Chinese American Gothic

Background: Ten years ago, Gourmet magazine sent me to Richmond, Virginia to get in touch with my mother’s family’s roots, and by doing so understand a sliver of the Chinese experience in the South during the 1960s. The eventual piece, “Virginia is for Wontons,” was published in October 2008. However, separately, the insanely wonderful, incredible Nanette Maxim, who was assigned to me at Gourmet at the time, shaped the original 30-odd pages that I had submitted. (An extremely well-respected food writer, upon hearing that I had “landed” Nanette, mourned, “Why do YOU always get the great editors?”)
The essay hasn’t seen the light of day until now, but reading the words over, I quite like them, mainly due to Nanette’s input. It is also about one Chinese family adapting to their new home while remaining true to themselves, and hence I think it is relevant to Slaintchi. So ten years later, on a day when Virginia has acted, politically, in a pretty awesome fashion, I’m publishing it now to celebrate why Virginia was once welcoming to my immigrant family. The piece has rough edges and warts. Be warned that it is long.
My grandma Chin’s tofu fritters are an example of Chin Richmond cooking, tofu & bacon, hush puppy style. You can find the Saveur recipe here.

RICHMOND EARLY PIC

This story begins with two Chinese families, the Chins and the Sungs, who both came to Richmond Virginia from over the ocean. The two families’ paths would have never crossed but for a sweet-eyed girl called Sha Chin who migrated here from Taiwan at the height of the Civil Rights movement, changed her name to Maria when she converted to Catholicism, and renounced her ambitions to become a nun when she met a tall, handsome Chinese doctor by the name of Ed. In many ways, as Ed and Sha’s firstborn, my cousin Jay must be considered a Richmond product, like Jefferson Davis, Arthur Ashe, and peanut soup. I have come to Richmond to reacquaint myself with the Chin and Sung’s history, and have dragged a reluctant Jay in tow.

Richmond VA was the Confederate capital, a fact that its residents have not forgotten. It is old, proud, and slightly decaying. Monument Avenue is a testament to the Richmond life, grand houses inhabited by people who cannot afford them, statues of local heroes who face south in case their allegiance was ever brought to question.

I am charmed by Richmond. Jay hates the place. I have not been back here since I was eight years old and my Grandpa Chin died. I remember the taste of my first spoonbread in a cafeteria, the Mondrian painted pigeon coop that my architect grandfather built, and the trees that my mother described from their first house on Grace Street heavy with damson plums. Every Christmas, my Chin grandparents’ house would be infused with the dark, sweet perfume of soy and anise. It would be the pigs’ feet that my grandfather had simmered specifically for personal delectation, and when he lifted me up to the stove to peer under the lid, I could revel in the sticky glaze of fat and skin. But Jay has been back a lot, for funerals, weddings, birthday celebrations. He has seen this place converted into a suburban nightmare, he has witnessed long lengths of rural landscape being converted into strip malls. He has fretted away nights at the local Hampton Inn, eating Wendy burgers and waiting for his Grandma Sung to die. For Jay, there is no romance – only melancholy, aversion, and embarrassment.

“You might think,” he tells me, “that Richmond is about the simple life, pig pits, farming, and sing-a-longs on the banjo, when really, it is all about TGIFs and Applebees.”

On our first afternoon here, I lean against the car as Jay sits inside, frantically SMS messaging. I have gotten bored, lit a cigarette, and am idly waving to truck drivers. My cousin Jay has the looks of a Hong Kong pop star – gelled black hair, cheekbones, black pants, and rimless spectacles. He is also a cripple thanks to a recent hernia in his back. Despite the injury, he insisted that he would still come with me. When he stands, his torso curves in an S and his legs are bowed, a fine-featured Chinese Toulouse Lautrec.

Jay has made us drive for hours after getting off the plane – past the restaurant chains and multiplexes, past the wistfully chi-chi neighborhood around our hotel, in his quest to find something that bears no relation to the city that continues to live on in his mind. Sisters is a spray painted aluminum shack across the railroad tracks from downtown Richmond, hidden by car part manufacturers. The parking lot is almost exclusively trucks. It is owned and run by three lean, no-nonsense sisters named Esther, Judy, and Punchie. Elbow-to-elbow with the chain smoking clientele, Jay snaps his digital camera, types into his Blackberry, while an entourage of his other digital instruments beep at intervals. I crack Southern incest jokes every time someone asks us if we are married. We partake of sweet tea, heart-stopping mac and cheese, collard greens laced with ham, and fried seafood of every description. The deviled crab is soft and spicy inside its shell. We are sated, yet slightly ill at ease.

“Um,” Jay tells me, “do you think that these people have ever seen a Chinese person?”

***

In fact, a number of Chinese have claimed Richmond as their home. There have been Chinese in the South for longer than one might think. There were Chinese who fought on the Confederate side during the Civil War. My friend Steven Tao recollects his grandfather sitting on his small-town Arkansas porch, eating ribs, slugging bourbon, and wearing boots, and holding forth on why Jefferson Davis was robbed by revisionist Yankee history. For over fifty years, there have been Tao mayors and Tao sheriffs in Steve’s hometown of Hughes.

Our cab driver one night is a gray haired 70-something Korean War veteran, and quotes poetry while the rain pounds against the windshield. He was best friends with a Chinese boy Peter Wong growing up. They used to go fishing.

“Then,” he whistles, “Peter got himself married to a blonde, divorced her, and shoot, found himself in a whole mess of trouble.”

Nevertheless, many of the Chinese here have not been acclimated. Even now, you don’t see them in bars or on university campuses. You don’t even see them in Chinese restaurants. Though the staff is Chinese, the clientele ranges from African American and Hispanics to sad businessmen, old couples, and loud, red haired secretaries. To be accepted in the South when you’re Chinese seems to be a combination of skill and luck. Steve’s grandfather and great-uncle, with no language and no friends, bought the local five and dime. When the Depression hit, the Taos’ social status rocketed, because it was the Taos that controlled the food.

