Chinese food in US struggles for the right stew

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2019/4/11 20:03:41

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

I stood outside the apartment of Cecilia Chiang in Pacific Heights, San Francisco on Saturday and anxiously dialed her phone number. At the third ring, I heard a "hello." Before I could finish introducing myself, the lady on the other end pressed in a stern voice, "Our appointment was at 3 o'clock. Now it's 3:15. Where are you?"

I looked at my watch. It showed 3:10. And I thought about my ordeal outside the building where the doorman was not in sight, the gate was locked and the door buzzer system didn't seem to be working. I managed to get into the building with a resident, but the doorbell of the apartment - which was broken - didn't yield any motion. But the only thing I managed to say was "sorry," - the authority radiating from the woman's voice could easily make everything else sound like a shoddy excuse.

Yet, when the door opened, the lady I met turned out to be warm and amiable with a ready smile on her face all the time. At the moment, a thought flashed in my mind - could be this is the right combination of personality traits that made Chiang a legend in the American restaurant industry.

Born to a wealthy family in Wuxi in 1920 and growing up in luxury in Beijing, Chiang has a passion for fine Chinese cuisine, at first, as a consumer, and then, as a provider. But even when she opened her first restaurant in Japan after moving there with her husband in 1949, she didn't have to cook much herself - good Chinese chefs were easy to find. 

It was when she came to San Francisco in 1960 to visit a sister, and accidentally entered the restaurant industry here (it was because some friends who planned to open a restaurant pulled out after she helped them negotiate and pay for the lease), her talent in restaurant management and cooking bloomed.

When Chiang's restaurant Mandarin opened in 1961, its menu, including delicate Chinese dishes such as beggar's chicken and steamed soup buns, was "risky." That was a time when Americans' understanding of Chinese food was limited to the American born chop suey that was made popular by the restaurants run by early generation of Chinese laborers from Taishan. But Chiang was determined to introduce to Americans authentic Chinese food and culture.

"When I arrived at San Francisco, my sister took me to have Chinese food, I looked at the chop suey on the table and lamented, "what's that? That is not Chinese food,'" Chiang recalled.

It was not easy. In the beginning, Chinese-run food suppliers refused to deliver to her because Chiang was a woman who didn't speak Cantonese. She had to take a taxi to get her own supplies. She was harassed by gangsters who tried to collect "protection fee." And when she refused they planted a bomb in her restaurant and threatened to kidnap her children. She had to train herself to become a tough and no-nonsense businesswoman.

But this didn't change her exuberant and hospitable qualities. Chiang helped American customers who had no idea about Chinese cuisine to order, offered them Chinese culture 101, and even through today, at 99, she still remembers the names, professions, favorite dishes and wines of some loyal customers.

The Mandarin was sold away in 1991 when Chiang was in her 70s and both her manager and accountant were being consumed by cancer, and the restaurant closed in 2006. Yet, it left an indelible mark on the culinary history of America. In his 2016 book Ten Restaurants That Changed America, Paul Freedman, professor of history at Yale University, devoted a whole chapter to Chiang and the Mandarin.

But when I talked to Chiang, she didn't hide her disappointment. Her goal of improving Chinese food in the US has pretty much failed beyond the Mandarin. "The restaurants in Chinatown haven't changed much. They are still decorated with red lanterns and golden dragons and provide poor quality food at lower prices," sighed Chiang. "No one can change this alone. Chinese restaurants have to work together. But they are instead always jealous and fight among themselves."

I have heard similar complaints from Chinese people in many fields, from Wall Street to main street. In the US, the Chinese are not known for being united and willing to help one another rise. A zero-sum mentality has prevailed in the highly-competitive community for too long. A change won't happen overnight.

But at least in the food industry, hope seems to be budding. In late February, I attended a "tea party" in New York where about two dozen young Chinese chefs and restaurateurs gathered to discuss how to reach the goal Chiang set decades ago. The host was Junzi Kitchen, a fast casual chain founded by three Yale University graduates. Many of the participants, from a traditional perspective, are Junzi's potential competitors. Yet, Zhao Yong, one of the founders, told me that he aims to make the "tea party" a regular event so colleagues can frequently meet and share their experience and thoughts. And his vision is to work with all colleagues to make the cake bigger rather than fighting for the same small cake.

"I hope our efforts can cultivate new leaders in the industry, bring Chinese food to a new level, and regain the right to define good Chinese food by ourselves," Zhao told attendees at the party.   

Chiang is an investor in Junzi, and clearly, for good reason.  

The author is a New York-based journalist and Alicia Patterson fellow.


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