1/21/11

'Divine' inspiration for a Chinese restaurant book at a Talk about Chinese in the South, Northridge, Dec. 2008

         I guess lightning can strike in the same place more than once. Or as the master of semantic confusion, New York Yankees' legendary Yogi Berra, once exclaimed, "It's like  deja vu all other again." I was giving a talk about Chinese in the South at a Chinese church in Northridge, Ca. that was arranged by Henry Wong, the contact I mentioned in a prior post that I met at a San Diego talk I gave. After the talk, Bill Lee, his friend, commented that I should do a Chinese restaurant history book since I had already done one for Chinese laundries and one for Chinese grocers.  I had an immediate flashback to the evening when Roland Chow had hinted that I do the Mississippi Chinese grocer book, a suggestion that I took lightly at first but ended up taking seriously.  Was this going to be another book in the making?  But given that I knew virtually nothing about Chinese restaurants other than from the perspective of a hungry diner, I did not seriously consider the suggestion but Bill insisted that we meet and talk further since he, having owned several restaurants in the past, could be a consultant.
        To make a long story short, although Bill and I did not collaborate, I did become intrigued about Chinese restaurant history, and after several months of reading and researching, decided that it would be a very interesting and worthwhile project. To bring life and credibility to the book, I searched for 10 Chinese who grew up in their family restaurants across the U. S. (and one in Canada) and urged them to write narratives describing their life experiences growing up and helping with the work of their family restaurants.




    The title, of course, is appropriate for a book on Chinese restaurants since it refers to a popular dish using pork or chicken involving contrasting sweet and sour tastes. The choice for the title, however, was made to focus on the opposing conditions that the restaurants held for Chinese families that ran them.  It was 'sweet' that they provided a livelihood when few other occupations were open to Chinese, but it was also 'sour' in that their lives involved long hours of hard labor dealing with sometimes difficult customers in the dining room and the heat and time pressure cooking food in the kitchen.
    The cover conveys the 'look and feel' of many mom and pop Chinese restaurants that once could be found in towns all across the U. S. and Canada.  The cover image is not of any actual restaurant, but comes from an artist's conception that was the basis of a art gallery installation by Chinese Canadian artist, Karen Tam. How I came to find it is a fascinating story, one illustrating the power of the Internet, because I chanced to find it on a website from Manitoba, Canada, created by Sue-On and Bill Hillman.
   Enthused by the discovery of this artistic achievement, I immediately sent an e-mail to Karen Tam to commend her work.  Within a few minutes came a reply from Karen thanking me for the compliment, and informing me that at that moment, she was in the kitchen of my cousin's daughter whom she was visiting. What an amazing coincidence!

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