Maybe it’s also a mutual love for pork and peanuts that attracts the Chinese to the South. Add onto that a liking for sodium, deep-fried foods and one begins to understand why certain Chinese have not only settled here, but also adore it. The hard, salty Virginia country ham bears a resemblance to the famous ham of Jinhua. Both the Chinese and the Southerners understand pig’s trotters, vinegar, and crabs sucked from their shells. And between the Chinese and the Southerners there is always a keen appreciation for the strip of meat and bone that runs along either side of the pig –- aka the sparerib.

The older native Virginians that we meet – friends of the Chins – have an unsentimental, humorous view towards life, death, and hardship. “Yes, that was the year I lost my two best friends in a week,” smiles an elegant denizen by the name of Ruth Jordan. “I guess you would call that a pretty tough summer.”

Miz Jenkins is the woman that my grandmother considered her greatest ally in this town. On her family’s most valuable memento, a gold pocket watch, Miz Jenkins muses, “My husband had the nerve to ask me what I would rather have, this watch or bread. I said, well shoot, what do you think? Say we’re the last people on earth. I’d eat my bread, watch you die, and take the watch.”

Some fun seems to have come out of slender times. Miz Jenkins’s tobacco growing cousins would smoke their hams with whatever was leftover from their crop. Miz Jordan used to net shad in the creek. There is an absence of moping. Richmond is a beaten down town, by numerous wars, by the Depression, and now by recent change; the only way to cope is by not letting it beat you down with it. The older Chinese from China that I have met and liked, and who have also had a share of war and famine, partake in this merry, morbid approach. Shucks, they all imply, we never had it that bad.

***

The Chins came to Richmond VA from Taiwan in 1962, with four daughters and one son. Sha/Maria was the oldest by many years – by the time they arrived in Richmond, she was twenty and extremely pretty. The other three daughters were closely clustered in age; there was Yen (energetic, efficient, helpful), there was Annping, my mother (moody, self possessed) and Shoping (who loved beauty and cleanliness and by far the most popular girl in their school). Yo, the boy, was as young as Sha was old, and he was still a toddler when the Chins settled. Grandpa was an architect with a taste for the impractical and expensive; Grandma Chin, a college educated woman, stayed at home and kept the family fed and clothed. In many ways, the Chins experienced a normal childhood in their white neighborhoods and their white schools. They were taught that Jefferson Davis was the country’s first president, that the Stars and Bars was the only true flag of the United States, and to sing Dixie Land at football games. They ate fried chicken, collard greens, and Jello salads. They learned that American history began and ended at the Civil War.

My uncle Yo says, “Frankly I was a bit of a redneck. Stars and Bars, fishin’, and football,” all of which he did with his best friend Jimmy Brown. Yo, who is more Richmond than the rest of the family, still twangs when he talks about fresh caught trout and Brunswick stew.

Still, the Chins were not without their social blunders, most notably when my grandmother showed up at the cafeteria with the other school mothers to sell milk in a cherry red, slightly translucent cheongsam slit up to her thigh. There is also some shame, especially on the part of Yo, to the extent to which their parents went to separate the children from what is still referred in this town as the “coloreds.” Steve Tao concurs. Back in the day, if you were Chinese, you were either going to be considered as white or black. “Black” Chinese ran laundries and cleaned houses. “White” Chinese were respected citizens, held real jobs, and sent their children to schools where they would not be teased.

The Chins’ first home was 3111 West Grace Street, with a back yard that adjoined Monument Avenue. My mother has always said that this was her favorite house and it is easy to see why. There are tall ceilings, fireplaces, cornices, steep staircases, and columns. The Chins were treated with immediate kindness. Mr. and Miz Shopland lived a few doors down, just like the Chins, had four daughters and one son. The Shoplands were also immigrant, at least in part. Miz Shopland hailed from Virginia, but Mr. Shopland was an English violinist twenty years his wife’s senior. Memories of Mr. Shopland are shadowy, a silent, stern man who came down for meals with a cravat and a cane; and just as my grandmother made sure that there was rice, tofu, and bean sprouts, Miz Shopland, herself a professional violinist, made sure that there was kippers and Yorkshire pudding. At the Shoplands, there were five meals a day (breakfast, lunch, dinner plus elevenses and tea). Dinner would always involve at least four dishes, and if company was present – even if it was only a couple of twelve year old girls – then the best china would be laid on the dining room table. For school lunches, Miz Shopland would pack cream cheese sandwiches, wrapped in parchment, with a nickel for milk nestled in the center.

3111 West Grace Street is now owned by a barrel-shaped foster mother, who thinks that all Chinese people go by the name of Chicken Fat. Her silver haired husband sits in the kitchen inches away from the television, with a platter of meatballs with gravy. The backyard is a wasteland – dead bushes, plastic toys, and wire fences. But when the Chins lived there, there were tangled roses and trees dripping with damson plums. My grandmother, who loved tidiness, despised the fruit littering the yard, for their juice stained both the grass and the soles of ones feet. During damson season, the Shopland and Chin youngsters would scramble up the trees and throw plums to Miz Shopland, who would gather them up in her voluminous apron. Her damson jam was famous – since I was a child, my mother has rhapsodized both about the fruit and its final product. Damsons are small, dark, and sour, with a large pit. It requires patience and quite a lot of sugar in order to, as Miz Shopland did, coax them into the syrupy amber colored condiment that was her trademark.

Across the street there were the Jenkins. Mr. Jenkins was a typesetter for the local newspaper, and Miz Jenkins was a nurse who took care of everyone in the area on her rare hours off. She was a spry woman, navigating the neighborhood with a birdlike quickness in short hair, a gingham shirt, and jeans. She kept an eye on her farm in the country, fixed cars, and provided ailing neighbors with an arm to lean on and injections at midnight. To the Chins, Miz Jenkins acted as confidante, social entrée, and even business manager – she would tell my grandfather when he should demand a raise, and advise my grandmother on stocks. Because Yo, then a boy of three, loved riding in cars, she would swing by and fetch him when she went to pick her daughter up from school. He would stand starry eyed behind her in the back seat. When my grandmother opened a shop, Oriental Village, Miz Jenkins would sit with her for hours at a time, to keep away the trouble makers and thieves.

