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Comfort me with chopsticks
Words by Brian Ng; Illustration by Natasha Phang-Lee
Happy Year of the Ox! For today’s Lunar Year Special, the Friday slot has been opened up for non-paid subscribers to read Brian Ng’s newsletter on the complicated politics of belonging experienced at Chinese restaurants.
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While waiting in the queue one evening at Tiwa n Tiwa, a buka-style operation that grins across the carpark at the gigantic Peckham Lidl, I witnessed a friend of mine receive a lesson in how to behave at diaspora restaurants. Excited by the prospect of his first taste of suya, he started taking pictures of the thin sheets of meat, marinating in yaji in their buckets, to use later on Instagram. Unused to this despicably bourgeois behavior, and suspecting he was a health inspector in disguise, the owners (rightly) started shouting at him while I slunk off to laugh outside.
After some explanations and apologies, everything was ironed out, but for some people this incident might have convinced them to never come back, or never go to any restaurant that hasn’t already been Insta-vetted. Suddenly, my friend was made very aware that he was an outsider, in his own city no less. That’s not always a comfortable feeling; it’s the type of feeling that prompts restaurant critics to talk about the ‘bravery’ needed to go into a stall in Brixton market; the type of feeling that makes lifelong Londoners up sticks and move to Essex. I’ve often wondered why diaspora restaurants are so feebly written about in the UK, with its love of exploring and colonising, and I believe it’s this: it’s easy to be gung-ho abroad and not worry about the consequences, it’s another thing to feel like you don’t belong where you lay your hat.
Restaurants are unique battlegrounds where imperceptible tussles over belonging take place every day. They are not closed off to outsiders, like barbershops or the Cypriot working men’s clubs in North London where elderly men play cards all day, but neither are they completely public. When I walk into Thattukada in East Ham, there will be a brief moment where the waiter will weigh up the likelihood that I speak Malayalam, before speaking to me in English; I on the other hand, will make a point of eating with my hands like my mum would, to prove I at least partially belong. But my experience will never be the same as a Malayali, nor will I ever experience Chinese restaurants in the same way that Brian Ng describes in today’s newsletter, no matter how much I frequent them.
This is what I really love about restaurants. While we all strive for the insider experience, the discomfort of the outsider is a feeling that should be leaned into and embraced; it’s a reminder that the city is never your playground to own, that ultimately, we are all guests.
Comfort me with chopsticks, by Brian Ng
Lunar New Year is not a big deal in Lower Hutt, New Zealand – the city I grew up in. If Wellington is akin to New York, the Hutt, as we locals call it (even though there’s an Upper Hutt), is like New Jersey: more suburban and less cool, but with its own separate identity. We don’t have the flashiness of Wellington’s customary day of New Year events in the TSB Arena, and certainly nothing like the lantern festival in Auckland, where there are many more Chinese immigrants, and plenty of international students. Down in the Hutt, most Chinese immigrants are working-class professionals, people who left Hong Kong around the Chinese takeover in 1997; others are the second- or third-generation descendants of gold miners who ran market gardens due to racist legislation (some still work the farms).
My family weren’t all that immersed in the Chinese community in the Hutt, mainly because of my dad’s job in the civil service, which meant distance was better. My parents were never strictly traditionally Chinese: we didn’t have a family shrine, and we would frequently nearly forget festivals. The New Year mainly consisted of my saying the blessings and getting red envelopes, with a few calls to our relatives in Hong Kong later on. But as the Chinese immigrant populations of the Hutt and Wellington are not that large, our paths inevitably crossed one another’s at weekend Chinese schools, music classes, or badminton clubs. There is also a large church-going contingent who customarily go for yum cha after their services on Sundays.
There is no Chinatown in the Hutt, nor Wellington; their Chinese restaurants look the same as those found in the outer reaches of metropolises of London, Los Angeles or New York, or those in the motherland itself. These restaurants have an interior best described as gaudy – there is always some kind of calligraphic artwork that stretches the length of the room, and some gold prayer for fortune, embossed on red paper and stuck behind the till.
My family traditionally went to Good World, a yum cha restaurant decked out with white floor tiles and tablecloths, with blue circle-back chairs featuring golden polyester coverings; its popularity mainly attributable to the eleven parking spaces out back. We had to book a table for yum cha if we wanted to go on a Sunday, as the church groups would otherwise fill the restaurant.
