In 1976, Cheuk Kwan had dinner at the Cin Lokantasi, or “China Restaurant,” in Istanbul. There was no pork on the menu – a staple of most Chinese cuisine. The owner, he later learned, was a Muslim-Chinese man who had fled Mao Zedong’s China, travelling through Pakistan and Iraq, before eventually settling in Turkey.
This experience led Kwan to the realization that, no matter where you are in the world, there’s a Chinese restaurant. That was the thesis behind his 2005 documentary series Chinese Restaurants, which follows the filmmaker from Israel to Kenya, and Argentina to Brazil, visiting Chinese restaurants across 13 countries.
Kwan’s book, Have You Eaten Yet?, revisits these travels, documenting the history of resistance and perseverance behind Chinese restaurants, and the stories they tell of global migration – all with a distinctly 2022 perspective.
Where did the idea for the book come from?
About 20 years ago, I made a 15-part documentary series that had me going around the world for four years, visiting 13 countries and five continents, to look for Chinese restaurants with stories to tell.
I would find a restaurant, poke my head into the kitchen, and say “Don’t make me anything on the menu. Make me something you would normally make for yourself.” I would strike up a conversation with the chef or the owner, and I would always be fascinated by the stories of how they came about.
Why did you decide to turn it into a book?
What I covered in my films is just as current as when they happened 20 years ago. You look at any of the backstories of Syrian refugees or Afghan refugees, and see the stories repeated over and over again. A lot of the people I met fled China for the same reasons people are fleeing Syria and Afghanistan now. Global migration has not stopped.
But with that migration comes racism and discrimination. And that was also in my film, and it’s prevalent in my book. To bring it forward to today, we’ve seen a lot of anti-Asian hate since the pandemic, and that brings those issues up to the surface.
How would you describe the effect of the pandemic on these Chinese restaurants?
It’s nothing new to Chinese restaurants in Canada, and Toronto, in particular. We’ve been through SARS in 2003 – when the whole Yellow Peril, ‘Chinese food is not clean’ idea surfaced again because of the association of SARS with Southern China.
So I believe that a lot of the Chinese restaurant owners have weathered that storm, and I think they knew how to deal with it. It wasn’t as big a deal as before, with SARS, when you had to have the mayor and politicians dining out in Chinese restaurants to prove they are clean and safe to eat at.
What is it about Chinese restaurants that you find so fascinating?
Food culture is very central to the Chinese community, and especially diasporic communities. Through food, immigrants can have a taste of home. They can bring that to a new environment, and of course, spread to new customers and new markets.
Second of all, restaurants are very central to early immigrants’ experience – the Prairie café, the only restaurant in town, that’s also a community centre. It’s also an anchor not only for your own family, but also for your whole village – it gives them all a place to work.
In my book, I went to the Arctic, and a restaurant in Tromso, Norway. There were a lot of illegal migrant workers from China working there. The boss said “I have to help these people. They have no place to go.” So he gave them a job, helped them apply for a visa, gave them a place to stay.
So [these restaurants] tell the politics of modern migration. And how Chinese restaurants can be a foothold into society.
Tell me about the significance of the book title.
“Have you eaten yet?” is a colloquial Chinese expression, meaning “how are you?” When you walk around Chinatown, you greet people saying “Have you eaten yet?” and it’s basically saying “Hello.”
In old China, people didn’t have enough to eat. So making sure your stomach was full was a primary aspect of Chinese life. In that sense, people use it as a greeting, but also an expression of care – saying “Hey, have you had your meal? Are you okay?”
It also speaks to how important food culture is in China.
How would you describe the difference between Chinese restaurants in Canada, versus elsewhere in the world?
It all depends on migration. In Vancouver, Toronto, over the last 40 years, you’ve seen middle-class Chinese coming to Canada, and of course they bring with them their exacting requirements of how food should taste.
That’s very different from your earlier generations of railroad workers who were just trying to survive, and making chop suey to survive. This is a reflection of the place. Canada now is recognized, the world over, as the place to get “authentic” Chinese food.
The other extreme is Cuba, where there was no migration from China after 1959, after the Cuban Revolution. Everything stopped in 1959. And on top of that, you have the economic hardship of life in Cuba, both before and after the Revolution.
So that transformed Chinese food there into nothing. All you have are Chinese faces and Chinese blood, but none of the food or the culture – until recently.
So what would I find at a Chinese restaurant in Cuba?
In my film, I had an interview where I asked someone “Where’s the best Chinese food here?” and he said “Go to Los 3 Chinitos.” And I went, and it was a pizza restaurant.
If you go to Havana, you see people lining up for pizza in Chinatown. It speaks to the kind of ingenuity and inventiveness of Chinese restaurant owners. When this other thing doesn’t sell, but they know pizza sells, “Hey, no problem.”
It is, in a sense, a Chinese restaurant. You found something that customers want. It doesn’t matter if it’s Chinese or Italian. You serve it, and you prosper. And I think that’s the essence of Chinese restaurants.
Ann Hui is The Globe and Mail’s national food reporter, and author of Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Cafe and Other Stories from Canada’s Chinese Restaurants
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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