Verbal communication between the Chins and their new friends was difficult in the early years, so affection was expressed through gesture. Miz Jenkins and my grandmother, whom she persists in calling Miz Chin, whiled away many moments simply holding hands. It was also expressed by the exchange and consumption of food. Miz Shopland, according to everyone, was a divine cook. Besides her perfectly presented cream cheese sandwiches and her damson jam, there are moans about Miz Shopland’s squash casserole, her pork chops, and the things she could do with potatoes.

On their first Thanksgiving Miz Jenkins showed up at the Chins doorstep with an expertly carved turkey and a plate of stuffing. The Chins ate the stuffing but had to throw the turkey away, the slightly gamey flavor of turkey being something that many Chinese cannot abide. But as Miz Jenkins continued to do this every year, they started eating turkey and liking it. On Christmas Miz Jenkins would drop by with a ham, and whenever, during the year, she was making her ham and biscuits, a tray would appear at the Chin foyer. In return the Chins introduced their new friends to soft buns stuffed with pork and chives, deep fried meatballs spiced with ginger, shark fin soup, and sticky rice steamed with dates and red bean paste.

The Chins still get misty at the mention of Miz Jenkins ham – moister and less saline than the usual local product. Jay and I were sent to Richmond with two injunctions: to send Miz Jenkins their special love, and to get her recipe. Now, Miz Jenkins has always used her own family’s ham, for her brothers, her cousins, and now her nephews raise pigs in her home-seat among the mountains of Halifax County. At the moment, they cure and smoke only for their kin. But Miz Jenkins also soaks the ham for at least forty-eight hours, rather than the customary twenty-four, and then she bakes the ham at 200 degrees for an entire day, switching the oven off at intervals. In the weeks after Christmas, the Chins consumed a lot of it, in sandwiches, in slices, and in spirals that my grandfather would steam – Chinese style — in honey and wine.

***

I have also come to Richmond to see Jay’s Auntie Leona, who is the younger sister of his father Ed. I have never met Leona. All I know about her is that she has lived in Richmond most of her life, during which time she has married and divorced a truck driver and mothered three children. She also believes in ghosts and every time her name is mentioned, it is accompanied by tongue clicks.

Between our hotel and Auntie Leona’s one must traverse the Powhite Parkway, which Richmonders insist on pronouncing Pow-heet, but which we two outsiders, quite reasonably, refer to as the Po’ white. I have an orchid for Auntie Leona balanced on my lap, and both Jay and I are singing along to the Country Western tunes. Over the cellphone in the car, we discuss dinner plans with Auntie Leona, a lengthy process. Finally, Jay cuts in. “What about Inter-China? Wasn’t that where we always used to go?” There is a pause. “Of course I will take you to Interchina,” Auntie Leona responds. “Interchina is a nice restaurant. You will like it. Of course, it was the restaurant that killed your grandmother.”

Half an hour later, Jay and I pull up in front of a contemporary sprawl with a well kempt front lawn and brambles in the back. Jay shakes his head. “I don’t remember this place.” Only Auntie Leona appearing at the front door assures us that we have arrived.

Auntie Leona has down-turned doe eyes, a pursed mouth, and gray hair. She wears heels and long linen skirts. Walking in through the front door, I observe that all the curtains are shut, the floors are glossy, and the air smells pasteurized. Apart from a cat that we never see, Auntie Leona lives alone. In the living room I notice an empty fish tank and a five-foot bunny rabbit dressed in a floral skirt. The television in the parlor is on mute, and there is a bowl of candies on the coffee table. Auntie Leona is an ardent fan of Arnold Schwarznegger and the Nutrisystem diet, but sounds like a hippie family counselor when she talks. She is sad that Jay’s father Ed has lost the videotapes of the old days in a basement flood. “But,” she says, cheering up, “my friend says, it’s Nature wanting you to forget and have a new beginning.”

I love the Sungs. When I was a little girl in Richmond, I divided my time between the Chin and Sung grandparents, and my Sung memories consist of sitting in their shady parlour doing needlepoint while Grandma Sung bustled about being large and cheerful. The Sungs pampered me to the pores, with endless glasses of lemonade, cups of chrysanthemum tea, and Chinese sticky rice snacks.
Above all the other Sungs I love my uncle, Ed Sung, Jay’s father. Ed, an obstetrician, delivered me into this world, so arguably he provided me with my first glimpse of my future clan. Ed is morbid, jocose. Jay talks about a boyhood stumbling over the pickled kitten heads and cadaver arms his father would keep around the house as sentimental mementos. But Ed is also as wise and warm as sunshine. Ed will tell me, tears staining his glasses. “I spanked your fucking bum, kiddo. You pissed on me when you came out of your mom. I love you.” Bringing babies into the world is his raison d’etre. In Ed and Sha’s house there is a flowerbed, and they keep their beds separate. Ed’s flowers are the ones that Sha has discarded because they were too ugly or hopeless, but he thinks are beautiful. The tenderness with which Ed cared for my grandmother could make your throat catch. One day, my grandmother had to use the bathroom and there was no one else in the house except for him. She protested because she didn’t want for him to see her with her pants down.

“Look,” he told her, “you know what I do for a living? I look at women’s bare asses. You think you’re showing me anything special?”

When Ed married Sha, he announced that should his wife predecease him, he would want to keep her in a glass coffin, so that he could gaze upon her beauty until his own time had come. It was Ed who was responsible the excommunication of Sha, my oldest aunt, his wife, and former aspiring nun. Ed shrugs at the memory. “I was trying to convert. The priest asks me about my views on contraception.” (While Ed loves babies, he loves women more.) Ed’s opinions resulted in the two of them being marched down the aisle and out of the church forever.

Ed’s wife Sha is the type of woman who will roll puff pastry in one hand, down martinis with the other, all the while barking orders and laughing. The feasts that she creates are staggering – rock shrimp lasagnas, table-sized fishes en croute, crisp ducks lined in a row. Her wine cellar rivals King Herod’s. Going out to lunch with Sha is a pilgrimage, in which we hit three restaurants instead of one. Waiters, chefs, and vendors adore her, even though she drives a hard bargain. There is a touch of Mafia about her personality. Impeccably dressed, she remembers the busboy by his first name, carries rolls of hundred dollar bills in her Fendi purse, and calls the girls in our family “Cookie.” When my grandmother was resident at Ed and Sha’s house and dying of cancer, Sha told her daughter, “When I die, don’t let me go like this.” For Sha, it was a rare teary outburst. Her daughter – Jay’s sister Gia — shrugged and said, “Nah, mom, I’ll just lock you in the wine cellar and let you drink yourself to death.

