Mulan and the Unicorn

There are cunning forces at work before you even open Chen Sanping’s book on Chinese history. The squiggles on the cover give a romantic title, Mulan and the Unicorn, which is way more evocative than the bluntly descriptive English: Multicultural China in the Early Middle Ages. But that’s just the first of Chen’s points – that our sense of China is compromised by linguistic and historical assumptions, deeply embedded in the very words we use.

Chen’s interest is in the centuries preceding the founding of the glorious Tang dynasty, when China was split into northern and southern regions. Amid Dark-Age climatic upheavals that saw similar catastrophes in Europe, the Han people, or at least, those that had the means, fled south of the Yangtze, abandoning the north to nomad invaders who swiftly rebranded themselves as the new aristocracy. History books are alive with the odd customs and internal conflicts of the likes of the Xianbei – towering slavers whose womenfolk were expected to forge statues from gold to prove their suitability as queens, and to commit ritual suicide on the accession of their princely sons. Strangers in a strange land, they embraced Buddhism (a foreign import like them), and co-opted legions of local collaborators to make them seem more… Chinese.

This foreshadows the Mongols, Khitans and Manchus of later periods, all of whom similarly swept in and set themselves up as the new overlords. Chen suspects that it might also echo earlier dynasties, too, particularly the ancient Zhou, although the historical record may have deliberately garbled much of their foreign-ness.  He quotes here a spine-tingling observation from Allen Chun, that the Bronze-Age Zhou people, founders of much of historical Chinese tradition, once cryptically observed that “the gods do not accept sacrifices from persons who are not of their own race,” as if they, the priestly aristocracy, were from Somewhere Else. Suggestions of “barbaric” traits enduring among the Xianbei, and their Sui and Tang cousins who reunited China in the 6th century AD, were noted by the eminent scholar (and occasional prankster) Paul Pelliot over a hundred years ago, but Chen really runs with this idea in all sorts of exciting new directions.

With a healthy suspicion of the official record, Chen argues that the dynastic chronicles are riddled with outrageous incidents of spin and fake news, as Chinese authors try to excuse nomadic behaviour in a narrative determined to pretend that everybody is Chinese. He reframes the seizure of power by the Tang Emperor Taizong, a bloody coup fought against his own brothers at Chang-an’s Gate of the Dark Warrior (Xuanwu) in 626, as an entirely everyday incident of blood tanistry – among “Turco-Xianbei” peoples, brothers were expected to fight each other for the succession. In passing, Chen also observes that the gate in question was the barracks for the imperial guard – anyone who controlled the Gate of the Dark Warrior would presumably also have the support of the praetorians of medieval China.

Chen is wonderfully adept at reading between the lines of Chinese history, as chroniclers try to make a “Turkish-leaning” prince sound like a madman, rather than a chip off the old block, and kvetch about women like Empress Wu in positions of power, even though it was the queens who called many of the shots on the steppes. Chen recasts Empress Wu in the context of her Sui and Xianbei predecessors, as a woman for whom ordering the death of her own children would not be all that extraordinary – he’s ready to believe that she did indeed murder her own new-born daughter, which rather undoes all my attempts to make her sound more humane. For Chen, the influence of Turco-Xianbei heritage on the Tang imperial family would stretch all the way to Wu’s grandchild, the Emperor Xuanzong, who had three of his own sons killed on a single day in 737.

In other chapters, Chen gets deeply into historical linguistics, snaffling around for the origins of some remarkably common words, such as ge (elder brother), which he regards as a Turkish import, and nucai (“slave talent”) a later Chinese insult that he believes to have originated in a term for collaborators with invader regimes. Buried in the Chinese language, Chen finds clues to the existence of forgotten Iranian refugees and assimilated Huns, and legions of settlers from Central Asia who swiftly went native if they knew what was good for them.

