China Chalet Is the Coolest Chinese Restaurant in Fidi to Have a Party

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It was a coworker’s birthday party this weekend, and they decided to have it at a Chinese restaurant. Didn’t know why one would book a Chinese restaurant as a place to have a party, but also, why not? The Chinese banquet-type restaurant is built for weddings and other celebrations, so if you have enough friends (they did), then it’s the perfect venue to organize a party to your heart’s desire (it was an extremely awesome party).

The location is in Financial District, a very empty neighborhood on Saturdays, like any Central Business District.

I asked a few questions to the people working there, when the restaurant opened (forgot what they said… maybe the 50s?), whether one could go to a random party on any given weekend (yes, check the Instagram location), whether it’s a family business (nope).

I could also refer to all these articles saying how cool it is to have a party in a place that seems uncool. You can imagine that yourself.

China Chalet in NY FiDi
China Chalet in NY FiDi

I have no context as to why a Chinese restaurant could be a venue for a party for people who aren’t there for a Chinese context and/or food. But it’s a great to refresh your image and be part of the mainstream conversation, a little bit like what Pearl River Mart did with its mezzanine gallery at their TriBeCa location on Broadway.

I saw The Joy Luck Club last night

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The Joy Luck Club was screening last night at Columbus Park. It was free and I was free, so I went to see it!

Why not! After all these years thinking about JLC, I wondered if it wasn’t probably about time to update my impressions about the film. To me, it was this movie telling the story of Chinese Americans with values stuck in time. The setting was one that I have not known in my family, which emigrated mostly to come study in Canada or France, and didn’t exactly have to escape war and hardship, were in abusive relationships or felt the pressure to assimilate.

Google for Joy Luck Club criticism and there goes your Saturday night. I had not seen The Joy Luck Club since probably the early 2000s, or even the 90s, when I was a teenager growing up in Quebec. The movie was maybe dubbed in French (Le Club de la chance), but I don’t remember. Least to say, if it was showing on late weekend night on Radio-Canada TV (going by my memory, which I’ll come back to later), it was because it had achieved mainstream recognition among Western audiences.

The JLC was the only Asian-American movie growing up. Based on a 1989 novel by author Amy Tan and directed by Wayne Wang, the 1994 feature was produced by a major American film studio.

The scene of the watermelon above was what I remembered the most. During the same segment (one of the four mother-daughter relationships), there was probably one of the most horrible characters, one of the un-redeemable Asian males of the film, Harold.

Harold, Joy Luck Club

Lena, one of the daughters of the JLC marries Harold, is at his mercy financially (he’s her boss!). He’s the guy who splits up everything 50-50, which is cool in theory, but where she ends up paying a lot more (for her personal items on her own, while paying for his ice cream that she doesn’t eat). What a jerk. The point was that it’s an implausible relationship, and so wtf.

(It mirrors the marriage that her mother had with the watermelon guy, who is hands down the most horrible guy in the film.)

She eventually divorces Hasshold and has a new hot and cool boyfriend… What I didn’t remember was that he was Asian! Yeah, there’s that recollection that I had going on that she had a horrible Asian husband, therefore she must’ve started dating someone else, as if race had anything to do with it. My selective memory didn’t register that her new beau, in the narrative’s present day, was actually played by Asian American actor Philip Moon.

Mom you're a jerk, Joy Luck Club

There were also some quite horrible white characters, like the parents of Ted, who try to intimidate Rose, the daughter character played by Rosalind Chao, into not dating their son anymore. The mother was the one delivering the message, but you could equally place the blame on the father.

Was the movie a satirical comedy? I don’t know. At times the tone made it feel like one. Take the scene where the successful Waverly, played by Tamlyn Tomita, throws her condoms and her boyfriend’s clothes in the face of her mother. She “tried to marry a Chinese guy” was probably one of the worst lines (does it mean if you marry someone of your race, you do what your family wants and not what you want?). Her bumbling new white boyfriend Rich is a riot, splattering caricatural cultural ignorance at the first meet-the-parents dinner.

It wasn’t what the tone I took home during my first watch twenty to thirty years ago. It’s a work of fiction, and it’s fine to be dramatic and introduce elements of fantasy. I think where it hurts (and one of the reasons why the movie was so polarizing) was that it was the only Asian American movie during a very long period and it was caricatural, but wasn’t clear about it. So maybe these elements are taken at face value, and generalized to the lives of all Chinese immigrants coming to America, in the imaginary of those who consume only mainstream media?

(Also, the reliance on fabulism, or the belief in, as a plot device, wth with that?!)

The people outside of the mothers and daughters in this movie are generally failing, horrible or plain antagonistic, but there was a character I forgot who was extremely sympathetic. At the end of the movie, June, played by Ming-Na Wen, whose mother lived a tragic life before coming to America (this film’s idea of Promised Land), was going to go to China to meet her long-lost half-sisters. Unsure of what she would do to explain the death of their mother that the sisters were unaware of, her dad gives her old photos of her mom, a swan feather and a pep talk about a mother’s hope.