Leona is obsessed with analyzing her older brother Ed.

“He’s so scared of letting go,” she explains. In truth, Ed takes too many photos and gets attached to strange objects, like cat heads. However, Leona has kept her huge house and bought herself a new mini van even though her children have been gone for a decade. She has even, by persuading her son to buy the old family house in Richmond, and therefore kept a hold on the house of her parents. Auntie Leona shares another slice of wisdom about Ed. “If bringing babies into this world makes you feel powerful, then you definitely need counseling.”

Back in Northern China, the Sungs had made a fortune in wigs; they harvested Chinese hair and then dyed it for a Western clientele. The symbol for their factory was two rams clashing horns. They were kicked out of China without any warning after World War II for, in auntie Leona’s words, “being nice to the Japanese.” In Hong Kong, the Sungs had to start over, which they did, thanks to their new family friend Mr. Du, your typical Triad gangster with two wives and financial and political ties.

“I don’t understand,” Jay says, “how did Grandma and Grandpa Sung survive?”
Auntie Leona beams, “Oh, they’d been cooking the account books for years.” Also, she tells us, they smuggled most of their stockholders’ money via an accommodating Catholic priest. Grandma and Grandpa Sung followed their children to Richmond after Grandpa Sung’s two brothers fled with the family money to Brazil.

Jay’s eyes are saucer shaped. “Jeez,” he breathes, “it’s like Godfather II.”
The Chins, in contrast, were not fighters. They came to Taiwan after World War II because my grandfather was offered a job at a university, and then they moved to Virginia because my grandfather was offered another job as an architect. In Richmond, the Chins lived on Grace Street, and moved to a house on Avalon Drive. The family seat for the Sungs lies at the intersection of Arsenal Drive and Old Gun Road.

But it is the ghosts that I really want to hear about. Over dinner at the local restaurant China Jade, Auntie Leona complies, beginning with the story of the woman in white. The family (Jay was not involved) had piled into two cars after dinner, Grandma and Grandpa Sung taking the lead, the second car following a half an hour behind. Both cars saw a woman, clad in billowing white, adrift on Old Gun Road. Old Gun Road used to be a battlefield in the Civil War Presumably she was a war widow who still combs the premises looking for her husband’s body.

Better yet, however, are the ghosts that haunted the Sung house on Arsenal Drive. (Auntie Leona shudders as she relates this.) Grandma Sung was in the kitchen when she heard the sound of a mop being swished in a bucket coming from the office. Grandpa Sung was in the bedroom and heard the same. They both rushed to the office and found it empty. Apparently, the space had functioned the servant’s quarters in the house that had stood there before. Later, Grandpa Sung saw a man in the master bedroom, absent from the waist down, trying to turn on a light switch. Another day, Grandma Sung saw three girls scurrying down the hallway in antique dresses. Leona and her sister Cherry were cleaning in the master bedroom closet when Cherry screamed, “Stop hurting me!” And when they tried to open the closet door, it wouldn’t budge.

Grandma and Grandpa Sung moved out of the master bedroom. They closed the office. For reasons unknown to the rest of the Sungs, they shut the living room and watched television in the dining room instead. By the time I arrived as a child, half the house was uninhabited. It was when Grandma Sung moved into a retirement home, that the Sungs hired a Haitian psychic called Daniel. Daniel felt vibrations in the office immediately, and followed them to the master bedroom, where the freezing palpitation had reached its saturation. “There is a body buried underneath here,” he announced, “and the closet is the spirit gateway.” The motive behind the hauntings is pretty straightforward, at least in my skewed view. The master had an affair with the maid and possible pregnancy, death, and mayhem ensued.

Jay asks, “Why didn’t Grandma and Grandpa just move?” To this, Leona has no answer, especially considering that the house on Arsenal Drive is now the home of her son Herbie. I suppose the Sungs don’t believe in fleeing from their ghosts, they believe in dwelling amongst them.

Recently, Grandpa Sung himself was spotted from the swimming pool, his face reflected in the bedroom window.

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Chins and Sungs together. From left to right, Shoping, Yo, Grandpa Chin, Yen, Grandma Chin, Annping, Leona, Cherry, Grandpa Sung, Ed, Sha, Grandma Sung.

***

We are at China Jade with only two other customers – the woman with dyed hair drawling on her cell phone, and the slumped businessman three tables away. Jay and I eat scallops and filet mignon, deep fried orange beef, garlic shrimp. After a lot of finagling, a plate of cabbage is ordered for Auntie Leona, who is on a diet. The Virginian Chinese community, I am realizing, like everyone else in the area, doesn’t hold much stock in vegetables. From time to time a sliver of snow pea rears its weary head.

It is interesting watching Auntie Leona picking at cabbage, for the Sungs have a reputation for being heroic eaters. Whenever they would come over to the Chins for dinner, my grandmother and grandfather would be in the kitchen for days. “Each of them would start,” my Chin aunt and youngest Chin sister, Shoping muses, “with an enormous T-bone. Then there’d pigs feet, fried noodles, fried rice, duck, soy sauce chicken, and god knows what else. At the end it would be all gone.” Dinner at the Sungs would be a barbecue, involving meats of every cut and description. They would lounge around at the swimming pool in the Sung’s backyard, tossing rib bones to the thirty-odd stray cats that Grandma Sung had taken into her care. The Sungs love cats. Auntie Leona has one, so does Herbie, Jay has two, and Ed pickles their heads in a jar.

