurant at Fifty-First and Lexington, a relic of white-glove Chinese fine dining, called Mr. K’s. Its interior was all baby pink and Art Deco with high-backed plush seats and gold flatware, gold chopsticks, and gold soup bowls with little clawed feet. They served sorbet in between courses and kept a tea candle lit beneath the entrées, which were mostly plated versions of classic take-out fare: hot and sour soup, sweet and sour pork, eggplant in garlic sauce. The Peking duck came out prerolled in flour pancakes painted with hoisin sauce and scallion ribbons. Near the front entrance, there were glass cases of chopsticks inscribed in red with the names of celebrities and politicians who frequented the restaurant.
Ruth Reichl panned it when it opened in 1998—her central critique was about the restaurant’s authenticity. She describes the food as “not-quite-Chinese” and lamented that “unfortunately, Mr. K’s is serving Chinese food from another American era, a time when people had not yet experienced the real thing.”
I thought of Mr. K’s when I went to see “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America,” a new exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in America that collects the stories of chefs from around the country. I had put off visiting for months, reticent to draw a direct line between my interest in Chinese food and my identity as Chinese American. But this is part of the reason I’ve always liked going to MoCA; there’s no better place to be disabused of the notion of homogenous Chinese American culture and to be reminded of how fragile and quickly-shifting narratives about a category of people can be.
Throughout the elegantly decorated hallways of the museum are artifacts from the days that Cantonese gangs roamed Lower Manhattan, propaganda from the decades of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and posters from the years directly afterward, when China and the United States became allies during World War II. THIS MAN IS YOUR FRIEND, one poster depicting a smiling Chinese soldier declares, HE FIGHTS FOR FREEDOM. Recently, the museum set up a “response wall,” welcoming visitors to write down their feelings about America’s future and pin them according to how they identify as immigrants: first generation, second generation, and so on. (Unsurprisingly, the presiding feeling expressed is that of fear and uncertainty.)
“Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy” is set up like the private party room of a restaurant. The installation recalls Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party—place settings for chefs of Chinese American restaurants line a long table. Abstract ceramic sculptures that represent their respective signature dishes rest on white plates. The middle of the table is decorated with colorful centerpieces that each stand for a style of Chinese cooking from different regions. Unlike Chicago’s installation, however, you can reach out and spin the lazy susan and take a seat in front of a placemat to get a closer look.
I quickly became captivated watching the exhibition’s interviews with chefs, which are projected onto three walls of the room. Ming Tsai, who I grew up watching cook on television; Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese Food; Anita Lo of Annisa; and Cecilia Chiang, who established Chinese cuisine in San Francisco, among others, reckon with questions about cooking and identity. But even as Wilson Tang describes the origin story of Nom Wah’s unique egg roll, it is clear how little the exhibition really has to do with food and how much it is concerned with the difficult and often subversive work of documenting a new American culture. If Mr. K’s had represented one well-worn method for capturing the culinary space between China and America, of bridging the gap between “us” and “them,” these interviews were speaking to the expansive range of chefs who continue to experiment in the space between those two poles, complicating it, broadening its borders, and, in the process, transforming it from a vague interstice into solid ground.
“Some customers, especially the Chinese expatriates, they grabbed me and asked, Do you have authentic Chinese food?” Peter Chang, the chef of China Grill in Maryland, says. “I simply asked, What do you mean by authentic?”
The protagonist of Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel Tripmaster Monkey, Wittman Ah Sing (his father wanted to name him after the poet), is an unemployed playwright and recent UC Berkeley graduate in the late 1960s, blessed with a wild beatnik stream of consciousness, which he often uses to lament the state of Chinese American identity: “Where’s our jazz? Where’s our blues?” he moans at one point. “Where’s our ain’t-taking-no-shit-from-nobody street-strutting language?”
Though he sticks up for Chinese Americans, he sneers at the unassimilated immigrants he spots in Chinatown; patronizes Asian American women for cutting their monolids then dating white men who can’t tell the difference anyway; and rages at the mainstream culture in the United States that thinks Asian American culture is monolithic. He is equivocating, angry, playful, and full of contradictions. He impulsively marries a beautiful blonde girl with a slick Porsche convertible to dodge the draft, then spends a chapter or two searching for his lost grandmother, whom his parents admit isn’t even related to them, isn’t even Chinese, in fact.
He pieces together a play that incorporates Rudyard Kipling, James Baldwin, Chang and Eng, and Rilke into a retelling of The War of the Three Kingdoms. His final monologue, raging at the reviews of his play, which some described as “exotic,” wandered into my head as I watched one of the videos projected on the wall at MoCA:
I’m having to give instruction. There is no East here. West is meeting West. This was all West. All you saw was West. This is The Journey In the West. I am so fucking offended. Why aren’t you offended? Let me help you get offended … They think they know us—the wide range of us from sweet to sour—because they eat in Chinese restaurants … This other piece says that we are not exotic. ‘Easily understood and not too exotic for the American audience.’ Do I have to explain why ‘exotic pisses me off, and ‘not exotic’ pisses me off? They’ve got us in a bag, which we aren’t punching our way out of. To be exotic or to be not-exotic is not a question about Americans or about humans.
Wei Tchou is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.
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