Sunday, September 13, 2009

What is Chinese?

Being Chinese, and being a "foodie", people inevitably ask me, what the "best" Chinese restaurant on island is.   This would seem like a reasonable question, but really it is inherently flawed.   To put it in prespective, could you really go to the mainland and ask them what their favorite American restaurant is?   America is a big country, and American cuisine is extremely diverse.   Is a 50's diner the same thing as a great American steakhouse?    Is Texas barbecue the same thing as a New York deli?   Is a Southern restaurant where everything is fried the same thing as a California one where everything is tofu and sprouts?   No.   And of those pairings, is any of them any more "American" than the other?   Definitely not.   The same can be said of Chinese food.   China is an even bigger place than the U.S., so naturally Chinese cuisine is as diverse as American.    Cantonese food is not the same as Szechuan. 

I, like most overseas Chinese from Cantonese stock.   So naturally I would favor Cantonese food.  But even within one style of food, there are variations.    There is a very heated debate between Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, and North Carolina as to which region has the best barbecue.   None of them are the same, but everyone has their favorite.   The Chinese who left Guangzhou (Canton), over 200 years ago, to come work on Hawaii's sugar cane plantations, brought with them the Cantonese food, language, and culture they remembered from their own particular villages.   After staying here for over 200 years, their culture evolved separately from Chinese in China, or any other part of the world for that matter.  So I can definitively say that the Chinese culture that I am part of, is the Hawaii Chinese culture.

Chinese also immigrated to the mainland U.S..   They moved to California in great waves and helped build the TransContinental Railroad.    They moved to New York and built the largest Chinatown in the nation.  They moved to Australia, and Singapore, and Canada, and many many other places.   Almost all of these people were Cantonese people.  Which is why the Cantonese language is so pervasive outside of China.   Yet most people in China and Taiwan, with the exception of Guangzhou and Hong Kong, speak Mandarin.  So really if you want to speak to any Chinese in China, you need to speak Mandarin.  But if you want to speak to any Chinese from a Chinese community outside of China, you need to speak Cantonese.

It's really funny.  In my Uncle's office, there are 2 girls.  One is from Shanghai, the other is from Hong Kong.   One speaks Mandarin, the other Cantonese, so neither can talk to each other.   The common language between them is English.   But does that make either one of them any less Chinese?   Definitely not.  Even within Cantonese, there are variations.   Whenever I talk to people from Hong Kong, they say that my Cantonese sounds funny.   Like I've got some kind of farmer's accent.   Well, considering that all of the Chinese who moved to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations were farmers, I guess that would make sense.   To me, their Cantonese sounds like.... well, it sounds like what we Americans think of when we hear the British speak English.  

The differences in language between Chinese are the same as the differences with food.   Even though it was also all Cantonese people that moved to the mainland U.S., their culture evolved quite separately from our own.   I had no clue what "moo goo gai pan"or "kung pao chicken" or "moo shu pork" was until I moved to the mainland.  Similarly, when I was in a restaurant in California, and I tried to order a mein bang or cake noodle, the waiter had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.   For those of you who don't know, mein bang, is noodles that have been fried and cut into 3'x3' squares, and then covered with the traditional sauces and ingredients.   Because it's prepared like this, you can pick up a whole square and bite it, and as the gravy soaks into it, you have this wonderful contrast between the noodles that are still crispy and the noodles that are now soft and slippery.  And by the way, chow "mein" is pronounced like you're being "mean" to someone, not like it's a lion's "mane".  

So, it is really difficult to answer the question, what is your favorite Chinese restaurant.   I have many different favorites depending on the regional style and type of food.    However, if you were to ask me which was my favorite Old Hawaii-Style Chinese restaurant, the one that most reminded me of my Po Po's cooking, that would be a fairly easy call.   That would be McCully Chop Sui, on the corner of S. King and McCully.   My wife, and her family, would swear by Golden Duck (by the corner of S. King and Piikoi),  but to me McCully Chop Suey was always the best.    My favorite dishes would always be the ones my Po Po would cook for me when I was little.   The top of this list would be the yuk bang or pork hash (yuk is pronounced to rhyme with "hook").   I mentioned earlier how Po Po would cook this for my Goong Goong almost every night, and it was my favorite when I was little.   Out of all the places in town, and there are many, theirs was the one that tasted most like my Po Po's.  The other big one was their kau yuk or steamed pork belly.   Most other places would make theirs with that unnatural red coloring, and the skin on top would be rubbery or fat between the layers too prominent and fatty.  Their was brown like my Po Po's, and everything, all of those umptuous layers would just melt in your mouth.  I also loved their oyster roll (essentially an oyster stuffed with the same pork hash), although my Po Po would steam hers while McCully would deep fry theirs.   I would always go order one of these two along with some crispy gau gee mein, some fu yung dan (egg fu yung), and some beef broccoli, whenever I wanted to feel like I was in Po Po's living room again.   Heck, they even had the same curtains hanging in their window that Po Po had!  

Sadly, like so many other tastes of old Hawaii, they too are closed now.  There's an art gallery where they were now.   But they were such a Hawaii landmark, that the new owners decided to leave up the iconic neon sign.   Now, instead of a beacon of warm grandmother's cooking inside, it's a reminder of those treasured memories past.   There are other fantastic Chinese restaurants on island.   There are even other great Old Hawaii-Style Chinese restaurants.  And as the Chinese community in Hawaii continues to live and grow and evolve, the cuisine will inevitably change and grow along with it.   But, I will always remember McCully Chop Suey, and the way they made it, and the way my Po Po made it.

Everyone goes through an identity crisis growing up.   Children of mixed cultures feel it moreso.   I always felt disoriented when I met friends from China who spoke Mandarin instead of Cantonese?   When I met friends from Hong Kong, who liked Hong Kong-style restaurants better than Hawaii-style Chinese restaurants, and spoke a more "elegant" Cantonese than I do, I always felt a little backwater.  It took a long time to figure out who I was and be proud of it.   Am I Chinese?  Am I American?   Am I Hawaiian?  Ultimately, I'm a little of all of that.  I'm proud to be a Chinese from Hawaii, with our own subculture, language and food.   Eating at places like McCully Chop Suey helped me define and take pride in that identity.   That's who I am.   That's where I come from.   But ultimately.... I'm just me.

1 comment:

  1. Wait... McCully Chop Suey is closed? DAMMIT! I was just home and drove by and was comforted by the neon sign to know they were still open and made a note to go eat there next time I was back.... and now you ruined it.

    Stupid food bloggers. GAH.