Despite their love of eating, the Sungs – especially Grandma and Grandpa Sung – were not famous for their kitchen skills. Therefore, when Grandma and Grandpa Sung opened a restaurant it was a bit of a surprise. Yee-An was actually a promising restaurant to begin with; Grandma and Grandpa Sung went through some trouble to import two chefs from Taiwan. The senior chef could even be called a visionary. Perhaps he was too much so. One multi-course meal he served to the Chins was comprised entirely of venison. The choice of grasshoppers as an accompanying beverage was unfortunate, but the Chinese have never been known for their savvy with booze. Head chef wanted to serve sea cucumbers, dried fish, and shark’s fin soup. His customers wanted chop suey, lo mein, and eggrolls. Perhaps such rejection helps explain the head chef’s habit of beating the younger chef on the head with an eight-ounce ladle. Needless to say, the two chefs’ tenure at Yee An did not last. Eventually the kitchen was handed over to Jay’s uncle Alex, a failed concert pianist. All the time spent before a Steinway did not enhance what he could do with a gas flame and wok.

The Chins were arguably Yee-An’s most faithful customers. Jay remembers it with affection because he used to play everywhere that was left empty by potential clientele. The food was awful. But that fact alone should not have affected the Sung success in the restaurant business. As most residents of Richmond will tell you, bad Chinese food flourishes on every street. In Richmond, all you have to do is open up a tin of baby corn, throw in enough soy sauce to cover up the flavor of stale meat, and call it foreign. The restaurant of my mother’s youth was a place called Joy Gardens, a place where you could eat hamburgers alongside your moo-goo-gai-pan and wash them down with a suggestively named cocktail with a pineapple spiked parasol. Not only has Joy Gardens survived the past 40 years, it has been such a success that there are now three of them, presumably all with the same neon sign advertising Chinese American Food.

Perhaps the reason Yee-An failed was because it was so ambitious, a yawning space with white tablecloths, real glasses and silverware, a full bar, and a separate banquet room, that due to lack of use, served as a nursery for the grandchildren. This, I believe, had something to do with Grandma Sung, who entertained a vision of herself as a doyenne; in her later age, she had a habit of tipping wherever she went, stuffing twenty dollar bills into the palm of the astonished casher at McDonalds. A bare-bones takeout with two tables would not have satisfied her. If Grandma Sung was going to open a restaurant, she was going to do it in style. Not only did she import her chefs from Taiwan, she had the Sungs pay for their chefs’ plane fares, their taxes, and their apartments. It was a grand gesture on her part, but not necessarily a profitable one.
It was Grandma Sung who kept the myth of her family’s importance going strong, and Grandma Sung who kept the ghosts alive. She either adored people or thought that they were scheming against her. The force of Grandma Sung’s personality lives on in her descendants today. You glimpse it in Leona, when she reports that the neighbors leave threatening notes in her son’s mailbox, while the garbage man sifts through his rubbish, and when she insists to only trust a Chinese restaurant that carves your duck at the table, because most Chinese will try to serve you half a duck and charge you full price. You glimpse it in the reverence with which her grandchildren talk about her now. When Leona’s son Herbie speaks of the founding of their Yee-An restaurant, he sounds like he is reciting a creation myth. Grandma Sung went to Peking, China and for six months studied the ancient techniques with the greatest cooking masters. When I ask him about her recipe for sweet and sour sauce with maraschino cherries and sweet pickles, his visage becomes grave. “You understand,” he says, “that all the cooks would kill for this recipe. It is an old Peking secret.”

Nevertheless, everyone loved Grandma Sung. She was a flamboyant woman, blessed with a wonderful ability to poke fun at herself, even at her tall tales and her machinations. My Chin grandparents did not eat at Yee-An out of obligation, they did so to express their affection. Grandma Sung could make someone really guffaw.

Grandpa Sung – a quiet man — passed away in 2000 when a stroke overcame him at the front door, having just finished a large plate of sea cucumbers. “It’s the way he would’ve wanted to go, you know?” Ed sobbed to me at the time, “at least he’d just had a good dinner.” Grandma Sung passed away three years later. The last time I saw her was at Jay’s wedding; she was in a wheelchair, clutching my mother and her sisters and kissing their hands. Of course, the last time anyone saw Grandpa Sung was more recent, when he appeared at the bedroom window of Arsenal Drive.

The Arsenal Drive house, complete with the ghosts, now belongs to Auntie Leona’s son Herbie. When we pull in to the driveway I start to feel twinges even though I have not been here for over twenty years. There is the swing set on which I used to pump my legs. Back then, it was rusty and on the anorexic side; now the seats are missing, and it looks like a Giocometti that has languished on the ocean floor. I remember, too, the crumbling stone table and the bench. The driveway is cluttered with torn sofas from the 1970s. There is an old pickup truck. The atmosphere is eye-watering with dry grass. As I make my way to the house, a ginger haired cat curls itself around my legs. I wind my way through the back yard and see the swimming pool. What shatters me is the state of the house. It is buckled and peeling, colored in three different kinds of paint. This looks like the house in the neighborhood that your parents warned you to stay away from when you were a kid – the one with three broken trucks, a snarling dog on a chain, and a plastic Christmas statues that remained in the yard yearlong.

I am also unprepared for the parlor. Large boxes – of beer, Entemmanns donuts, and jarred tomatoes crowd the entryway, and there is a whiff of tobacco and cat food. At Auntie Leona’s one lingers in a perpetual twilight, but here, it is black. A blonde boy sits on the sofa, illuminated by the flicker of a video game. This room was where I spent the most time as a child – it was where I drank lemonade and cross-stitched daisies into an embroidery frame.
Leona’s son Herbie ushers us through the kitchen to the living room, and suddenly everything is bathed in fluorescent. We head back to the kitchen – always the center of Chinese family life – where there is a geriatric electric range, two cartons of donuts stacked next to the refrigerator, and cat food spilling onto the floor. Herbie is apologetic, scooting chairs, emptying ashtrays.

“See that?” he says, pointing to the ceiling that undulates and cracks. “Water damage. I hafta tear everything up and begin again.”

I look up and imagine that it is from the tears of the resident, angst-ridden phantoms. I cannot imagine that Grandpa Sung, the latest addition, is happy here with a suicidal Southern master, his slave lover, and their slain children. In the meantime, Auntie Leona has vanished. She is Herbie’s wife, whom I never meet throughout our visit’s duration. Herbie’s wife suffers from bouts of sobbing, sleeping, and weeks when she cannot bear for her – or anyone else in the family — to answer the phone. She has, incidentally, made the acquaintance of several of the house’s spooks, namely the three girls dressed in nineteenth century dress who like to play tag in the hall.
Herbie is only person keeping both his home and his household together. He contends with phantoms, renovations, angry neighbors, a depressed wife, and a silent, video-game playing son. The battle that he fights cannot be easy.

