In his poem “Model Minority,” Jason Koo relates an episode in which a young child kicks his luggage at Penn Station, calls him a “fucking Chinese,” and then stops, “thinking that was insult enough.” Koo, a Korean American, reflects on the incident ironically: “After something like this, my default comfort food is Chinese,” he reveals — “not ‘good’ or ‘real’ Chinese, but fucking Chinese.” Koo’s indisputably American heritage then floats to the surface as he describes familiar dishes like General Tso’s chicken and lo mein, “flaplocked” in warm takeout containers and typically consumed in “two volumes: Vol. 1 for dinner, Vol. 2 microwaved for lunch the next day.”
It is not by accident that, for Koo and many other Americans, a carton of Chinese takeout can be a reliable source of solace. The earliest inventors of American Chinese cuisine fought anti-immigrant hostility by cooking for a Caucasian public (a topic covered in depth in the recent Chow Chop Suey, by food writer and historian Anne Mendelson). As Koo’s descriptions attest, the contributions of these early immigrants have deeply influenced the American palate. Since the nineteenth century, individuals across the country have cooked variations on Chinese food to claim their place as innovators of American culture. A current exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in America explores how this tradition continues to evolve, perhaps now more rapidly than ever.
Neatly divided into two galleries, “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy” tells the personal histories of more than thirty chefs, restaurateurs, and home cooks. The main gallery hosts a “dinner party” à la Judy Chicago, at which thirty-three place settings are spread across a large banquet table, each with a brief biography of a featured individual and a custom ceramic sculpture expressive of his or her cooking style. To decipher these colorful talismans, visitors are directed to a set of larger ceramics at the center of the table, which are presented on lazy Susans and sculpted to evoke foods, cultural artifacts, and topographic features representative of the main culinary regions of China. A teeming wave of red orbs, coated in crackling glaze, signifies the cresting heat of peppercorns and chiles native to Sichuan cuisine; a cone of porcelain pays homage to Yunnan’s clay steaming pots and mountainous terrain; new and old Shanghai are recalled in a doughy, hand-formed mass, dimpled like soup dumplings and drizzled in gold to capture the sheen of old wealth and modern skyscrapers alike. All part of a specially commissioned series by artists Heidi Lau and Lu Zhang, the ceramics coalesce into a spectacular landscape, beckoning visitors to investigate the geographic and gastronomic characteristics embodied in each design.
Projected onto the walls of this same gallery is a multi-channel video playing clips from interviews with the dinner guests, selected to represent a range of generations, regions, and personal and professional occupations. English is the predominant language, though subtitles are included to reach both English- and Chinese-speaking audiences. Museumgoers are invited to sit at the table, survey its spread, and watch or listen to the chefs, cookbook authors, and restaurant professionals recall the highs and the lows — or the sour, sweet, bitter, and spicy moments — of lives sustained, in many ways, by food. Moving from commercial dining rooms to private homes, the video suggests a long, intimate conversation shared among an extended family. The discrete layering of the installation tempers its seeming overabundance, allowing visitors to enter the multimedia artwork at any point and engage with it on many levels.
“Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy” notably builds on the 2004 MOCA exhibition “Have You Eaten Yet?” The earlier show traced the evolution of the American Chinese restaurant from nineteenth-century West Coast eateries to glamorous nightclubs to the sprawling network of takeout spots conjured in Koo’s poem, using a collection of menus, postcards, food products, and other ephemera to illustrate the changing conditions and representations of an ethnic minority. A decade later, MOCA curator and director of exhibitions Herb Tam sensed that the relationship between Chinese food and identity was ripe for reconsideration. “A lot of interesting chefs have been playing around with the cuisine,” he remarked, referring to figures like Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese and Jason Wang of Xi’an Famous Foods, whose restaurants highlight the diversity and adaptability — or the modernity, one could say — of Chinese cuisine. Chef Eddie Huang of the East Village snack shop Baohaus has been a prominent figure in this movement, rising to celebrity status with a charismatic irreverence that has translated into bestselling books, television shows, and web series. The new outlook has inevitably attracted a lot of “surface-level conversation” about Chinese food, observed Tam. “We were after a deeper approach, a slower conversation.”
And that’s an apt metaphor for the current exhibition, which developed out of three years of research and planning. “A major part of the mission at MOCA is conducting oral histories,” said the museum’s assistant curator, Andrew Rebatta. Rebatta, Tam, and fellow co-curators Audra Ang and Kian Lam Kho saw the show as an opportunity to solicit the participation of a broad range of individuals, from legendary ambassadors of Chinese cooking like Martin Yan and Cecilia Chiang to more recent immigrants like home cooks Jeff Gao and Biying Ni. According to Kho, one group has been particularly influential in generating new interest in the cuisine: Chinese Americans raised and educated in the U.S., who, with English as their dominant (if not only) language, have turned to food to rediscover their roots. As these chefs have started to claim their Chinese identities, restaurant diners have become more receptive to regional or diversified styles of Chinese food. China’s recent rise to global prominence plays no small part in both developments.
Representing this new wave of Chinese-American chefs, Jonathan Wu, like others in the show, earned his stripes in the kitchens of American and European fine-dining restaurants before fully dedicating himself to exploring his Chinese heritage. “When I decided to focus on Chinese food, it felt completely right,” said Wu, who opened Fung Tu in Manhattan with restaurateur Wilson Tang in 2013. “I could explore and express my familial and cultural heritage. That, I believe, gives soul to the cooking.” For Wu, the pursuit of soulful cooking has meant embracing the fluidity of American cuisine: Ho fun lasagna and China-quiles, an interpretation of Mexican chilaquiles featuring Chinese steamed egg, currently grace the menu at Fung Tu, mirroring the heterogeneity of a country built by immigrants.
For Grace Young, a native of San Francisco, food was instrumental in strengthening fragile family bonds. “This was the way that I could reach my parents,” Young said, referring to the process of writing her first cookbook. The desire to document one home-cooked Chinese New Year’s dinner — replete with symbolic Cantonese dishes like auspicious, doubloon-shaped clams stir-fried in black bean sauce and whole poached chickens (signifying the wholeness of life on Earth) — inspired Young to research Chinese cooking techniques and eventually to author three award-winning books, two of which showcase the Guangdong-province recipes judiciously preserved in her parents’ kitchen. Young’s personal journey speaks a truth central to many communities forged out of diaspora: In the absence of a shared language — be it dialect or any communication that rests on generations of tradition — food has often been the first thing to fill the void. Where words fail, a bowl of congee or a whiff of five-spice powder can sometimes be the only thing that bridges the oceanic psychic disconnect between family members, summoning a primal, irreducible love.
Hardship is never far from the surface in the stories told in “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy.” Historical conflicts, deportation threats, assimilation struggles, and discrimination are alluded to casually, matter-of-factly, as if in knowing acceptance of the cost of progress. The second component of the exhibition, however, underscores that there is much to be proud of. Across the hall from the dinner party sits a small gallery of personal objects, one from each of the dinner guests: Prized cleavers, chef’s whites, patinated woks, and other items marking career milestones or honoring family roots are carefully displayed, shrouded in reverential silence. The atmosphere in this annex is closer to that of a more traditional museum, and yet the objects here vibrate with the stories related in the other room. In the transition from one space to the other, there is an uncanny sense that one is witnessing history in the making.
In celebration of Chinese New Year, Fung Tu will be serving special dinner menus on January 27, 28, and 30. The menus can be viewed online at fungtu.com.
‘Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy’
The Museum of Chinese in America
215 Centre Street
Through September 10