In one of my favourite passages, he analyses a nonsensical comment in the chronicles, when a Chinese Emperor seemingly started babbling incoherently. But Chen does not see this as a copying error or a corrupted text, but a moment when an angry despot briefly allowed his mask to slip, shouting at his underlings in the language that still functioned as a secret cant among the elite –Chen has a stab at translating what the Emperor was actually saying.

And of course, there is a whole chapter on The Ballad of Mulan, a cross-dressing warrior-woman who loyally served a ruler addressed as “the Khan”, and whose world was so far removed from traditional China, that she is depicted riding on a camel. So, no, not like the cartoon, nor indeed like the forthcoming film. Chen sees Mulan, with its code-switching between Chinese and nomad traditions, its confusions of gender roles and geography as a core text in evoking the clash of alien cultures that defined China’s long medieval period, so carefully air-brushed and redacted by centuries of later authors.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Multicultural China in the Early Middle Ages is published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Confucius: A Biography (2nd edition)

‘Rich with history and studded with the sayings for which the sage is known. . . Clements uses his considerable story- telling skill to make “the troubled life of a teacher who lived two-and-a-half thousand years ago” come alive.’
The Asian Reporter

‘Clements reveals the man behind the legend, as well as providing a useful introduction to Confucius’ thoughts and teachings.’
The Good Book Guide

The teachings of Confucius have survived for twenty- five centuries and shaped over a quarter of the world’s population – his image appears not only in temples across East Asia, but also above the entrance to the US Supreme Court.

Confucius: A Biography reveals unexpected sides of the ancient philosopher – his youth, his interaction with his pupils, his feuds with his rivals and even his biting wit.

This revised edition includes three new chapters on the influence of Confucius in Chinese history, the modernist and post-modernist backlashes against Confucian thought, and its relevance in our world today.

Reviews: Brief History of China

Roxy Simons is first to publish a review of my Brief History of China, out now from Tuttle.

A Brief History of China deftly explores the global super-power’s past, examining its shifting cultures and competing ideals to create an enthralling read from start to finish. Instead of only telling the stories of the champions, curated to their own advantage to ‘fix’ any unfavourable events, Clements takes China’s history back to its diverse human core, immersing booklovers in a vast cast of characters and a gripping narrative, effortlessly easy to enjoy.”

Puppets, Gods and Brands

“…a brilliant juggling act on a tightrope between anthropology and sociology, which manages to keep ideas in the air from soft power to difference feminism, nation branding and emotional labour. This could have all too easily gone very wrong, but Puppets, Gods and Brands will be welcomed by an entire generation of students trying to talk their supervisors into taking animation seriously.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Teri Silvio’s Puppets, Gods and Brands, out now from the University of Hawaii Press.

Master Cheng (2019)

Dour, widowed Shanghai chef Mr Cheng (Chu Pak Hong) comes to the one-horse Lapland town of Pohjanjoki in search of a mysterious person called “Fong Tran”. Marooned 40 kilometres from the nearest hotel, he lodges with Sirkka (Anna-Maija Tuokko), a divorcee trying to make a go of it at her late aunt’s roadside diner. But when a coach party of Chinese tourists is horrified at the mere thought of a Finnish buffet lunch, Cheng comes to the rescue, whipping up Chinese food in Sirkka’s kitchen.

Cheng’s ability to cook edible food brings more visitors, including a gaggle of feisty pensioners from the old people’s home hoping for a Daoist pick-me-up, and a crocodile of children from the local school, who inevitably have a catalogue of allergies and intolerances longer than the menu. He befriends local old fogies Romppainen (Kari Väänänen) and Vilppula (Vesa-Matti Loiri), who drag him fishing and subject him to a sauna, and his son Niu Niu (Lucas Hsuan) slowly comes out of his shell.

Stick with this one-film-a-month blog of every Finnish movie ever released, and Mestari Cheng will swing around again some time in the early 2040s, when I am probably long gone and the automated updates merely look like I am still there. But since I saw it at the cinema today, I might as well write it up out of order, as a fascinating glimpse of where the Finnish film industry is fated to end up eight decades after the most recent entry in my chronological watchathon, which is currently at the cusp of 1939. Mika Kaurismäki’s little Lapland romance is a carefully constructed advertorial that pretends to sell Chinese food to the Finns, but is really intent on selling Finland to the Chinese.

