Saturday, March 19, 2016

Wokking the Suburbs

As he stepped woozily into the first American afternoon of his life, the last thing my father wanted to do was eat Chinese food. He scanned the crowd for the friend who’d come from Providence (my father would stay with this friend for a few weeks before heading to Amherst to begin his graduate studies). That friend didn’t know how to drive, however, so he promised to buy lunch for another friend in exchange for a ride to the Boston airport. The two young men greeted my father at the gate, exchanged some backslaps, and rushed him to the car, where they stowed the sum total of his worldly possessions in the trunk and folded him into the backseat. Then they gleefully set off for Boston’s Chinatown, a portal back into the world my father (and these friends before him) had just left behind. Camaraderie and goodwill were fine enough reasons to drive hours to fetch someone from the airport; just as important was the airport’s proximity to food you couldn’t get in Providence.

He remembers nothing about the meal itself. He was still nauseous from the journey—Taipei to Tokyo to Seattle to Boston—and, after all, he’d spent every single day of the first twenty-something years of his life eating Chinese food.

“For someone who had just come from Taiwan, it was no good. For someone who came from Providence, it must have been very good!” he laughs.

When my mother came to the United States a few years after my father (Taipei-Tokyo-San Francisco), the family friends who picked her up at least had the decency to wait a day and allow her to find her legs before taking her to a restaurant in the nearest Chinatown.

“I remember the place was called Jing Long, Golden Dragon. Many years later there was a gang massacre in there,” she casually recalls. “I still remember the place. It was San Francisco’s most famous. The woman who brought me was very happy but I wasn’t hungry. “Of course, they always think if you come from Taiwan or China you must be hungry for Chinese food.”

It was the early 1970s, and my parents had each arrived in the United States with only a vague sense of what their respective futures held, beyond a few years of graduate studies. They certainly didn’t know they would be repeating these treks in the coming decades, subjecting weary passengers (namely, me) to their own long drives in search of Chinese food. I often daydream about this period of their lives and imagine them grappling with some sense of terminal dislocation, starving for familiar aromas, and regretting the warnings of their fellow new Americans that these were the last good Chinese spots for the next hundred or so miles. They would eventually meet and marry in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois (where they acquired a taste for pizza), and then live for a spell in Texas (where they were told that the local steak house wasn’t for “their kind”), before settling in suburban California. Maybe this was what it meant to live in America. You could move around. You were afforded opportunities unavailable back home. You were free to go by “Eric” at work and name your children after US presidents. You could refashion yourself a churchgoer, a lover of rum-raisin ice cream, an aficionado of classical music or Bob Dylan, a fan of the Dallas Cowboys because everyone else in the neighborhood seemed to be one. But for all the opportunities, those first days in America had prepared them for one reality: sometimes you had to drive great distances in order to eat well. (...)

Suburbs are seen as founts of conformity, but they are rarely places beholden to tradition. Nobody goes to the suburbs on a vision quest—most are drawn instead by the promise of ready-made status, a stability in life modeled after the stability of neat, predictable blocks and gated communities. And yet, a suburb might also be seen as a slate that can be perpetually wiped clean to accommodate new aspirations.

There remain vestiges of what stood before, and these histories capture the cyclical aspirations that define the suburb: Cherry Tree Lane, where an actual orchard was once the best possible use of free acreage; the distinctive, peaked roof of a former Sizzler turned dim sum spot; the Hallmark retailer, all windows and glass ledges, that is now a noodle shop; and the kitschy railroad-car diner across the street that’s now another noodle shop. But Cupertino was still in transition throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Monterey Park, hundreds of miles to our south, was the finished article.

All suburban Chinatowns owe something to Frederic Hsieh, a young realtor who regarded Monterey Park and foresaw the future. He began buying properties all over this otherwise generic community in the mid-1970s and blitzed newspapers throughout Taiwan and Hong Kong with promises of a “Chinese Beverly Hills” located a short drive from Los Angeles’s Chinatown. While there had been a steady stream of Chinese immigrants over the previous decade, Hsieh guessed that the uncertain political situation in Asia combined with greater business opportunities in the United States would bring more of them to California. Instead of the cramped, urban Chinatowns in San Francisco or Flushing, Hsieh wanted to offer these newcomers a version of the American dream: wide streets, multicar garages, good schools, minimal culture shock, and a short drive to Chinatown. In 1977, he invited twenty of the city’s most prominent civic and business leaders to a meeting over lunch (Chinese food, naturally) and explained that he was building a “modern-day mecca” for the droves of Chinese immigrants on their way. This didn’t go over so well with some of Monterey Park’s predominantly white establishment, who mistook his bluster for arrogance. As a member of the city’s Planning Commission later told the Los Angeles Times, “Everyone in the room thought the guy was blowing smoke. Then when I got home I thought, what gall. What ineffable gall. He was going to come into my living room and change my furniture?”

Gall was contagious. The following year, Wu Jin Shen, a former stockbroker from Taiwan, opened Diho Market, Monterey Park’s first Asian grocery. Wu would eventually oversee a chain of stores with four hundred employees and $30 million in sales. Soon after, a Laura Scudder potato-chip factory that had been remade into a Safeway was remade into an Asian supermarket. Another grocery store was refitted with a Pagoda-style roof.

Chinese restaurateurs were the shock troops of Hsieh’s would-be conquest. “The first thing Monterey Park residents noticed were the Chinese restaurants that popped up,” a different but no less alarmist piece the citizen quoted in the Times recalled. “Then came the three Chinese shopping centers, the Chinese banks, and the Chinese theater showing first-run movies from Hong Kong—with English subtitles.”

In Monterey Park, such audacity (if you wanted to call it that) threatened the community’s stability. Residents offended by, say, the razing of split-level ranch-style homes from the historical 1970s to accommodate apartment complexes drew on their worst instincts to try and push through “Official English” legislation in the mid-1980s. “Will the Last American to Leave Monterey Park Please Bring the Flag?” bumper stickers were distributed.

But this hyperlocal kind of nativism couldn’t turn back the demographic tide. In 1990, Monterey Park became the first city in the continental United States with a majority-Asian population. Yet Monterey Park’s growing citizenry didn’t embody a single sensibility. There were affluent professionals from Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as longtime residents of Los Angeles’s Chinatown looking to move to the suburbs. As Tim Fong, a sociologist who has studied Monterey Park, observed in the Chicago Tribune, “The Chinese jumped a step. They didn’t play the (slow) assimilation game.” This isn’t to say these new immigrants rejected assimilation. They were just becoming something entirely new.

Monterey Park became the first suburb that Chinese people would drive for hours to visit and eat in, for the same reasons earlier generations of immigrants had sought out the nearest urban Chinatown. And the changing population and the wealth they brought with them created new opportunities for all sorts of businesspeople, especially aspiring restaurateurs. The typical Chinese American restaurant made saucy, ostentatiously deep-fried concessions to mainstream appetites, leading to the ever-present rumor that most establishments had “secret menus” meant for more discerning eaters. It might be more accurate to say that most chefs at Chinese restaurants are more versatile than they initially let on—either that or families like mine possess Jedi-level powers of off-the-menu persuasion. But in a place like Monterey Park, the pressure to appeal to non-Chinese appetites disappeared. The concept of “mainstream” no longer held; neck bones and chicken feet and pork bellies and various gelatinous things could pay the bills and then some.

by Hua Hsu, Lucky Peach |  Read more:
Image: Yina Kim