Jay has been bragging about Herbie throughout this trip. “Herbie knows so much about food,” he tells me. “Herbie graduated from the French Culinary Institute.” Together they are a strange pair. Jay is a sleek yuppie and stands about five foot seven. Herbie looms at over six foot tall, flushed skin sweating underneath unshaven skin and a teeshirt, the drawling product of Auntie Leona and her truck driver ex-husband.

Mention food, however, and both men come alight. Herbie goes into a fugue state when he talks about his days as sous at the Berkeley hotel, when they made grits cooked in scallop shell broth, and bite sized morsels of crab bisque enclosed in crisp cornbread cups. Richmond cooking is dead, he tells me. The problem with Richmond Chinese cooking, he tells me, is that the cooks drown everything in hoisin, the ubiquitous condiment that Herbie pronounces to rhyme with poison. Meanwhile, Jay bustles about slicing the dragonfruit that we have picked up from the Asian market Tan A.

I’ve never seen Jay this considerate with the family that we share. At Chin gatherings, Jay is the one arrives late (gym, work), the first to leave (gym and work again) and when he is actually present, he is either at the piano or dozing. At Herbie’s, he is wiping knives and cutting boards and punctuating his conversation with remarks with, “Aw, gee. Hey Mei, did you hear what Herbie said? Isn’t that great?”

Jay is also wary of my manners. When Herbie ruminates about the long-forgotten secrets of the Sung’s Peking sweet and sour pork, I interrupt, exasperated. “Herbie,” I blurt, “I don’t think there were maraschino cherries in the imperial Peking court.”
Jay blinks. “Sorry, she’s from New York. It’s the way she is.” There is no cruelty in his voice, only worry.

It’s true what they say about the South – time here is syrup slow. Casual house calls swallow entire afternoons. No wonder the Northerners don’t make ham – you can’t see Yankees spending three days to cook a ham, let alone the months that it takes to cure and smoke one. Maybe Bostonians like cod because it’s fast; down in the South, however, they bake their shad fish for a jaw-dropping three hours to let the bones dissolve.

Even the Chinese here are languid. At Arsenal Drive, the hours drone on until it is very late. Still Jay and Herbie are talking. My foot taps.
“Uh-oh,” Jay says, “my cousin is gonna kill me.”

Several times the two men say good-bye and cannot tear themselves apart. I feel terrible – the cold hearted Yankee for whom time, and not family, matters.
In the car, Jay looks agonized. “I dunno,” he says, “maybe it was all that deep fried orange beef.” Conflicted with guilt and ghosts at China Jade, Jay finished the entire plate. He inhales. “Also I didn’t want to leave Herbie, you know? I just feel so bad for the guy.”

I have known Jay all my life. He is diffident, deadpan, and hard to impress. The most emotion I have ever seen him express is over a piece of seabass en souvide.
Richmond changes him. It makes him punctual and well behaved. It also makes him snap at me for wearing jeans. New York Jay would have found it hilarious that his family’s restaurant Yee-An is now Family Dollar; Richmond Jay, on the other hand, is devastated.

Driving through the Hollywood cemetery in Richmond, he screeches to a halt. His eyes goggle, his complexion alters two shades. “Jesus,” he says, “did you see that? That person died on the exact day I was born. God, that’s so creepy.” Jay, who has never entertained a superstition in his life, is spooked.

I almost never met Jay because he almost died when he was born; he emerged three months premature on a Japanese army base. As a boy, he was serious, sensitive and a doting brother and cousin. He was also fiery. Intellect has always come easily to Jay, and if his temper was ignited, it was what he unleashed first – pummeling the person with razor wit and a general mental superiority. It is a trait he has since subdued.

Jay has always said he has a bad memory, but he lies. He is a CFO. He can play, by heart, a piano concerto that he hasn’t performed since he was thirteen. He has re-taught me differential equations and explained osmosis. He will take you through the nuances of every meal in his waking life. His bad memory, as I can tell, serves as an excuse from having to face what he would much rather not – namely his own kin.

So here I am, dragging Jay to the city that he despises, and making him confront the people that he has kept at an affectionate distance. Not only are there the Sungs, but there are also the Chins, who, thanks to cell phones, have been making themselves cozy and available. This is the family road trip that we have never had. Under these circumstances, it is astounding the way Jay’s memories return. He remembers the texture and color of the chairs at Yee-An, and the games he used to play underneath its white linen tables. He remembers the dilapidated supermarket next door (now turned a satellite betting center) and the parking lot out back where his older cousins would skateboard. Later, we stand on the driveway at the Chins’ second house on Avalon. Jay looks at his feet. “It used to be gravel,” he murmurs. “Now it’s paved.”

But what really kills Jay is how nice the people are. The new owner at Avalon drive welcomes us and lets us idle. Waitstaff and bartenders swing by for frank chats. At 2 AM, Jay, who is normally curt with strangers, is spotted outside a shack called Ribs, Rolls, and Cheesecake, licking smoky sauce off his fingers, and deep in conversation with a 72 year old African American photographer about life, love, art, and race, all while police sirens wail.

***

My family never knew Miz Ruth Jordan, but she looks after us because her best friend, Miz Shopland, is now deceased. Miz Jordan has features that are so refined that they are almost forbidding; she has a pale, smooth, cultured complexion, and is dressed in a pale coral shirt and loose fitting trousers. The moment we see her waving at us on the porch, we feel guilty to have kept this splendid lady waiting. Then Miz Jordan shakes our hands, and keeps mine nestled in hers as she leads me up the stairs. Miz Jordan’s napkins say No Salt, No Fat, No Fun. Never married, she’s been working with disabled patients most of her life, and now she zips across the United States in her car. She pats Jay’s torso. “You take care of yourself, y’hear? Get that fixed.” She hugs us.
Later, Jay comments, “I want to be like her when I grow up.”