But it would not be unusual to see those large circular tables empty without warning: the church members were easily angered, sometimes leaving because they felt slighted by not being greeted by Linda, the proprietor; they may have left, too, simply because a competitor had started their own yumcha service. In a few months, the fickle church groups would return. My non-religious family would, surprised, say hello to the one or two people we were actually friends with, and then say hi to all the others we’d been introduced to in the past, for Chinese aunties’ pettiness knows no bounds.
Outsiders to Chinese community politics would not have noticed that Good World almost saw its end several times due to the church groups’ notorious vagaries. Linda would have been considered haughty by the general Chinese Hutt population, who were always quick to take offence. I seem to recall a time when Linda had snubbed enough influential church members to make them switch, but my mum can’t corroborate it – my memory may have created it. She did say the churches completely swore off Good World after Linda refused to refund a plate of food that had gone off. Mum added that our family will never eat there again because she was charged for dishes that replaced those she and her friend deemed sub-par. While Good World was once the Chinese town square, now its tables are occupied by non-Asians; the Chinese community congregate elsewhere.
I left the Hutt at eighteen, to go to university in the big smoke of Auckland, where I stayed for another six years before coming over to London; I haven’t been back for two years. I left because Lower Hutt is one of those places considered a ‘sleepy little town’, even though it is the country’s seventh-largest city. During my time in London, I’ve made an effort not to find ‘belonging’ by going to Bogan Bingo and the few Kiwi cafes that dot the city. Why go halfway across the world to be around the same?
While I’ve avoided New Zealander customs, I’ve maintained one from my Chinese heritage: yum cha. It’s more a compulsion than it is a choice, it being the ritual used by family, and family friends, as a vehicle to meet up when I go to a new country – the experience of grazing on dim sum and drinking through six pots of tea is integral to our socialising. The invitation is not to ‘go for yum cha’, as you would be invited ‘out for lunch’; rather, the two words: ‘yum’ – to drink, and ‘cha’ – tea, are used in their literal sense: ‘Come drink some tea with your auntie’, they say, referring to themselves in the third person, in both Cantonese and English.
These meetings with aunties and uncles run as though scripted. I will only speak Cantonese to them, but I will speak English to their children – even if they understand Cantonese. Go figure. The aunties and uncles always remark on how surprisingly good my Cantonese is – I learned it from my parents, and it’s technically my first language as I only started speaking English when I was three. They then usually ask me if I have a tea request. I always order teet goon yum (tieguanyin) in Cantonese, and I mention that, like other oolongs, it is widely drunk in Chaozhou, my ‘home village’ – the city where my father’s family, and thus where I too, descend from. Following that is always an elaborate pas de deux of my hosts ordering what they think is too much food and encouraging my eating, and my keeping up a pretence that I’ve eaten enough and that I could not possibly fit any more in.
The conversations never extend much past small talk, but these meals serve as a way to show that someone in your new place of residence cares about you. At the end of the meal, my hosts will make me let them pay for it all, my parents having already briefed me on this happening. Ideally, they will send a message to my parents about how well it went, and my parents will text me later on, relaying the compliments. The first time this happened, it was a sign I’d grown up: I had passed the test of conversing with my elders without the social lubricant of my parents.
For those of us who can speak more than one language, comfort can come from employing that second tongue; we gain access to part of a community where the ticket for entry is one we always hold. Back when Hung’s in London’s Chinatown was still open, I would begin all interactions with Cantonese: I established I was one of them, and they never asked where I was from. I didn’t look at the menu; I always ordered roast duck with ho fun in soup noodles in its express four-syllable Chinese name – 烧鸭汤河 – which is technically an off-menu, or at least substituted, dish. The interactions, again, ran as if scripted – I was the default there, identified by the badge of language: in short, I passed.
If you are part of the Chinese diaspora, when you sit down in a Chinese restaurant abroad, a politics of language and of race takes place, never noticed by non-Chinese diners. I am served well by the fact my accents in both Cantonese and Mandarin are identified as Hong Konger – the snobbiest of all the Asians. Language is the gatekeeper for success: my ability to speak Cantonese means that I get the locals’ treatment at Chinese restaurants around the world, whether that be a cha chaan teng in London, or a Mott Street restaurant in New York.
