"The Search for General Tso" Explores the Chinese-American Food Diaspora
Showing at the Camden International Film Festival
Thursday, September 25, 2014 7:14 AM
"Wherever you go, where there is sunshine on the land, there is a Chinese restaurant," says one restaurateur in "The Search for General Tso," a new documentary screening at the Camden International Film Festival this Saturday.
“The Search for General Tso” will be screening this Saturday, September 27, at 4 p.m. at the Strand Theatre in Rockland. The film showing will be followed by a Q&A with director Ian Cheney.
As author Jennifer Lee writes, there are 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the US, which is more than the number of McDonald's, Burger Kings, and KFCs combined.
But although most Chinese restaurants are independently owned and operated, somehow their menus feature the same staple items - lo mein, sweet and sour pork, egg foo yong, won ton soup, and of course, General Tso's chicken. The deep-fried, cubed, dark-meat chicken with the sweet and spicy, garlicky sauce can be found in pretty much every little Chinese take-out from here to California. Yet up until recently, it didn't even exist in China.
Director Ian Cheney, who has a family home in Waldoboro, says it was after stopping at a Chinese restaurant in Ohio while shooting his award-winning documentary "King Corn" that he came up with the idea for a film to trace the origins of American-Chinese cuisine.
"There was something about this tiny little outpost in the middle of America serving this strange red chicken dish that made us think, 'That would be a more interesting movie than a movie about corn,'" said Cheney in a recent phone interview. "Who was General Tso and why are we all eating his chicken everywhere in America?"
The idea simmered for a few years, but it wasn't until Jennifer Lee released her 2008 book "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles" that Cheney and Lee decided to collaborate on a film building on Lee's research. In the film, Cheney explores America's historically complicated relationship with Chinese-American food by driving across the country and visiting restaurants in little towns along the way.
"The thing that hooked me into the project in the first place was the social diaspora," said Cheney. "How is it in so many small towns around the country that you have a family or a group of families running a Chinese restaurant? How did that happen and what does that tell us about how America works and immigration works?"
Through interviews with historians, authors and academics, Cheney traces the American Chinese food phenomenon back to 19th-century California, when the state passed a series of laws restricting Chinese employment following a flood of immigration from China in the late 1840s. The wave of anti-Chinese sentiment culminated in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese from citizenship and severely clamped down on Chinese immigration.
"The Exclusion Act basically forced them out of labor and so they have to be self-employed," noted author Peter Kwong in the film. "This is where two very important professions came into being. One is providing laundry. One is providing food."
However, as Bonnie Tsui, author of "American Chinatown," explained, most white Americans saw Chinese food as scary.
"They had ideas about Chinese people eating rats and things like that, so you were really risking something when you went into China Town," said Tsui in the film. "The white authorities saw it as a quarter of vice and slums and prostitution and opium dens."As the Chinese, who were mostly men, spread out over the United States starting restaurants, they discovered that they could fuse the familiar with the unfamiliar to give Americans a taste of their native cuisine, but adapted to local palates. In the early 1900s, chop suey - a stir-fried dish of meat, bean sprouts, celery and other assorted vegetables - became a smash hit.
"This awareness of having to make yourself acceptable to a wider world was very much on the minds of Chinese restaurants even then," said Tsui. "At that early time they had experienced outrageous racism and to deal with it, they got pretty savvy. All kinds of dishes sprang up that would appeal to white audiences."
But as Cheney notes in the film, Americans' taste for Chinese food has often ebbed and flowed with the political mood of the country. From the American-Chinese alliance in World War II to the rise of Mao Tse Dong, and finally the lifting of the "Bamboo Curtain" symbolized in President Nixon's famous banquet with the Communist dictator, Americans have often found themselves conflicted between their xenophobic tendencies and their love of good food.
In China, General Tso, or Tso Tsung-t'ang, is more known as being the distinguished 19th-century commander who helped put down the Taiping Peasant Rebellion than for chicken. As Jennifer Lee points out, Tso was very much concerned with preserving Chinese culture and Chinese traditions, yet ironically the chicken dish that is named after him has evolved into anything but authentic Chinese.
"If you told General Tso that this dish was named after him, I think he'd raise his eye brows," said Lee.
And for the originator of General Tso's chicken, a Taiwanese chef who created the dish to serve to Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai Shek in the 1960s, the American
bastardization of his creation has been a source of frustration.
"There are a lot of Americans who can't accept our Chinese food, our authentic Chinese food," said Chef CK Peng, whose dish was spicier, less sweet and without the broccoli and scallions that often garnish the American version.
Still, the film asks, what does "authentic" really mean as cultures, food and languages evolve, the same way they have over thousands of years of human migration?
"I kept hoping that I would stumble upon some central Chinese restaurant recipe book with all of the recipes for General Tso's or egg rolls, but it seems to be more informal than that," said Cheney. "One of the things for me about this story was how much adaptation and innovation there is on a local level. Someone will get the basic idea and put a twist on it."
Since the first chop suey houses began sprouting up across the country, uniquely American dishes have emerged like cashew chicken, Szechuan spicy alligator, honey pecan shrimp, and Chinese gumbo. And in the melting pot of America, new fusions of Indian-Chinese, Cuban-Chinese, and Mexican-Chinese have found their own niches. In our globalized world, General Tso's is even available now in China.
"Nothing is authentic in our restaurant," said one purveyor of Mexican-Chinese cuisine. "We're not authentic Chinese and we're not authentic Mexican. And isn't that American?"