Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Soul of a Banquet (Wayne Wang Productions/PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a show that had sounded interesting on the KPBS Web site listing of their schedule: Soul of a Banquet, a 2014 mini-documentary (imdb.com lists a running time of 79 minutes but it was cut to 58 minutes for this TV showing) by director Wayne Wang about Cecelia Chiang. Apparently Cecelia Chiang (no relation, as far as I know, to those Chiangs) fled the Chinese mainland in 1961, came to the U.S. and opened a restaurant called The Mandarin in San Francisco. “So what?” you might ask. “Someone flees China for the U.S., settles here and opens a restaurant.” Apparently what made Chiang’s story interesting and worth filming was that hers was the first Chinese restaurant in America that wasn’t located in a Chinatown and served anything other than Cantonese food. When Chinese were first brought to the U.S. in the 19th century — mostly by unscrupulous employers who wanted a docile workforce that would work for much less money than they had to pay people who were already in America (plus ça change, plus ça même chose … and the reaction on the part of U.S.-born workers was predictable: they formed labor unions and political parties aimed specifically at keeping the Chinese out of the U.S. — the speeches of Denis Kearney, founder of the Workingmen’s Party in San Francisco in the 1870’s, sound like they could have been given by Bernie Sanders when he’s talking about the power of corporate America … and like Pat Buchanan or Donald Trump when he’s talking about the danger of immigrants in general and Chinese immigrants in particular) — they were recruited almost exclusively from the province of Canton in southeastern China. As a result, they brought Cantonese as their language and Cantonese cuisine as their food — and virtually all “Chinese” food in the U.S. was the relatively bland Cantonese instead of the spicier Mandarin, Sichuan and Hunanese styles. (Hunanese is the most highly spiced of all Chinese food, and when Mao Zhedong, or however his name is spelled these days, was head of China he insisted on serving only Hunanese food at state dinners and got sadistic kicks out of watching people from other parts of China try to get down the highly spiced dishes.) Cecilia Chiang decided from the outset that her restaurant would not offer any of the familiar Cantonese dishes — “no chop suey, no egg foo yung” (ironically chop suey is usually believed to have been invented in the U.S. by Chinese immigrants, though the Wikipedia page on it quotes an anthropologist E. N. Anderson who argues that it was a dish from China’s Guangdong province and the original Chinese name is “tsap seui,” meaning “miscellaneous leftovers”).

When she tried to locate her restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Chiang found herself the victim of regional discrimination; no landlord would rent to her because, as a native of Shanghai, she did not speak Cantonese. So she opened the Mandarin Restaurant (the name itself is a statement of cultural pride!) in 1961, about the same time her friend Alice Waters opened the Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley and became internationally known as founder of the so-called “slow food” movement. Waters appears in Soul of a Banquet, as does Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, who is shown on screen but also narrates the film. While Chez Panisse still exists under Waters’ management, the Mandarin was sold by Chiang in 1991 and went out of business in 2006 (something not made clear in the film itself; the film notes that the Mandarin no longer exists but — unless this was explained in the first 10 minutes or so that I missed — doesn’t make clear why not). The film is basically divided into two parts, the first telling Chiang’s story (she was born c. 1920 to an aristocratic family near Shanghai, escaped having her feet bound in the usual fashion of upper-class Chinese girls because her parents were enlightened enough not to do that to her, fled with her sister from the Japanese occupiers in 1942 and got on the last plane out of Shanghai with her husband before Mao and the Communists won the Chinese civil war and took power in 1949, settled in Japan — ironically enough — and lived in Tokyo until she emigrated to the U.S. in 1960) and the second showing a special “banquet” meal of mouth-watering delicacies, including red braised pork (the item that was the one I’d most like to try), beggar’s chicken (it’s wrapped in paper and then covered in clay that hardens as it bakes, so you have to break it off with a mallet to serve it), and quite a few dishes involving abalone (some of these are usually made with pork but since they had an abalone they were determined to make the most use of it they could) which she served at Chez Panisse as a tribute to Alice Waters and an attempt to reproduce the experience of eating the multi-course Chinese banquets Chiang had regularly eaten as a child in the home of her wealthy parents.

Most of Chiang’s interviews were done in English, but there’s a long stretch of her speaking in Mandarin about the experience she had returning to China in 1974, just after the Cultural Revolution (though there were still young thugs running around wearing the Red Guards hat, carrying the Quotations from Chairman Mao book and literally whipping people whom they greeted if the people didn’t respond with the proper revolutionary fervor) and just before Mao’s death, when she found that her dad had died from malnutrition and a brother and sister had committed suicide. She also found that there were no longer any fancy restaurants in China because nobody left there could afford them; instead there were eating places where there were three large pots, you served yourself from one of them, and that was the menu. That was certainly the most moving and tragic part of Chiang’s story, but there were others — and the final sequence showing the preparation and serving of the great banquet is fascinating even though it’s also frustrating because until the dishes are completed you’re not given any information of what they are or what ingredients go into them. Soul of a Banquet is the sort of movie that even if you’re not ordinarily a food buff is nonetheless going to make you wonder just what on earth all this gorgeous-looking cuisine tastes like and where you can get it (or get the recipes to make it yourself), and as both a film about food and a film about cultural traditions lost, found and in some cases hanging by the skin of their teeth (Chiang complains during one of her interviews that younger Chinese and Chinese-American chefs are trying exciting new things but because they don’t have a thorough grounding in the traditions of Chinese gourmet cooking they really don’t have a foundation to build on), it’s a pretty typical movie for Wayne Wang to make.