“IT’S SAUSAGE DAY!” proclaims the sign outside Sirkka’s café, leaving me the lone giggler in a midday cinema full of baffled Finns. Because every day is sausage day in Finland, particularly in the sort of joyless canteen that Sirkka runs. Some suspension of disbelief is required, not that Cheng can acquire ingredients from a Lapland super market, but that the effort will not bankrupt him. One of the spin-offs of having my every purchase logged by the local supermarket chain is that I get sent Statto-the-Statman reports about my purchases, and I can tell you that a household in Finland that tries to cook Chinese food every night ends up spending double the local average on its food budget.

I have sometimes succeeded in getting Finns to eat Chinese food. My finest moment was on Hainan island a few years ago, when I was the Pied Piper that led a dozen disbelieving conference-goers to a restaurant where they had what several proclaimed to be the best meal of their lives, and drank the entire local supply of Tsingtao. But all too often, it has been an uphill struggle that comes with a checklist of intolerances real and imagined, kvetching about spice and mewling about dessert.

“There’s a new Chinese restaurant in town,” my girlfriend has been heard to say. “Let’s go there soon before the Finns ruin it.”

Kaurismäki’s film also requires the audience to believe that Finns presented with fish in mandarin sauce or sweet and sour vegetables will not recoil in horror. I once cooked a green curry for a bunch of Finns, and was forced to dilute it so much that it ended up more like a watery coconut soup. For reasons not worth going into here (but discussed at length elsewhere), Finns often scrimp on the correct ingredients, struggle to get the right heat on an electric hob, and fail to patronise higher-end restaurants, leaving much of the hinterland mired in buffets of grim 1950s gruel. But Kaurismäki still has a faith that was bludgeoned out of me long ago: that Finns fed good food will clamour for more, and not simply throw it down their gullets and ask if there’s ice cream for afters.

Offered perch soup, Romppainen is initially sceptical.

“Is it Finnish perch?” he asks, suspiciously (again, I was the lone laugher in the cinema).

When he is assured that, yes, the perch is not an immigrant, he quaffs it down with gusto, becoming one of Master Cheng’s first and most enthusiastic converts, along with the local womenfolk, who find that Cheng’s soup is a good remedy for period pains. Thanks, Finland.

Romppainen later reveals that he is dying of cancer, but that Master Cheng’s dishes have changed his life. He is still going to die, but Master Cheng’s food has given him hope. In a discovery not unfamiliar from many Chinese foodie films, what he means is that the food has brought him joy.  Some might find this claim rather patronising, and admittedly, it wouldn’t play so well if, say, a bunch of German tourists descended on a French town, proclaimed the local food crap, and demanded that a German chef prepare their favourites. But there is an unsurpassed bliss in Chinese food, that I fell in love with when I was a child and that I have never shaken off, and when I am as old as Romppainen, I expect I shall feel the same. And while cultural relativism has its place, some cuisines are just better than others.

The film bears some comparison with Naoko Ogigami’s Kamome Shokudo (2006, Seagull Diner) a similar hands-across-the-water film about a bunch of Japanese nutters who decide to open a café in Helsinki. But, conspicuously this is not an Asian director trying to get to grips with a Finnish subject, but a Finnish director trying to flog Finland abroad, so we are consequently staring up the microscope in the other direction. Kaurismäki and Hannu Oravisto’s script has a handful of missteps that betray their origins – Cheng bows to everyone like a stereotypical Japanese tourist, and is momentarily taken aback by the prospect of eating reindeer, as if, in the words of famed diplomat Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh, the Chinese wouldn’t eat anything with four legs that wasn’t a chair. More tellingly, a school teacher blunders into Sirkka’s café proclaiming that her pupils have no experience of Asian food, which is plainly not true, because several of them are Asian. Then again, as the unnamed teacher, Helka Periaho only has a couple of scenes to establish whether or not her character is a blinkered mentalist, and the jury’s still out on that.

