Around three years ago, when I first came to New York City, I wasn’t shocked by how bustling the city is, but I was shocked when I saw how old and shabby the Manhattan Chinatown is.
Because in Chinese films and TV shows, “New York City” is such a deified label. When people mention “someone is going to NYC”, it must be a brilliant accomplishment for this person.
In our imagination, when Chinese people live in New York City, they should keep the old Shanghai and Hong Kong upper-class style, wearing luxurious clothes and walking with overwhelming pride.
However, how Manhattan Chinatown looks like, is obviously far from people’s expectation.
Traditional Chinese characters on the old shop signs, old couples who are buying vegetables in the market, old electronic fan, crowded streets, and the noisy conversation in Cantonese or Southern Fujian Dialect… everything seems like they were moved from the old towns in Hong Kong or Macao — maybe the entire China before 1949?
In such a faked old Chinese town, there are so many strangers who traveled across the ocean, their accent has not changed at all, while their hair got gray.
The Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA), is located on this bustling old street.
This museum closes every Monday, and it opens every other day from 11am to 6pm, only Thursday closes at 9pm.
I went to an exhibition on its last day. Its name is Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America. The exhibition is a banquet which shows the life stories of a bunch of chefs who settled down in America after traveling across the ocean. Their life stories are combined with the features of the food which they are skilled in.
Actually, in the banquet, there are not real foods, but some special sculptures modeled on various dishes, some are realistic, and some are abstract.
There is an interesting detail: among the traditional category of Guangdong Cuisine, Hunan Cuisine, Sichuan Cuisine, Shanghai Cuisine and so on, there are also seats for American Chinese food and Chino-Latino food.
And I don’t know how to comment when I saw “General Tso’s Chicken” under Hunan Cuisine.
“General Tso’s Chicken” is named after the famous general Zuo Zongtang (also romanised as Tso Tsung-t’ang), who conquered Xinjiang and expelled Russian Influence from the area for Qing Dynasty.
It is said that, in 1952, there’s a chef Peng Changgui preparing a banquet for The Republic of China Navy. The banquet lasted for 3 days, and Peng created this dish during the banquet. Because he’s from Hunan Province, he named this dish after the famous general Zuo Zongtang.
The other version is that, in 1970’s Taipei, one day when the Premier at that time, Chiang Ching-kuo (Chiang Kai-shek’s son), worked till late night, he went to Peng’s restaurant. Since it’s late, there were no more expensive ingredients left, the only thing they had was chicken leg. So the chef Peng Changgui created the dish based on what he only had, and when Chiang Ching-kuo asked him, he made up a story and said, this was the famous general Zuo Zongtang’s favorite dish. So “General Tso’s Chicken” became famous and popular after Premier Chiang Ching-kuo’s appreciation.
Either version at least shows that “General Tso’s Chicken” was originally created in Taiwan and got popular in America. Just because the chef was from Hunan, this dish is categorized under Hunan Cuisine. However, the cooking method of wrapping the chicken with flour and frying, has nothing to do with Hunan Cuisine — which is supposed to be colorful and spicy.
If you ask a person who was born and grew up in Hunan Province, it is very likely that he or she has never heard about “General Tso’s Chicken” — even though he or she knows it, there’s no way to convince him or her that this is a Hunan Cuisine.
The same story also happened to New Orleans, LA. When Chinese people talk about New Orleans, the first stuff comes to their mind must be the New Orleans Chicken Wings from KFC China. But at the time when I went to New Orleans, I found that there are so many restaurants selling oysters, lobsters, and shrimps, but no one there knows that their city is famous for chicken wings.
As a matter of fact, my great grandmother was a nanny in general Zuo Zongtang’s home, and her family became wealthy and influential till my grandmother was born, and the money and houses even led my grandmother’s brother and sister to quarrel with each other and became enemies in the end.
Chinese people say “A lean camel is bigger than a horse”, which can be shown by how rich this humble nanny’s family got to be.
However, as time flies, the arrogant Chinese people got their doors broken by strangers — they had to survive in different ways during wartime.
During recent years, with the development of the economy, Chinese people are getting unprecedented senses of national pride, they almost forgot how their home were destroyed in last century. In the museum, I was shocked when I saw how miserably the earliest Chinese immigrants lived their lives: the only jobs they could get were cooking, doing laundry or being acrobat on street.
In order to make a living, they lived like livestocks.
