In his memoir and travelogue Have You Eaten Yet? (which takes its title from a common Chinese greeting), Cheuk Kwan visited Chinese restaurants on five continents, including stops in Madagascar and above the Arctic Circle in Norway. An inquisitive, knowledgeable guide, Kwan seeks to understand the nature of diasporic Chinese identity and the role that food, assimilation and racism plays in it. Read in the context of COVID-19 and anti-Asian violence, Kwan’s travels inspire envy while the stories of immigrant struggles he relates feel doubly poignant.
I first met Kwan a few years back in Vancouver’s Chinatown, when he spoke about the Asianadian, the trailblazing magazine he co-founded. (Although Kwan is a fan of Vancouver’s Chinese food, its Singaporean-Chinese restaurants in particular, his book’s sole Canadian chapter focuses on a Chinese cafe in Outlook, Saskatchewan, run by a man named Noisy Jim.) Born in Hong Kong, and raised there and in Singapore and Japan, Kwan describes himself as a “card-carrying” member of the Chinese diaspora. A systems engineer by training, Kwan studied in the United States before settling in Canada in 1976. He worked as an anti-racism activist and, after making a fortune working in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, self-financed a 15-part documentary, Chinese Restaurants (2004), from which this book is adapted.
Kwan was in a hotel room in Montreal, where he was visiting a friend, when I caught up with him via Zoom. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This book made me hungry and it made my feet itchy. Were you always a traveller?
Yes, both as a member of the diaspora moving around places, and since college I’ve been travelling on my own. Every time I went anywhere, I’d always crave Chinese food. And I would go to a Chinese restaurant that was semi-authentic and would try to put my head behind the kitchen doors and learn the stories. And inevitably I would find these family-run restaurants, and stories of how people got to this place. I’ve always wanted to know about assimilation and nationality and ethnicity and all the issues that come together in a Chinese restaurant.
You seem to only eat good food on this trip. But my experience of Chinese food outside of Asia and diasporic hotbeds like Vancouver is… not so good. In particular, I remember diced potatoes in fried rice in Scotland. I feel alienated when I taste Chinese food that isn’t right. Did eating Chinese food elsewhere, modified to suit local tastes, allow you to explore the idea of authenticity in taste?
In the book, I talk about authenticity as something that brings out a childhood memory. To me, authentic food is the food I grew up with in Singapore and Hong Kong — how my mother and grandmother cooked and how we ate at the restaurants in the hawker centres in Singapore. And that food, by definition, is already fusion or hybrid. We can’t really talk about pure Chinese food. Not even in China.
We can only talk about authentic, but what’s authentic is authentic to you, not to the whole world. Like Noisy Jim in Canada, right? I’d argue that the food that people grow up with in the Chinese cafe is authentic American Chinese food, as in, you know, sweet and sour chicken or chop suey, for example. It’s all very relative.
Did you find that authentic-for-you taste in your travels?
It was very random. Like the Hakka pork belly in Mauritius was so authentic, it was like the one I grew up eating in Hong Kong. And then there are some countries like Cuba where you don’t find real Chinese food, just because of politics and the economy. Cuban Chinese food is, is really, really awful, by the way.
I’ve been to Cuba, and I remember visiting Havana’s Chinatown and meeting all these people who were, you know, quarter Chinese and other people calling me “chino” and pulling their eyes back. One thing I find interesting in your book is how your interview subjects constantly negotiate their Chinese identity. In some ways they connect to it actively through food and custom and language, but at other times, it’s imposed on them because they have a Chinese name. To what extent is Chinese identity something you reach for and to what extent is it foisted upon you?
I think it can be very personal. But it also depends on society. The Chinese in Cuba, for example, have started to portray themselves as Chinese, even though many are only a quarter or eighth Chinese. This is all because, in 1992, when the Soviets left, there was a vacuum that China filled. The Cuban Chinese in recent years have taken back their ethnicity, back into their narrative.
With me, my son is half Chinese, and now I have a grandson who is one quarter Chinese, but he will always carry the name Kwan in Canada. If they had an Italian surname, after one generation, people would think of them as Canadian. No big deal. But when people see a Chinese name they say, “Oh, how come you don’t eat Chinese food?” All kinds of social issues come into play. And they involve of course racism and discrimination.
My daughter’s only part Chinese. She’s really resistant to learning Cantonese but likes Chinese food. How do you pass on Chinese culture? Is it through food?
Same thing with my kids. I mean, they gave up Cantonese class with their babysitter as soon as Grade 1. But Chinese food is always there. My kids are connoisseurs of Chinese food. My daughter makes char siu. I certainly don’t want to impose anything on my kids. My kids are Canadians, but I am certainly very proud that they carry Chinese heritage, even if it’s only food.
As I mentioned, I don’t seek out Chinese food when I travel, but your chapter on Peru reminded me of eating lomo saltado at a restaurant in Lima and then realizing later that it had Chinese origins. In your travels, were you ever surprised by how ingrained Chinese cooking had become in a national cuisine?
Peru was something I never knew about. I mean, I heard about their Chinese immigrants, but I never knew that chifa [Chinese-Peruvian cooking] was such a prevalent cuisine in Peru. Almost half of Peruvian cuisine is chifa or a variation of it.
The way Chinese immigrants got rice into the Peruvian diet was just amazing. They were cooking in haciendas, but they had to have their rice. They started cultivating rice into Peruvian soil. Then rice sank into the whole Peruvian diet. Otherwise you’d be eating Inca potatoes all the time.
You said in one of your interviews that you avoided Vancouver in your book because it’s too cliché. What do you mean by that? And have you eaten much Chinese food in Vancouver?
I have nothing but admiration for the food scene in Vancouver. I love the purity of the Chinese food there, because of the immigrant population. However, I have this problem that I don’t find anything that I’m familiar with exciting enough to talk about. And also, a lot of people have written about the Chinese cuisine in San Francisco, Toronto and Vancouver. I mean, what else can you say?
Finally, have you eaten yet? And if, if not, what’s for dinner?
I’m going to have a Chinese hot pot at a friend’s house. Nothing to brag about, but certainly I’m looking forward to it.