When traveling I have found that a real lifesaver, even more than Immodium or “The Spartacus Guide,” is the good old reliable Chinese restaurant. Whether in Costa Rica or Krakow, whenever the local cuisine—which in most of Europe usually consists of some variant of ham and cheese—becomes, well, oppressive, the cornball sight of a red lantern and dragon motif can be extremely welcome.
Rookie filmmaker, Cheuk Kwan (formerly an engineer) shares my fascination and has turned it into a documentary series-in-progress, “Chinese Restaurants.” His ultimate goal is to exhaust his credit card and travel to 13 different countries, focusing on what it means to, as they charmingly used to say on Long Guyland, “Eat chinks.” Three segments of his series were shown at Scandinavia House last week, proving this a deeply worthy subject, at once informative and highly entertaining.
In Peru, we meet Luis Yong, a medical doctor/restaurateur, who is a charmingly loquacious, self-proclaimed ambassador of Chinese food. He hosts a TV cooking show and rejoices in the five essential flavors necessary in a cuisine that dates back 1,000 years—salty, sweet, sour, bitter and spicy. Chinese restaurants traditionally represent an “easy” way to financial independence for immigrants. Some began by cooking cuchifrito, the sinfully delicious deep-fried pork skins, and selling them on the streets.
Yong’s story, however, is in marked contrast to that of a woman who runs a restaurant outside of Lima. Breaking down in tears, she describes how much she misses her family in Hong Kong, how monotonous her work is, and how Peruvian people look down on the Chinese. Her account evokes the early history of Chinese immigrants in Peru, which began in 1849 with 75 coolies brought there by the Spanish to work the fields. Their number increased in South America, as did the work, which soon extended to the building of railroads.
In Buenos Aires, 77-year-old Foo-Ching Chiang is another admirable Chinese ambassador, with an antique shop and martial arts cultural center, as well as an eatery. He, like filmmaker Kwan, has a passion for the tango, but nothing can disguise a certain sadness detected in his eyes, which bespeaks his awareness of man’s existential loneliness and despair for humankind.
In Tromso, Norway, a young couple, the Wongs, battle the midnight sun, as well as lackadaisical local help, in their trendy restaurant, one of the very few inside the Arctic Circle. The wife scoffs at the bumpkin ways of the Norwegians, one of whom asked what kind of liquor a shrimp cocktail contained (“I almost die of laughter!”). Kwan describes her husband as a “John Woo character” and also interviews the staff, which consists of a Korean dishwasher, a “lazy” Norwegian waitress and a Chinese cook, who comes up nine months out of the year to escape his family back home.
The Wongs’ success, however, has a big price tag: they have little time to spend with their two children, a universal problem for immigrants, from Tromso to Manhattan. The endless, backbreaking labor is also evident, something which, even I, a third-generation American, remember from my childhood. My parents started Arirang, the first Korean restaurant in Honolulu and, to this day, I have recurring dreams about doing homework and sleeping on their office floor, beside a huge plastic bag of chicken feet.
For more info about “Chinese Restaurants” future screenings and the DVD release, visit MoCA-nyc.org.
A whole range of South Asian experience was offered up at the Baruch Performing Arts Center on January 9 in “Gehri Dosti,” a collection of short plays written and directed by Paul Knox. A committed gay activist, Knox once worked for Mother Teresa, has impressive knowledge of Indian culture, and the plays, performed by a wonderful, stunningly beautiful cast, provide quite a buffet.
“Two Men in Shoulder Stand” is a bracing attack on the lack of AIDS education, while also managing to be a touching romance between a couple performing an impressively lyrical set of yoga positions. “Eating Jain,” set evocatively at night on a rushing Indian train, tells of the cultural conflict between a mixed-color couple, made piquant by pungent dialogue (“Bobby is such an exotic name!”) and copious nudity. “Tara Tara Didi” is the delightful closer, an infectiously rhymed take-off on Bollywood musicals, surrounding the inevitable wedding, that charmingly evokes the whimsical complexity of the Bard himself.
