For the uninformed diner, ordering Chinese food might mean requesting chow mein or fried rice—and asking to hold the MSG. But that would be so limiting, when “authentic” Chinese cuisine consists of many diverse dishes containing a variety of ingredients that vary from region to region. Further, the restaurants serving those meals might be located anywhere in the world, as filmmaker Cheuk Kwan discovered.
The creator of a 15-part documentary series called “Chinese Restaurants,” Kwan traveled the globe interviewing Chinese restaurant owners. Besides cooking demos and discussions about food, Kwan’s series (and five subsequent award-winning films) feature informative scenes of local culture, history and the socio-political issues faced by Chinese immigrants of the Diaspora.
The idea of making films about family-run Chinese restaurants was on Kwan’s mind for 25 years before he began. He was drawn to Chinese food, which he calls “an icon,” because of its worldwide popularity.
“Chinese food epitomizes Chinese culture,” said Kwan, adding, “You can find Chinese restaurants everywhere because it’s a livelihood that can be practiced by immigrants who may not speak the local language.”
The meals that migrant Chinese cooks served to fellow Chinese laborers were considered common fare of the working classes. It was those dishes that first crossed over into the mainstream in areas where Chinese settled.
Kwan’s filming process began with research trips to locate a potential restaurant to profile followed by a local contact introducing him to the larger community that subsequently pointed him towards a restaurant owner. At the same time, Kwan would read as much as he could about the culture, history and politics of local Chinese.
Shooting started in January 2000 in Canada and, by August 2003, the crew wrapped up in Peru. Post-production, including editing, took an additional two years with the series completed at the end of 2005. From the continent of Africa to the Arctic Circle, Chinese restaurants in 13 countries are featured. Because of their sizes, both Brazil and India warranted two segments each.
Other countries showcasing restaurants include Argentina, Israel, Madagascar, Mauritius, Norway, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, and Cuba where one of the oldest Chinatowns in the Caribbean still exists in Havana.
Although Kwan admits he initially knew very little about Cuba’s Chinese, he became intrigued as he completed more research. The episode developed into one of his more challenging ones after he learned that Chinese immigrants replaced African slaves who’d been forced to work on sugar plantations.
Cuba was also one of Kwan’s more entertaining installments due to a 70-year-old Cuban Chinese singer known as El Chino de Carnaval. Kwan got the crooner to perform on camera, in a home for the aged, accompanied by two guitarists he hired off the street.
And, on Father‘s Day at the same senior residence, Kwan met the Kwan family who hailed from his grandfather’s Chinese village.
Another difficult episode, according to Kwan, was South Africa. There, he found the Chinese community reluctant to discuss apartheid—the former system of race-based segregation. Kwan recalls how one restaurant owner finally broke down and revealed her humiliating experiences during apartheid, just hours before he headed to the airport.
As for favorite eateries, Kwan declared that restaurants in Sao Paulo and Mumbai’s Ling Pavilion were among the best he’s experienced. Whether or not “authentic” Chinese food was served or even exits anymore is not an issue, he argues, adding that his taste is shaped by his childhood in Singapore and Hong Kong.
“Food,” said Kwan, “is all about memory and authenticity is defined by time and place. If you have grown up with certain ‘authentic’ Chinese food, then that is what is authentic to you.”
Born in Hong Kong, raised in Singapore and Japan, educated in America, living in Canada, and speaking English, French, Japanese and several Chinese dialects, Kwan admits to having an “internationalism” in him. A former software project manager, he reveals that the field of information technology is not all that different from movie-making.
“To be a good director, you need to be a good manager,” he pointed out.
As for future film projects, Kwan is currently contemplating “Chinese Restaurants: The Sequel.”
For more information, go to: www.chineserestaurants.tv.