Cheng teaches the Finns to live again, but they do the same for him. Distracted and driven since his wife’s death in Shanghai, he finds in Lapland a place of exultant quiet and calm, vistas of endless fells, and reindeer loping through the mists of ancient forests.

“There’s so much space here,” he comments to Niu Niu. And I would add that you can see it, too. Finland doesn’t have smog, and in a scene liable to cause a lot of upset tourist stomachs over the next few years, Sirkka even demonstrates that you can just scoop up and drink a handful of water from the lake. Any lake…? I’m sure we are about to find out.

The East-meets-West theme is signified even in the opening shots, as an erhu and an accordion sound complimentary notes. We might forgive it a plot so thin that it only stretches out for movie length because nobody bothers to have a proper conversation about Cheng’s backstory. Despite this, the film contains such multitudes that it could easily form the basis of a TV series. Apart from the obvious scope for Cheng’s past (and Sirkka’s future, as hinted at in a closing coda), a longer, episodic running time would have allowed the main characters more time to develop their chemistry. As it is, the Cheng-Sirkka romance kicks off in a perfunctory fashion, as if they are last two standing in an onscreen game of musical chairs, although as their relationship develops, the two actors do get have some moments of believable affection.

As Sirkka, Anna-Maija Tuokko is a tad under-written, or perhaps just realistically Finnish, shouting a lot about the stupidity of men and hectoring Cheng about the need to speak up and be blunt about it. In a naturalistic touch, it’s not necessarily the love of a good woman that perks Cheng up, but the acceptance of a wider community. The septuagenarian Vesa-Matti Loiri, once a rotund, operatic singer, now a lithe little twig like a deflated Falstaff, has a melancholy moment that will mean more to Finns than foreigners, mournfully singing his own “Lapland Summer” as if delivering his own elegy – it is a song about the transience of happiness and the brevity of life, “Mut pitkä vain on talven valta” (But oh so long is the power of winter). Master Cheng counters with a song of his own, “In a Distant Place” (在那遙遠的地方) one of the best-known songs in China, written by Wang Luobin in 1939 to a Kazakh folk melody, and loaded with a similar elegiac quality.  But if Mestari Cheng is a last hurrah for Loiri and Kaurismäki-stable regular Väänänen, it’s also a noteworthy appearance by Lucas Hsuan as the sulky Niu Niu, who manages the rare feat for a child actor of not acting like a child actor.

The closing credits feature a smorgasbord of beautiful shots of high-end Chinese food, which even Master Cheng would have trouble whipping up with three packets of instant noodles and some condemned chicken from R-Kioski. It is, indeed, technically possibly to cook Chinese food using Finnish ingredients, although one wonders what digital tech wizardry Kaurismäki had to employ to stop the aubergines browning within seconds of being sliced.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland and A Brief History of China. He has likened getting Finns to eat real Chinese food to teaching Irish ducks how to read Jivvanese.

Drunk History

Derek Sandhaus has a vested interest in making Chinese liquor sound good. Unlike Chris Ruffle, whose A Decent Bottle of Wine in China was more about educating the Chinese in Western ways, Sandhaus’s newly published Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture aims teach the West about Chinese drinking, not just today, but through its long history.

It’s an uphill struggle, not the least for Sandhaus himself, who freely admits that his first sip of the liquor in 2006 was so repulsive that “if I never tasted baijiu again it would be too soon.” Baijiu isn’t terrible, he reasons hopefully, it’s just different. Not everyone loves their first taste of beer, or whisky or wine, but surely if your palate gets used to it, it doesn’t taste awful anymore? Two chapters in, however, he is still describing the aroma of baijiu as “Jolly Ranchers mixed with paint thinner” and “a banana soaked in turpentine.”