Grandma Chin’s best Richmond friend, Miz Jenkins, no longer lives on Grace Street, but in the suburb Milosian. Like Miz Jordan, she awaits us on her porch, but dismisses with the formality of a handshake by throwing her arms around our necks. Jay is doing more hugging in this town he has done in a lifetime. To be frank, he is not exactly an expert. Usually, he attempts a stiff one-armed pat, but with Miz Jenkins, he melts. She takes us both by the hand, and squeezes us at intervals as she bustles about the kitchen making “a little snack.” Miz Jenkins is tiny and sinewy with a penchant for cars. She owns a red convertible and despite the fact that she looks graceful now in a white silk blouse printed with black orchids, there is nothing that makes her happier than fixing the shocks of a pickup truck with her son-in-law. Her idea of fun is a two hundred mile bike ride. Her idea of a little snack, is a two foot platter loaded with ham and biscuits, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes mashed with cinnamon, red potato salad made with Duke’s – the non-sweet mayonnaise of the South, and a bottle of Riesling. Like a Chinese relative, she makes us feel obliged to finish everything. The ham biscuits live up to their promise, especially considering that since we have been here, we have country ham three times a day and consider ourselves connoisseurs; the buttermilk biscuits are butter based and crumble rather than flake. Jay and I eat six apiece.

At the beginning of this summer, Miz Jenkins’s son-in-law died of a heart attack in the shower. They used to tinker with cars together and every night, he would drop by for coffee. As she sips her wine, she tells me about the time that he bought a special bottle for the two of them to share. “Blue wine,” she says he called it. “He poured me about two ounces, and he was worried whether I was okay. Shoot, who did he think I was.” She laughs, “If I’d ‘a known he was gonna die, I would’ve finished the whole thing.”

Our snack takes up the afternoon and I do not care. Jay stretches himself out on Miz Jenkins leather La-Z-Boy and falls asleep. Much later, as we all drive into Richmond, Miz Jenkins leans forward in the back seat (she will not take the front) chastising us with her characteristic chuckle. At the end of the evening, we find ourselves at the Richmond dining landmark Tobacco Factory. I look up to see this sparrow-sized woman guiding Jay down a tall staircase with one arm supporting his crooked waist, the other firmly under his elbow. Jay is grinning.

Jay’s loves include eating, work, exercise. He can play the piano for twelve hours at a time. Another one of Jay’s hobbies has been hyperbole, for he collects it as other people do butterflies and stamps. He combs for it in newspapers, novels, movies, and political speeches, and he will call me with the overwrought statement of the week. “The first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race,” he’ll quote. “How can this not make you want to read 100 Years of Solitude? How could it not?” Hyperbole bemuses, appalls, and bewitches him; and it is only in Richmond, larger than life city, that I realize why. His family, its history, and hence, the roots from which Jay himself has sprung — are the stuff of hyperbole itself.

When I was a little girl, Jay made scavenger hunts for me and his sister. He would hide often-rhyming clues in books, pizza parlors, and beneath the peel of a fresh banana. The prize in the end would be full of sugar — homemade cookies, gummy peaches, ice cream. Years later, I find myself on another hunt – with Jay functioning as both organizer and player. Doggedly, he tracks every shop, every restaurant, and every street corner for a sign of his heritage. It is a challenge he pursues though he knows that the reward at the end might not be so sweet. Yee-An is now Family Dollar. 3111 West Grace is now the residence of a fierce woman and her foster family. Arsenal Drive is in disrepair. But Avalon Drive looks the same, and even its furniture is organized the way we remember it – a cabinet piano in the corner, a chair by the front window, and a long sofa lining the wall of the downstairs sitting room. Outside of Miz Jordan’s, we run into Miz Shopland’s nephew walking Miz Shopland’s last surviving terrier. Grandma Chin’s Oriental Village is now the café Betsy 22 and we pick up a peanut butter cookie, which is actually two warm peanut butter cookies sandwiched between an oozing, peanut butter middle. Peanut butter was Grandma Chin’s private passion.

No stop on this hunt has been more fulfilling than Miz Jenkins house. Not only was she my grandmother’s best friend, it seems that she was also her best customer. She has kept every mother-of-pearl screen, teapot, teacup and rice bowl. There is even the ice bucket imprinted with the DOW index that was Grandma Chin’s gift. She shows us the first Christmas card that the Chins ever sent when they were Richmond. We look at our mothers and aunts crowded around a chubby cheeked Yo, whom Miz Jenkins still refers to as “that lil’ squirt who loved rocks.” (Yo is now six feet tall and is a professor of Geology.)

It is half past eleven at night when we drop Miz Jenkins off at her house; we escort her inside, and then she walks us back out to our car – our arms still lingeringly entwined. The last stop that Jay needs to make is Inter-China, the old Sung family hangout, site of flaming cocktails and ducks carved tableside, and, at least Auntie Leona’s mind, Grandma Sung’s murderer.
Inter-China is five minutes from Miz Jenkins. The first time I suggested going, Jay laughed at me. Now all he wants is a mai-tai and a plate of eggrolls.

“You know, I also didn’t want to leave Miz Jenkins,” Jay remarks, echoing what he said after we left Herbie the night before.

“Because you felt sorry for her?” I ask him.

“No,” he sighs, “because I just didn’t want to go.”

We can only find a darkened Barnes and Noble at the address, and when we telephone, a Chinese-accented recording apologizes. We circle this strip of malls and shops and keep dialing. Various signs — for Curves, Home Depot, and Applebees – beckon with their flicker of yellow, white, and pink and go dark.

Chinese Irish Stew

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photo by Jane Wong

In New England’s November, when the windows are ice-cold in the mornings and the grass shimmers with frost, my mother starts to make her stew. This is a Dongbei dish, pork ribs, potatoes and green beans braised with soy, ginger, and star anise, the potatoes cooked until they are soft and the green beans until their surfaces wrinkle. The final touches are mung bean vermicelli, or fen si and a lavish glug of sesame oil.

In an earlier post about a news agent that serves Dongbei food, I mentioned lu rou, or Dongbei stewed meat, and how I simply don’t have the time to make it. Instead, I make this stew, which has similar flavours but more conveniently serves two or three people. Like lu rou and other stews, the flavour improves over time. Like lu rou, but unlike other stews, the vegetables become more delicious as the meat loses its savour. Every day, top this stew up with more green beans, potatoes, fen si and broth; the vegetables from the day before darken, soften, and provide a contrast. At the end you are eating vegetables in gravy and it is delicious. Fensi is optional – some people find the texture questionable – but for anyone with Dongbei blood, the fen si, which has turned tawny in its bath, is the best part.