Actually, in traditional Chinese culture, these jobs are not for well-educated people, and people with these jobs were very easy to get despised by others.
But they couldn’t consider these. They just wanted to survive.
These Chinese people, who cuddled up on the edge of the society like slaves, absolutely became aliens in the eyes of those white guys with strong sense of superiority.
Chinatown, where Chinese people gather together, became a special territory. The hard-working Chinese people built up boards and signs for their restaurants and laundry stores, and they carefully added English translations on their signs. But still, in the eyes of some local people, they just seem like weak monsters.
There were some photographers deliberately edited the images they took from Chinatown, and removed other racial people on the picture, also they changed the English translation on the store signs to be some Chinese characters they didn’t understand, so that they could build up even weirder images of Chinatown.
From these distorted information, the American public increasingly hated the Chinese people among them.
These earliest Chinese immigrants, who lived their lives like slaves, were not only suffering from people’s misunderstanding, but also were treated ruthlessly — what’s the difference of their experience from how Nazi German treated Jewish people?
Maybe in the bottom of hearts, human beings are all the same — once a person encounters conflicts of interest, no matter how neatly dressed he or she is, this person would become a monster.
Under such sufferings, there were still groups of Chinese people stealing into America. They stole other people’s legal identity and memorized the information so carefully, which led to a huge problem for the real merchants’ family members.
These labors set up their homes in America and raised up their children to be legal American citizens. They offered the best education to their children so that they washed their humiliated history after decades. Chinese people always believe in “No pains, no gains”, and these people practiced this old saying so well.
From the beginning of the 20th century, the traditional Chinese admiration towards people’s family background has been broken. The hierarchy of “scholar, farmer, artisan and merchant” doesn’t exist any more.
Chinese people have been labeled for years. American believes that Chinese culture is red color, dragon dance, Chinese kung fu, hard-working nerds, or some rudimentary poems… But they never realized that these folk-customs and details are only some embellishments of the 5000-year Chinese culture.
The core of Chinese culture can be concluded in an old saying: “The reason for the sea being so great width is that it can accept all rivers.” Therefore, in history, Chinese emperors had sent envoys to other countries for several times, but they never got even a penny from those territories, instead they left substantial precious gifts — which was so different from what Columbus’ peers had done when they arrived the American continent.
Maybe just because Chinese people are too proud of who they are: they are so satisfied with what they’ve got, so they want to conquer, much more than to rob.
When I saw every American Chinese people automatically donated 15% from their salaries to support America in WWII, I was impressed.
Chinese people are very good at forgiving those who caused pains — this is not only because of goodness, but it is from their confidence of brightness.
All in all, Chinese people are too proud. Even when they had been thoroughly tempered in sufferings, they still don’t want to lose their dreams of being a hero.
When I finally arrived the part which mentions Sun Yat-sen and the democratic revolution in China, I felt a bit elated. Then it came to a bunch of Chinese people who had received higher education and had been prestigious all around the world.
Maybe until these people makes differences to the world, the world never realized that every one was created equal, including Asians.
Then I saw Kung Hsiang-hsi, Soong Tse-ven and others’ names and images. These people who have made great influences in China, left their hometown and never came back in the end. What a sad story.
As the political party changed in China, Chinese people’s good impression which collected during WWII as American’s partner, just flopped again. I always think what happened in 1940s are just a black humor to China’s destiny.
Actually, even nowadays, we are kind of escaping from our hometown because the ambiguous political atmosphere. We came to other countries for the expectations for freedom, but we are like plants which were pulled up by the roots — we became deaf and dumb. Undoubtedly we can communicate and feel more from this world, but we’ve cut our connections with the world when we are far away from our roots.
When I came back to the entrance of the museum, I saw the stuffs donated by the chefs in the first exhibition I mentioned. The chefs brought these stuffs from their kitchens in China, and stored their nostalgia into them. These are heavier than words.
When I came out from the museum, I saw New York City ablaze with lights. Downtown Manhattan is always bustling, fashionable boys and girls are enjoying this metropolitan city with their best ages.
Maybe my empathy only generates under specific cultural and sociological atmosphere. When I stood on such a crowded street, some feelings which I’ve forgot for long, just came to me.
Hu Lancheng, a play boy and a famous writer in 20th century’s China, once said, when he left China and headed to Japan, his feeling was like a poem sentence: “Shifting clouds block the white sun; the traveler does not look to return.”
Our bodies and souls will fall into decay, while the rivers and seas flow forever.