But there is hope! It turns out that there is such a thing as a Taste Threshold – a point beyond which the body accepts whatever new torment has clearly become a regular item of consumption, like a sort of epicurean Stockholm Syndrome. All you have to do, Sandhaus discovers, is drink baijiu three hundred times, and after that you won’t mind so much.

Quietly, he wrestles with another issue – the prospect that the Chinese don’t really like baijiu, either, instead regarding it as some sort of ritual component of social dining. It is consumed, after all, in single, thimble-sized shots, downed in one as a gesture of sincerity. It’s not designed to be sipped and savoured or mixed in cocktails. Perhaps, he wonders, Chinese drinking culture has developed its peculiarities as a means of coping with the fact that baijiu tastes awful, turning it into a short, sharp, and overwhelmingly powerful medicinal shot, best over and done with as quickly as possible. In an epiphany, Sandhaus realises the awfulness of baijiu and the tedium of Chinese social events cancel each other out. Each makes the other bearable.

Sandhaus’s greatest provocation is not the gotcha game of cultural relativism. It is his assertion that it was the pursuit of booze that caused the first people to form a fixed prehistoric settlement on the banks of the Yellow River – alcohol, he argues, created China. His reasoning for this is the Jiahu site, which, as a small point of order, is actually on a tributary of the Huai River, and where Patrick McGovern and his team did indeed uncover the traces of a fermented alcohol made with rice, honey, wild grapes and hawthorn. But as McGovern himself pleads with Sandhaus in an interview, it’s not really fair to say that Jiahu was the first just because it happens to currently provide the earliest evidence.

Regardless, Sandhaus is not crazy. His theory cites authorities at the cutting edge of academic publishing on alcohol history, and is rooted in the work of the early 20th-century scholar Wu Qichang, who also argued that agriculture was not some magical and plentiful easy fix that created human civilisation. It was, in fact, a difficult and troublesome faff, much more hard work in the short term than the nomadic lifestyle. “Our ancestors,” writes Wu, “first planted rice and millet with the goal of brewing alcohol, not making food.”

It’s a long road from meads and ciders to full-on baijiu. First, the Chinese have to invent qu, the yeast that allows for a swifter fermentation process. Sandhaus isn’t that clear on when qu developed – he cites its “rise” to around the time that the First Emperor’s conquest created greater communications between far-flung regions, but then places its discovery up to two thousand years earlier, only to admit that the earliest text to mention it is the Essential Techniques for the Welfare of the People (Qimin Yaoshu) seven hundred years later. It’s not Sandhaus’s fault that the literary record has been purged and flensed by revolutions and accidents, but the ballpark he ends up delineating for the development of yeast is as wide as that separating the present day from Alexander the Great!

Sandhaus also wanders into epigenetics, suggesting that ancient cultures in the Middle East disinfected their water by turning it into beer, creating an evolutionary environment that favoured a physique that manufactured dehydrogenase – the molecule that breaks down alcohol. The Chinese, embracing the boiling of water early on (and infusing it with certain leaves), left themselves more susceptible to drunkenness. By the Han dynasty, which soon begins to derive much of its tax revenue from a state monopoly on alcohol, Sandhaus is ready to declare: “The fate of the nation depended on drink.”

This is all good fun. Any reader of rudimentary intelligence doesn’t need to be reminded that history is a more complex process than that, and an author of Sandhaus’s rhetorical skill could probably argue just as readily that some other commodity – silk, or horses, or jade, or salt – might be conceived as the cornerstone of Chinese culture. In fact, publishing cycles being what they are, it wouldn’t surprise me if he pops up again in a couple of years to say just that. His true aim is to tell the story of China from a quirky new perspective. Daoism, for example, is seen here as the last vestige of Bronze Age ritual intoxication, reimagined as a passive-aggressive challenge to dour Confucianism – Confucius was not a teetotaller, but the books attributed to him do rather leech all the fun out of drinking. Sandhaus sees in China’s many tedious drinking games the distant echoes of Bronze Age ceremonies, in which it was deemed uncouth to drink unless ritual required it.

