The Myth of Chinese Restaurants, Part Three: Indigo Som’s Chinese Restaurant Project
Regarding Chinese restaurants of a different sort, Indigo Som has an installation from her Chinese Restaurant Project in Present Tense Bienniel: Chinese Character, at the Chinese Cultural Center in San Francisco. Indigo’s project is manifold and ongoing, but its three main parts basically attempt to document and capture the gestalt of Chinese eateries in the U.S. and look at the ways in which these omnipresent establishments reflect and represent Chinese American culture, both real and imagined.
My brother and his wife once went on a driving trip that took them through a sparsely populated part of Idaho. On the way they stopped at a roadside restaurant and when they walked in, the Chinese proprietor spotted them immediately. As soon as he saw that my brother was Chinese, a huge grin broke out on his face. My brother must’ve been the first Chinese person outside of his own family that the owner had seen in a mighty long time. Indigo’s project reminds me of this incident in that it demonstrates both the pervasiveness and the isolation of these solitary outposts. Living in the Bay Area, which is clogged with Asians of every make and model, it’s pretty easy to forget that Asian Americans still only make up about 4% of the total U.S. population. The Chinese Restaurant Project captures some of the melancholy of life outside of urban centers for many Asians in this country.
Some of you might be familiar with the large-scale color prints of Chinese restaurant facades that Indigo’s exhibited extensively in the past few years—she’s been selectively documenting Chinese restaurants across the U.S. for a while now, shooting hordes of images of this multifarious architectural phenomenon with a plastic, fixed-focus Holga camera. Many of the pictures were taken in locations far from sizable Chinese American communities and are plaintive reflections on the sometimes funky, in-between state of being Chinese in America.
The other two parts of the Chinese Restaurant Project are Indigo’s blog documentation of her travels across the country in search of Chinese restaurants and her quixotic attempt to collect a menu from every one of the thousands of Chinese restaurants in the U.S.
Indigo’s project captures the absurdity of attempting to define “Chinese American culture” in this modern world. Signage from most of the restaurants uses “ching-chong” script, or what Indigo calls the “Evil Chinky Font,” the one that poorly emulates classical Chinese calligraphy; names for the restaurants usually involve pagodas, jade, bamboo and other tiresome “Chinese” signifiers. Her menu collection also demonstrates the ways in which these restaurants have adapted Chinese cuisine to suit the tastes of the mainstream American palate, such as the weird pervasiveness of Crab Rangoon, those nasty little deep-fried cream cheese and surimi wontons that in all likelihood were invented in the 1950s at Trader Vic’s, that tiki torch lounge heaven in San Francisco.
On display as part of Present Tense Bienniel is a floor-to-ceiling installation of all of Indigo’s current collection of Chinese menus, which number in the hundreds. Covering a pretty big corner of the gallery, it’s still only a tease of what the piece will be when Indigo has, say, a thousand Chinese restaurant menus papering an entire gallery. Knowing her capacity for obsessive activity and her dedication to her goal, I have no doubt that one day we’ll see an entire floor of the deYoung Museum covered over with menus sporting the Evil Chinky Font from all over the country. But until then, this little snippet will more than suffice.
Present Tense Biennial: Chinese Character – an exhibition of
contemporary artwork by 31 artists that reflect and reinterpret China
Curated by Kevin Chen
May 1 – August 23, 2009
Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10am to 4pm; Sundays, 12 to 4pm
Chinese Culture Center, 750 Kearny Street, 3rd Floor (inside the Hilton Hotel), between Clay & Washington Streets in San Francisco CA
Admission is free.