Remember China, Nan Chung

My older brother, Douglas, was born in San Francisco just after the Communists took control of China. My grandfather, Gunggung, who lived in Shanghai, gave Douglas his Chinese name, Nan Chung, which means “Remember China.” Grandfather was intent that this first grandchild, born in a foreign land, would never forget his family in China, and always reflect on his family’s long history and tradition. Indeed, none of his grandchildren would be born in China. Growing up in America, Douglas and I behaved more like American children than Chinese. Our taste, our interests, our goals were all American. It is only now, after nearly fifty years, that I have begun to heed Gunggung’s instruction to “Remember China.”

Nothing can more powerfully transport me across time and geography to the intimacy of my childhood home than the taste or small of Cantonese home cooking. I naively set about writing my family’s recipes with the thought that this project would be solely about cooking. But with each question about a recipe came a memory from my parents and, with each memory, I was led into a world I hadn’t realized belonged to me. I listened to Mama reminisce about the weeks of preparation at her grandmother’s kitchen in Hong Kong before the New Year’s feast, about the servants hand-grinding rice to make flour for all the special cakes. My relatives also discovered photographs they had forgotten existed. One was a fragile sepia portrait of my great-grandmother, her feet bound. I studied the image trying to grasp my blood relationship to this woman, separated by only three generations. Another elegant studio portrait shows Baba’s family in Canton, in 1934. In it I see the young faces of my father, my uncles, my aunts. Who were these innocent souls before they carved their life paths? Few photographs survived that other life, making its reality ever more ephemeral. This glimpse into my own history was but one of the treasures uncovered in the process of collecting my family’s recipes.

A remarkable chapter opened in my relationship with my parents when I began recording our family’s culinary heritage. Despite their unfathomable reticence to talk about themselves, eventually, as I persisted in my questions, they slowly responded to my desire to learn. “Show me how you choose bok choy, how you prefer to stir-fry. Describe for me how it was in Shanghai and Canton when you were little. Did the water chestnuts taste like this or were they sweeter, the lotus root smaller, the tea more fragrant?” My parents, each in his or her own way, came to enjoy teaching me. Baba, whose routine is to monitor the stock market while drifting in and out of catnaps, suddenly had a list of cooking lessons. Mama, ever the matriarch, was only too happy to instruct me on her highly specific principles for produce shopping, or to confer with my aunties on recipes I requested. I, in turn, was grateful for this new relationship. We talked not only about cooking but also of their recollections of life in China and in San Francisco’s Chinatown at mid-century. Flattered by my interest, they stretched their memories to unearth stories and reclaim their forgotten past. Baba mentions to me one day that he had owned a restaurant in Chinatown in the 1940s called the Grant Cafe, on the corner of Bush and Grant Avenues, which served Chinese and American food. But when I ask for details, it is difficult to get him to elaborate. His reluctance to talk about what he considers private tempers how much I learn about his past.

On one visit Auntie Margaret and Auntie Elaine describe the thrill of being driven by my Yee Gu Ma (second-eldest aunt) in her Packard in 1937, when Grant Avenue was a two-way street. Few Chinese women drove in those days, but my uncle, George Jew, was a “modern man” who wanted my aunt to drive. Baba wonders aloud about whether it was a Buick or a Packard, but I am lost in thought imagining my petite aunt wielding a big car down Grant Avenue, on her way to Market Street with her younger sisters and brother.

The San Francisco Chinatown of my youth is barely evident in the Chinatown of today. In the 1960s it was a charming, intimate community inhabited by legions of old-timers, known as lo wah kue, and locals. On any given day I would see Uncle Kai Bock sitting on a stoop on Washington Street; run into Auntie Margaret at her restaurant, Sun Ya, or stop to see Auntie Anna or Uncle Roy at Wing Sing Chong market. My Auntie Anna knew everyone who came into her store, and I was convinced she was Chinatown’s honorary mayor. To this day you can barely walk two steps with Auntie Anna without someone greeting her. Every Friday night nay family went out to eat. Whichever restaurant it was, Sai Yuen, Far East Cafe, or Sun Hung Heung, Baba would stroll into the kitchen to order our food. This was no small feat. Restaurant kitchens were off-limits to everyone but staff, but Baba sold liquor to all the Chinese restaurants, and often the owner was the chef. Rejoining us, he would tell us which dishes were the freshest and best to eat that day. I still believe he must have observed many professional cooking secrets during these visits, and I can’t recall ever eating in a restaurant where Baba didn’t know the chef or owner. Baba seemed to know everyone.