The poet Li Bai inevitably puts in an appearance as Sandhaus delves into the rich and boozy literature of the affluent Tang dynasty, described here with particular reference to his Drinking Alone by Moonlight. As Sandhaus smartly observes, the poem is a prolonged and somewhat slurred defence of breaking a taboo – it’s not the moonlight that so preoccupies Li, but the fact that he is drinking alone.

The Chinese had distillation as early as the Han dynasty, but there are only scattered, cryptic references to “burnt wine” before the Middle Ages to suggest that they used the technology for anything except perfumes and medicines. It seems it took the Mongol conquest, and the pathways it opened to Arab chemistry, to bring distillation to China and the explosive creation of baijiu. Sandhaus reasonably describes spirits as “attacking China like a virus”, and notes that the first victims were the Mongols themselves – a ruling class used to quaffing large quantities of low-alcohol koumiss, decimated by their encounter with distilled spirits.

Many authors talk of alcohol production as a side-effect of surplus. Sandhaus turns this on its head, taking a desire for alcohol as a given, and then positing that baijiu, for all its acrid unpleasantness, is the most economic means of getting drunk not in times of plenty, but in times of hardship. That, alone should be enough to explain its stolid endurance through China’s troubled 20th century, particularly when Sandhaus maps near-famine conditions to a pointed and deliberate Communist Party focus on native, proletarian commodities. Having myself discovered Red Star erguotou to be literally undrinkable, I feel better now knowing that it was more likely to have been used as a medical disinfectant in the war against the Japanese, and I am curious about the precise identity of the unnamed “Japanese Communist” who apparently designed the logo.

Halfway through the book, when Sandhaus’s history catches up with memoir, he is enthusiastically knocking back Guizhou Maotai, and has largely overcome his earlier distaste. I, personally, think that Guizhou Maotai tastes like pencil erasers dissolved in brake fluid, but Sandhaus has seen the light: “…fermented beans, wild mushrooms, bitter herbs, roasted nuts – the flavours just kept coming. I had been sucker punched by the umami gremlin.” Now, there’s an image.

The history was fascinating enough, but Sandhaus goes up a whole gear when he can talk about his personal experience of manufacturers, banquets and drinking encounters. He runs into “Demolition Girls” (professional party-lubricators who drink baijiu by the bowl), a man selling “three-penis wine”, which is apparently thrice as good as wine made with just one penis, and the various other southern Chinese potions that involve dissolved animal parts, leading to a digression on the Chinese railway workers in the Wild West, and the attempts of various local conmen to copy their medicines made from “snake oil”. His account comes with trenchant observations about the minutiae of everyday life – the “ruthless altruism” of Chinese hospitality, and the common issue of being unable to stay hydrated because there is no potable water in one’s hotel.

Thirteen chapters after Sandhaus first alluded to, shall we say, cultural biases in appraisals of Chinese liquor, he returns to it with subtle vengeance in a section on alcohol safety. Dodgy booze, he writes, is dodgy booze – the question really should be is Chinese booze any dodgier? This, of course, opens up a whole new can of worms regarding food safety and quality control, and Sandhaus has some wonderfully colourful tales to tell, not the least that Laoshan spring water, the source for one of China’s most famous beers, was found by US assessors to contain “an unhealthy level of fecal matter.” This, too, has a sting in the tail, when after chronicling several of the early 2010s food scandals, he reveals that the passing of stricter Chinese safety laws in response ended up catching a bunch of European food companies peddling, for example, cognacs containing unacceptable levels of plasticizer.

