Posts tagged ‘chinese restaurants’

The Myth of Chinese Restaurants, Part Three: Indigo Som’s Chinese Restaurant Project

Wonderful House, Indigo Som, color photograph, 2002

Wonderful House, Rock Springs, Wyoming, 2002, iris print, 34"x34", Indigo Som

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.

Woo's Pagoda, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Indigo Som

Woo's Pagoda, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 2003, inkjet print, 34x34", Indigo Som

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.

Chinese Menus, Present Tense Bieniel, Indigo Som

Chinese Menus, Present Tense Bienniel, 2009, Indigo Som

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.

May 18, 2009 at 6:10 am 6 comments

The Myth of Chinese Restaurants, Parts One & Two

Faux-terracotta horse, PF Chang's

Faux-terracotta horse, PF Chang's

Part One

My mother-in-law loves PF Chang’s so we took her there this weekend for Mother’s Day. I’m not really complaining since it beats the hippie breakfast place we usually go to, where the food is stuck in an aryuvedic-lite 1970s time warp without spice, garlic, butter or anything else that makes food worth eating. But since we live in the Bay Area, where there are a plethora of outstanding Chinese eateries of every stripe and price point, it seems a bit odd to me to willingly frequent a place like PF Chang’s. However, my mother-in-law is eighty and she isn’t Chinese or a very adventuresome eater so to take her to, say, Fook Yuen or Koi Palace for shark fin soup and sea cucumber would probably be a wasted effort. Hell, I don’t even like sea cucumber and as far as I know I’m full-blooded Chinese.

Miley & buddies show their cultural sensitivity

Miley & buddies show their cultural sensitivity

Amusingly enough, PF Chang’s seems to be a favorite of idiotic teen idol Miley Cyrus, who held the afterparty for the premiere of her recent Hannah Montana flick at a Los Angeles Chang’s and who takes her boytoys to the one in Burbank as well. However, Miley’s a fickle customer, recently claiming on Jay Leno’s show that the wonton soup at Chang’s tasted like soap. Maybe some of the kitchen help were staging a bit of payback for Cyrus infamously pulling the “chink eye” a few months back?

Anyways, I’m sure if I were in some part of the world where Chinese people and our accompanying restaurants were few and far between, I might swoon for the sight of PF Chang’s. The menu actually does include some decent dishes and the tea selection isn’t bad. It’s not unlike the drive-thru Starbucks on the interstate—you wouldn’t normally be caught dead inside a ‘Bucks in a coffee-snob-land like San Francisco but when you come across one in the vast wasteland of Highway 5, you’re damn grateful for that mocha frappuccino. Likewise, if I were in the middle of non-Asian America and really wanted a plate of potstickers and some passable dandan noodles, I’d be more than happy to eat at PF Chang’s. But I’m also pretty glad that I don’t have to do that very often, since I live in the heart of Chinese restaurant heaven—now if only I could get my mother-in-law to like fatty pork and bitter melon.

39 million pounds a year sold, Orange Chicken, Panda Express

39 million pounds a year sold, Orange Chicken, Panda Express

Part Two

I had a brush with the legend of another famous quasi-Chinese restaurant when I was in Southern California last week for the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, which was kind enough to screen my latest short experimental video, Snapshot: Six Months of the Korean American Male. I stayed with my pal Gary, whom I’ve known for a couple decades since our misadventures as grad students at the Art Institute in Chicago. Gary wisely dropped out after a semester and eventually moved to LA, where he’s now working in television as a 1st AD and producer. His most recent assignment was interviewing the divine Hugh Jackman, whom Gary confirmed was both astoundingly hot and extremely nice as a person.

Anyways, Gary told me that Andrew and Peggy Cherng, the founders of Panda Express, owned a townhouse in the very same complex that I was now visiting and that, up until recently, one of the Cherng’s daughters had lived in the unit. One day a couple years ago Gary came home to find his street clogged with police cruisers—apparently Mr. Cherng had been by to visit and had surprised a couple kidnappers in the midst of abducting his daughter. Luckily the fiftysomething Cherng had managed to fight off the perps and save his daughter from an evil fate.

Paul Muni, non-Chinese, The Good Earth, 1937

Paul Muni, non-Chinese, The Good Earth, 1937

Soon after that the daughter moved out, but Gary thinks the Cherngs might have kept the place as a rental property, despite having a net worth in the millions (the Panda Express in Honolulu brings in $4 million annually). Weirdly enough, I wouldn’t be surprised if this were true. My dad always told me that real estate is the best type of investment (thank god he didn’t live to see the subprime meltdown), and didn’t the husband in The Good Earth keep ranting about the significance of “the land” all the time? Maybe the Cherngs are just hedging their bets in case some disaster befalls their fast food empire someday.

May 12, 2009 at 5:32 am 6 comments

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