In those days, Chinatown was the safest neighborhood in all of San Francisco. My cousins Cindy and Kim stayed with their grandparents in Chinatown on weekends and Gunggung would take them for a late-night snack, siu ye, of won ton noodles, chow mein, or rice porridge, jook, at two or three in the morning. Their paternal great-grandfather, Jew Chong Quai, was one of the wealthiest merchants in Chinatown in the early 1920s. San Francisco had a thriving bay shrimp industry for more than eighty years, and he had a shrimp cannery in Hunter’s Point in addition to being an importer and exporter of bean sauce (fu yu).

I have warm memories of standing on Grant Avenue for the Chinese New Year’s parade and watching for my glamorous Auntie Katheryn on the Pan Am float and my cousin Carol who led the St. Mary’s drum corp. Today, Chinatown is still the vital center of the Chinese community, but the purity of its Cantonese soul is lost amidst the Wax Museum, McDonald’s, Arab merchants hawking cameras on Grant Avenue, and the mixture of non-Cantonese Asian immigrants who have since moved in. Still, a few sights remind me of the Chinatown of old: the Bank of America on Grant Avenue with its classical Chinese architecture, the creation of my Uncle Stephen, an architect, as is the Imperial Palace Restaurant on Grant Avenue and the Cumberland Church on Jackson Street; my Uncle Larry’s medical practice on Clay Street, one of the oldest original practices remaining; and, until recently, my Uncle William and Aunt Lil’s family’s restaurant, Sun Hung Heung, the oldest Chinese restaurant owned by one family, in operation since 1919. Another remaining point of pride is the Kong Chow Benevolent Association and Temple on Stockton Street, which my Uncle Donald was instrumental in building. This association serves the overseas Cantonese from two counties in China: Sunwui (where Baba’s family was born) and Hokshan (where Mama’s family was born).

When I think of the delicious food of my childhood beyond my own family’s influences, I think of my beloved Uncle Tommy. He was an artist and a natural cook who had a special gift in the kitchen. His early death left an enormous void in the family. As a child, I enjoyed many a meal at Uncle Tommy and Auntie Bertha’s home. I well remember the intoxicating aromas that would come from their kitchen, and tire taste of the food Uncle Tommy cooked.

It was out of this world. I have asked my cousins Sylvia, Kathy, and David for their father’s recipes but, sadly, neither Auntie Bertha nor my cousins ever recorded them. Alas, they are but a sweet memory for all of us. We partook of his specialties without ever thinking there would come a time when we couldn’t taste the pleasure of his cooking and company. A great cook’s recipes are as unique as fingerprints.

My brother and I did not grow up sitting on our grandparents’ laps, hearing tales of their youth. And it was not my parents’ custom to speak much about their life in China. They came to America for economic and political reasons, to seek a better future. I once asked Mama a simple question about her parents, and was surprised that she couldn’t answer me. “In China, we only knew what our parents told us. We never asked personal questions out of respect for our elders.” Occasionally, my parents would share a story but, for the most part, they rarely divulged their remembrances. Perhaps, too, Mama and Baba weren’t ready to speak of their former life and we were too young to care, or to know what to ask.

The year 1999 marks the 150th anniversary of the Gold Rush and the first major immigration of the Chinese people to America. Despite a century and a half of transplantation, Chinese cuisine remains alive and virtually unchanged — testimony to the strengh of its traditions. The recipes my parents prepare today are not dramatically different from those of their parents and grandparents in China. Yet the Chinese of my generation stand at a crossroads: We maintain the desire to preserve our culinary heritage yet, like most Americans, have precious little time for cooking and honoring the old ways. We risk the loss of our great cooking rituals and along with them their spiritual enrichment. I have yet to find the web site for wisdom.

The time I have spent cooking with my parents, listening to their stories, and receiving their wisdom has allowed me to claim something of my cultural identity and heritage. To master Chinese cooking requires a lifetime of study, and I offer this book as an example of one family’s culinary devotion. A knowledge of cooking passed from generation to generation offers a gift to the soul, one that appeals to all of the senses and affirms our deepest connection to life.

Taken from Grace Young’s book “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen” with permission. © Grace Young. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. ISBN 0-684-84739-6.