“I am Mou” is the heaviest piece, an account of an adulterous lesbian affair and its horrific consequences. The lover is gang-raped and torn apart. Knox told me this was inspired by an anonymous letter received by Integration, a gay support group in Calcutta. It was actually a suicide note, and the group’s efforts resulted in the Bengali press spotlighting the story, only one of many examples of homicidal homophobia traditionally swept under the carpet.
“So many people are so isolated there,” Knox said. “The letter asked, ‘Why didn’t you exist before, when you might have been able to help me?’” In his play, the name of Deepa Mehta’s searing film, “Fire,” which dealt with this theme, is evoked. On its opening day in India, people destroyed movie theaters in protest, and it was subsequently banned and never shown in Pakistan. Knox told me that the Indian word for “fire” has now become code language among lesbians there, who will ask, “Are you ‘fire?’”
While watching Savion Glover performing his “Classical Savion” at the Joyce Theatre on January 8, I kept thinking about that horsy, gifted phenomenon, Eleanor Powell. The greatest tap dancer of her day, she, like Glover, had the same uncanny self-possession, fiendish precision and true fire in her belly when doing her stuff. Where they differed was in their varying amounts of cool: Powell tempered hers with a blinding-white smile and evident need to delight an audience, while Glover’s veers more towards the glacial.
His mentor was the late Gregory Hines, whose photo graced the stage, and whose legacy was the emphatic machismo he brought to tapping, clearing it of any airy-fairy Astaire-like connotations. I frankly was never a big fan of Hines’ literally heavy-set, purposely lead-footed approach, preferring the suave grace and ease of his brother, Maurice. Gregory did possess huge charisma, however, as does Glover, but instead of blissfully milking it for all it’s worth as his mentor did, Glover rarely cracks a smile, says very little, and performs with his back to the audience.
Conductor Robert Sadin felt compelled to inform the audience of Glover’s complete musicality, how, when even he would get lost in the complexity of Bach or Mendelssohn, Glover, “going a mile a minute, with improvisations you’re seeing for the first time tonight and won’t be seeing tomorrow,” always knew what was up. Indeed, Glover’s incendiary attack upon Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” or a suave work by Astor Piazzola was thrilling. His performing is like a percussive version of scat vocalizing, aping and then taking off from the written score. It’s hard to imagine any dancer more completely “inside” the music, but, after a while, this, like scatting, becomes rather monotonous.
There’s just so much Bach one can take with this brilliant woodpecker effect, and Glover’s moves, while rhythmically profound, don’t have enough variation—minimal arm work, no leaps, a few spins. The program would have benefited if he’d musically brought on da funk this time, as well as da noise. This is to say nothing against the gifted orchestra of heartbreakingly young kids, who, sawing away onstage for all they were worth, provided much of the evening’s charm and real accessibility.
People just love those year-end ten-best lists, so here, in no particular order, are my Top Twelve Cultural Events of 2004
Keely Smith at Feinstein’s at the Regency
k.d. lang at Carnegie Hall; Julie Taymor’s Met Opera production of “The Magic Flute”
Margaret Cho at the Apollo
Gareth Saxe’s performance in Mint Theater’s “Echoes of War”
Carla Gugino’s performance in “After the Fall”
The movies “Sideways” and “Bear Cub”
Christine Pedi’s take-no-prisoners comic appearance at Gay Men’s Health Crisis’ benefit “Showstoppers!”
The brilliant Jill Samuels-directed “Ondine” at Walkerspace
The release of Jack Donahue’s CD “Strange Weather”
Bucky Pizzarelli, whose guitar artistry, whether backing up any artist or performing with his family, is simply as good as it gets, musically
In the immortal words of Mr. T, I simply pity the fools who missed any of these!
Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com