Yet, on the rare occasions I go to Chinese restaurants with non-Chinese friends my own age, the experience is decidedly different. One night, after going dancing in Soho, my friend and I went to Old Town 97 for a late-night nosh (it was the only place still open past 3am). Old Town 97 is one of those restaurants that exists anywhere with a large Chinese student population, who come for 宵夜 (xiāoyè in Mandarin, or siu yeh in Cantonese): a final meal before sleep, common in Chinese cities that churn through all twenty-four hours of the day.
When I go to a Chinese restaurant with a white friend, the way I am perceived is instantly altered; I am bringing an outsider in. It occasionally results in jasmine tea being brought over without asking. Even though I spoke Cantonese to the Old Town 97 staff that night, I was given a fork by a runner the whole time; I had to call someone else over to replace the offensive utensil with chopsticks.
I order in Chinese (whether that be Cantonese or Mandarin), but inevitably, the server and I will have to resort to English for my friend. My cloak of belonging cannot be fully donned; I am now also one of the non-Chinese ‘others’. My table feels severed from the tables consisting solely of yellow faces; I am merely a temporary sightseer.
At this time of year, families would usually have been gathering for Lunar New Year. They may have been at the richest, or oldest, person’s house (i.e. the one with the largest table), or, for those who were loath to cook, at a Chinese restaurant. This year, many families will not be together; no one will be sitting at those large circular tables in the restaurants. I will be spending Chinese New Year with the couple – my parents’ friends – who put me up when I first arrived in London, and who have basically adopted me as their own. This will be the last time I see them for months (at least), as I am days away from leaving London for Dublin.
For me, New Year is a drive-by stop on the journey of being Chinese in this world. I will call my parents and say the blessings that I’ve hurriedly looked up on my phone minutes beforehand. I will text ‘新年快樂’ to the handful of Chinese friends I have. As I’ve only ever lived in countries where English is the main language, these few minutes of obligatory well-wishing will feel like I’m performing ‘being Chinese’, but, during this time, I am inhabiting my Chinese self too.
The reason Chinese immigrants go to Chinese restaurants – why any immigrant goes to any restaurant they associate with ‘home’ – is because they are not slipping on their Chinese or ‘home’ nationality’s skin; instead, they get to live as their actual beings. In these spaces, there is no need to contort ourselves into whatever those who are the norm in our adopted countries want us to be. This is where one goes to speak in one’s mother tongue, to eat what cannot be procured elsewhere; to disappear in a crowd in which everyone looks like them. It is where one goes to discuss children’s achievements and older generations’ health ailments, to gossip about other Chinese families; for international students to relax back into their original tongue in between looking at their phones, or simply to eat something properly charred in a wok. This is as true in Lower Hutt as it is in London, New York, or in Hong Kong. For Chinese immigrants, Chinese restaurants are the congregation centres – their lazy Susans our hearths.
Yet there is a more selfish reason I go to Chinese restaurants. I go to take a breather from living in a white world. I have used my Chinese-speaking skills to veil myself, to sequester myself away from those who would be considered the majority outside the restaurant’s doors. When I order in Chinese, I am staking my claim not just that I am one of them, but also that I am not one of the others. I give the pretence that I belong, even if I am an imposter in their midst: besides not being from that country, I have also never lived in Asia – but they don’t need to know any of this. I am protected by my physical appearance and my dedication to living in a Cantonese (and occasionally Mandarin) world.
Our being immigrants is the premise at Chinese restaurants: by virtue of our skins – for the time being – we cannot claim full ownership to our adopted homes. We find these temporary replacements and reminders at restaurants where, not only do we eat food that brings back memories of our childhoods and origins, but where we go, too, to exist in a place where our belonging is not questioned. Going to Chinese restaurants is our way of normalising our existence. The food may not quite be the same as ‘home’, but it is close enough to the original to pass.
Brian Ng is a writer, originally from New Zealand, currently living in London. You can find him on Twitter at @aspiringboy
The illustration is by Natasha Phang-Lee. You can find more of her work over at https://www.natashaphangleeillustration.com.