At the backbone of the dish is star anise, or ba jiao, the prickly star shaped spice that is the unripe fruit of the Illirium verum tree. (Licorice, aniseed, fennel, and star anise are rich in anethole molecules, which is why these very these biologically unrelated roots, barks, bulbs, and seeds are virtually identical in flavor.)

For meat, pork ribs are customary, but I also like the richness of pork belly. If using ribs, see if your butcher will cut them in the “Chinese” way. (Instead of separating the ribs lengthwise, have him horizontally cut through a rack of ribs so that they are strips of ribs about two inches wide. However, normal style ribs will do.) For the pork belly, have the butcher remove the skin but leave the fat intact. I tend to find this braise makes the skin chewy, so I score it and make a separate crackling.

Smash the ginger slices, tear the scallions in half with your hands and crush them between your palms. Start all aromatics in cold oil (including star anise and my Americanised family’s additions of Sichuan peppercorn, bay leaves and rosemary) and as the oil comes up to temperature, the flavours will infuse. Brown your meat well. Stock, soy sauce, a spoonful of sugar, and a splash of Jerez sherry, which my family quite reasonably prefers to Chinese rice wine, go into the pot. When the meat is soft add your potatoes and beans, let it go until they are tender. Finish with a grind of pepper and dollop of sesame oil. No one ingredient better assuages my homesickness than sesame oil. And by sesame oil, I don’t mean the pale-hued organic stuff, but the heady, caramel colored “pure” ma you, and once you stir it into the stew, a nutty aroma will penetrate the room.


It’s an economical dish, and no fancy knife work is required. As you can probably tell, it isn’t exactly Michelin star fare. In China, Dongbei cuisine isn’t on the list of the eight influential Chinese cuisines, which include Sichuan, Canton, and Hunan. Many Chinese consider Dongbei people rustic and maybe a little backward. Even Dongbei words for things are bumpkin; “bao gu” for corn instead of “er mi;” “tu dou” (or dirt bean) for potato instead of the more elegant “di gua” (earth squash). The cold weather means a paucity of vegetables and a lot of turnips, cabbage and also potatoes, which were introduced by the Russians in the 19th century. In the rest of China, rice is the starch of choice, but in Dongbei, rice is expensive, and so they rely on corn, wheat, and potatoes. Dongbei people also love physical combat and drinking. Irish readers, punch yourselves if this sounds familiar.

My mother’s Dongbei stew has no name. I saw a photograph of something similar, which I traced to the Golden Palace restaurant in Flushing, Queens, and was uninspiringly named “stewed assorted vegetables w. braised pork.” A recipe for a Dongbei “luan dun” which literally translates into “messy stew,” calls for pork, star anise, and green beans, but also everything else in the vegetable crisper, baby corn, carrots, cabbage, snow peas.

My brother and I refer to it as that spare rib, green bean, potato and fen si thing.

My Irish boyfriend calls it Chinese Irish Stew.

***

Chinese Irish Stew (Serves 4)

3 ¼ inch slices of ginger, smashed with the blunt end of a knife
2 cloves garlic, smashed
5 scallions, twisted in half and bruised
4 star anise, broken into pieces
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, 2 bay leaves, one branch of rosemary, bruised. (optional)

Salt
1/3 cup vegetable oil like rapeseed
white pepper

¼ cup soy sauce
1/3 cup sherry
3 cups unsalted chicken stock (or can substitute water)
3 tbsp brown sugar

1 kilo pork ribs or pork belly, skin removed but fat intact, cut into two inch
pieces and skin scored and set aside. (See above.)
8 new potatoes, scrubbed, or 3 potatoes peeled and cut into thirds and then halved.
300 g. green beans, tops and tails chopped off.
100 g. fen si or mung bean vermicelli, preferably Long Kou (optional), rehydrated in boiling water for one minute and drained. ** see note.

fresh black pepper
Sesame oil to taste (3 tbsp)

** Long Kou fen si, or mung bean or cellophane vermicelli are the most reliable noodles on the market. They either come in a large packet, in which case you have to pull half the packet apart, OR they come in one packet of small bundles, in which case you need exactly two. Everyone tells you to let cellophane noodles to soak in water for a long time, but this will make them mushy. For me, if I am to cook them, I soak them for a minute, or pour boiling water over them while they sit in the strainer. You just want to soften them.

1. In a pan with a tight fitting lid or a Dutch oven, place 1/3 cup vegetable oil, place ginger, scallion, star anise, garlic, and other spices.
2. Bring the heat to medium, add a pinch of salt, and wait for the oil to begin to simmer and the spices to begin to smell aromatic(5 minutes).
3. Increase heat to medium high, add meat, and season generously with salt and white pepper. Brown the meat well on both sides. (10 minutes.)
4. Add stock, sherry, brown sugar, soy sauce, and increase the heat to high until everything is bubbling. Then reduce the heat to medium low and cover, and simmer for two hours, until the meat is soft when prodded with a fork.
5. Add potatoes and green beans, stir, and cover, and continue to simmer for 30 minutes. The potatoes should be tender to the fork. If they are not, continue to simmer.
6. (Optional) Add the drained fen si (mung bean vermicelli), stir and cover and simmer for fifteen minutes.
7. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add a lot of cracked pepper and a healthy glug of sesame oil.
8. Serve with rice and freshly chopped scallions if desired.

Home For The Winter

There is a newsagent on Westmoreland Street’s most humdrum stretch, wedged next to a scrubby casino, an O’Brien’s and a Boyle Sports bookies. It is called TEMPLE EXPRESS NEWSAGENTS. Inside it is the size of my living room. Walk past the cigarettes and crisps that date to the time of death of Princess Di, the one person purchasing tickets for the Cork bus. In Dublin, I dislike Westmoreland Street because when I first moved here, it was the strip I was most often almost run over. However, when I walked in this place on a blustery autumn afternoon, my heart gave an exhilarated squeeze.

Continue reading “Home For The Winter”