Sandhaus does not flinch from the health crisis engendered by China’s “bottoms-up” booze culture. He drops in on an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Chengdu where, curiously, “God” is still granting serenity in the closing prayer, even in Communist China, and he observes the statistical anomaly that China is “…the only nation in the world where an adult’s likelihood to binge increases with age.” His investigations here carry his out-of-the-box thinking in new and rewarding directions, including a survey of baijiu as a drink that is not drunk, but instead bestowed and re-gifted without leaving its presentation box in a long series of bribes and back-handers. In a razor-sharp observation, he notes that when an official proclaims that a matter needs “more research”, it could be construed as a solicitation for something else – yanjiu means research, but is also a homonym for “smokes and booze.”

Sandhaus’s closing chapters outline the writing process of his earlier book, Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits, in which the man who is still likening his subject matter occasionally to “cough syrup” and “vinegar-glazed cabbage” (and that’s when he’s being nice!) attempts to generate a foreigner-friendly taxonomy of baijiu varieties. In doing so, he investigates the way that the Chinese classify different brands, itself a deeply interesting glimpse of the Party industrial complex at work. An exhaustive account of previous attempts to export baijiu, 99% of the global supply of which, you will be unsurprised to hear, is still drunk in China, is followed by Sandhaus’s speculation that the grading curve – in terms of consumption, quality and respect – for Chinese alcohol is likely to follow that of Chinese food, which itself has had a chequered but upwardly-mobile history.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture, by Derek Sandhaus, is published by Potomac Books.

Route Awakening S05

Season five of National Geographic’s Route Awakening begins its broadcast run in China on 23rd August. Other territories to follow soon. But for viewers in China, this will be your chance to see me delving into sacrificial rituals at the Wastes of Yin; oracle bone scripts and divination in the Shang dynasty; the violent art of the Dian kingdom; Nanjing in the middle ages; the golden treasures of a deposed emperor; the immense cathedral-like complex built around a relic of Buddha’s skull; burial customs of the lost Yelang kingdom, and the shipyards of Admiral Zheng He.

Notes Towards a Chinatown Museum

Running without fanfare at the China Exchange in the middle of London’s Chinatown, the Making of Chinatown exhibition aims to tell the story of how an immigrant community could suddenly spring into such a vibrant part of a city’s cultural experience. As the timeline that forms the main part of the exhibit makes clear, the Chinese community centred on Gerrard Street is relatively recent – newspaper clippings as late as 1970 point to the media’s growing awareness that the street was starting to accrete restaurants and stores serving the Cantonese-speaking community.

This exhibition has been a long time coming. When New York has a Museum of the Chinese in America, and both Vancouver and Melbourne have their own richly appointed Chinatown museums, London has been left lagging behind. The temporary exhibit here is necessarily small-scale, concentrating on video archives and scattered photographs, and lacking a lot of material content. There are asides about Limehouse, the original centre for Chinese residents in England, but little about the demonisation of the Chinese in the British imagination in the age of Fu Manchu and Broken Blossoms.

This is a Chinatown museum for the Chinese, specifically the Cantonese who flooded here from Hong Kong during the century and a half of British dominion. But it stops short of celebrating the Chinese in Britain in general – unlike say, the Museum of Arab Americans in Michigan, there is little attempt to engage visitors with the contribution made by Chinese people to British society. Nor does it delve too far into some of the more controversial contemporary issues, such as who actually owns Chinatown, and whether rising rates will make it possible for there to even be a Chinatown in central London within a few years.

A few interactive boxes, seemingly designed for school parties, dare the visitor to open them to find answers to common questions. Does Chinatown look like China? No, comes the informative reply, which explains the fact that most Chinatowns worldwide copy the chop-socky architecture of San Francisco’s 1907 post-earthquake reconstruction, infamously masterminded by two white men who had never been to China themselves.

In an inadvertent bit of post-modern micro-aggression, another box asks: “How do you say ‘hello’ in Chinatown?” I opened it, and it was ominously blank.

The gift shop downstairs is oddly under-stocked, carrying very little of interest that can’t be bought in half a dozen shops in the street outside. It did, however, sell me a lovely book about the Chinese Labor Corps, the “unknown” 140,000 men who were airbrushed from history, but played a vital role in the First World War. Long-term readers of this blog will already know that the Chinese Labor Corps is something of an obsession of mine, and the China Exchange is getting behind a drive to give them a monument of their own in East London – I bought a pin for £2, although that’s still a way away from the £400,000 they need. One hopes that in future, the Chinese presence in Britain will also be celebrated in a more wide-ranging and permanent form, of which this exhibition will turn out to be the first exploratory step.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. The Making of Chinatown exhibition has now finished at the China Exchange, but will be returning in 2020 to several venues around London, starting with the Westminster Archives from the 14th January, then Beckton Library, Charing Cross Library, Hackney Chinese Community Centre and finally Woolwich library.

Bitter First, Sweet Later

Chop Suey Nation, Anna Hui’s account of Chinese food in Canada, begins with a moment of horrible shock, when her childhood school’s “China Day” sees the kids served with unidentifiable day-glo slop. This is not the Chinese food she gets to eat at home, but as she comes to discover, it is what constitutes “Chinese food” to many non-Chinese people.

Eventually, this moment of culinary misery transforms into a road-trip across Canada, poking around the obscure restaurants that seem to exist in every town, reminiscing all the while about those many Chinese migrants, including her own family, who came to make a new life in North America.

This is hardly unexplored territory – Hui’s own bibliography includes Lily Cho’s Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small-Town Canada, which answered many of her questions nine years in advance. That was, however, an academic book steeped in the cant of cultural studies, so Hui’s resolutely chatty approach certainly makes the story more accessible. She also, mercifully, treads lightly with the coming-to-Canada story of her own family, which, devoid of a scandal, war, murder or zombie infestation, is frankly rather jejune. The value, however, of the Hui family background is a revelation that crops up early in the book, that even though the infant Anna was traumatised by the sight of ersatz Chinese food, her father had enjoyed a brief career serving it in small-town Canada, before she was born. Hui reacts to this in much the same way as she might react to a parental admission to a backstory as gender-flexible swingers with a penchant for golden showers.

She comes into her own both with the gin-clear concision of her prose, which is so readable that the book just rockets past before you know it, and with the odd-couple experiences of her discount road-trip, for which she has inadvertently rented a comically unsuitable Fiat 500. In a discovery that has also hounded my own investigation into Chinese foods, she grapples with the difficulty of being able to adequately access the contents of a new menu without stuffing herself so full every day that she never needs to eat again. She also contends with a common problem in folk history, which is that often those who are most available to be interviewed are the least likely to have anything pertinent to say. I feel for her in a Fisgard restaurant at the very start of her journey, facing a waitress with no interest whatsoever in answering any of her questions.

Some still go unanswered. There are some tantalising moments in early chapters when she seems poised on the verge of investigating a fascinating issue in cultural history – who the hell designed the generic look of all those far-flung restaurants with their matching roof adornments, chop-socky fonts and red vinyl seats? Instead, she concentrates on the spread of intellectual property – how cooks like her father learned specific recipes, some of them invented in Canada like “shredded ginger beef”, and adapted then to satisfy the whims of local diners – the restaurant in noodle-free Newfoundland, for example, that substituted shredded cabbage and completely confused east-coast definitions of chow mein, or the manager in pensioner-packed Deer Lake, who realised that his diners hate his crispy-skinned spare ribs because they could only chew soft meats. And in Quebec, home of already-stodgy poutine, the terrifying prospect of stir-fried macaroni.

By the time she has reached peak weird, dropping in on a lone Chinese lady running a year-round Chinese restaurant on a remote island, she has found her true subject, and it does indeed lead to some family revelations. Possibly by total coincidence, Hui’s story displays what appears to be a template for many books I have read on Canadian themes, most notably Colleen Mondor’s Map of My Dead Pilots – a family narrative nested within a broader tale of human migrations, but here leavened with the image of a shivering Chinese woman and her Star Trek-loving husband, trying to drive several thousand miles in a toy car.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Chop Suey Nation is published in the UK on 26th September.