June and her dad, Joy Luck Club

While it won’t be the best movie for me to ever to recommend, it has significance to Asian Americans, especially Chinese Americans (since it tells the story of immigrants from China). It’s a movie to watch if you want to understand the place given to hyphenated Asians in America. It’s also important for seeing the context that Crazy Rich Asians, Always Be My Maybe came to existence in 2018-19.

If you have a chance to see it again, you could benefit, like I did, from having a new perspective on the JLC.

Afternoon in Chinatown During 40th New York’s AAPI Heritage Celebration

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40th Annual Asian American and Pacific Islander Celebration

It was a gorgeous late spring day in New York this Sunday, so I decided to jump on my bike and head down to Chinatown for the 40th Festival for the Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

I already missed yesterday’s opening of the #StarringJohnCho exhibit at Pearl River Mart, so decided I would not miss going there again, and added it to an expanding list of spots I needed to visit during my stroll.

Before going anywhere, I essentially took care of the essentials, first catching the last act of the festival, a choreography by the MoustacheCat Dance about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Got a pre-summer haircut and did my Chinese groceries.

40th Annual Asian American and Pacific Islander Celebration (last act, a choreography on internment of Japanese Americans during WWII)
Where Mott Street begins
Chinatown Fair Arcade
Mott & Pell during the 40th Annual Asian American and Pacific Islander Celebration
Taiwan/Republic of China flag on Mott & Pell

I thought, why is the Taiwan flag (probably more thought of as a Republic of China flag) so prominent in 2019? Maybe because this is Chinatown? (Like, in Montreal’s Chinatown, they still had a branch of the Kuomintang 10 years ago, perhaps just nominally related?)

I also stopped by Chinatown Fair, a video arcade that opened in the 40s and whose original incarnation existed until 2011, re-opened since under management. I don’t know any of that information first-hand, but I will return to Chinatown on Thursday to check out the screening of The Lost Arcade documentary on it, at MoCA ($15, at 6:30-8:30 p.m.).

After the supermarket run at Hong Kong Supermarket to replenish my stock of instant noodles and affordable veggies, I went to MoCA to check out the current exhibit. I saw that it was called Moon Represents My Heart, after the Teresa Teng song, thinking it would be something on the Taiwanese mother of Mandopop. In fact, it was a very personally interesting exhibit on music identify for hyphenated Chinese that I only had about 20 minutes to enjoy.

In my last years in Montreal, before moving to Hong Kong, I used to run a music show on the community radio about alternative styles of music sung in, primarily, Chinese languages (which I have mediocre control of). It was during that period that I found out about all sorts of Chinese rock bands under labels like Modernsky and Maybe Mars, twee pop Hong Kong bands like the now-defunct The Marshmallow Kisses or the still alive and kicking My Little Airport, or large music festivals in Taiwan dedicated to (more) independent music like Spring Scream.

So, definitely I would have to go back this summer. It’s on view until September 15.

Moon Represents My Heart at MoCA (May 2-Sept. 15, 2019)
Moon Represents My Heart at MoCA (May 2-Sept. 15, 2019)
Moon Represents My Heart at MoCA (May 2-Sept. 15, 2019)
Moon Represents My Heart at MoCA (May 2-Sept. 15, 2019)

I found out bumping into a friend at MoCA that Banana Mag was launching its 5th edition, aka 005, on the same day. I think it was after that friend spotted my collection of Giant Robot that he spilled the beans about Banana, a beautifully-produced magazine with stylish photography and original reporting that include interviews with high-profile New York Asian American cultural figures, food recipes, discussions on cultural trends. They do share some common themes that take me back to the mid-2000s when I discovering my identity as an Asian-Canadian.

I also got my hands on an elusive copy of long-gone 001! Here’s the preview, of me flipping through pages with greasy with hot wings fingers:

Banana Mag 005 launch at Canal Street Market
Banana Mag 005 launch at Canal Street Market

Next and last stop of the day would be the Pearl River Mart, the chinoiserie shop that re-opened on Broadway and Walker, on the Tribeca side of Chinatown, which now also hosts an art gallery for their artist-in-residence program, in the back mezzanine.

Worth seeing for yourself, if you’re in the area. The current exhibit is from William Yu, the artist-activist behind #StarringJohnCho. It’ll be on view until July 7.

Pearl River Mart mezzanine art gallery
#starringjohncho at Pearl River Mart (May 18-July 7, 2019)

Ghost in the Shell and Hong Kong

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Went to see Ghost in the Shell yesterday in the theatre, in regular non-IMAX version, at Lincoln Center. It won’t win the Oscar for best film of the year, but it vastly satisfied my craving for Hong Kong.

When Mamoru Oshii made the original animated feature adaptation of GitS in 1995, the setting was very obviously based on Hong Kong. Hong Kong is fast-paced, nervous. And Hong Kong has this natural darkness to it, thanks to the lower latitude, surrounding mountains and a very wet climate.

Stumbled upon Hong Kong-based filmmaker Edwin Lee’s study of the original movie and scenes of Hong Kong, where you can observe for yourself:

I can’t wait for the comparison to start emerging once GitS gets off the big screen and starts appearing on the ones at home. The shooting locations are very obvious for anyone who’s spent a meaningful amount of time in Hong Kong.

Yes, there’s been talk that Scarlett was seen in Jordan last year. How did they book the busy street at Yee Wo Street in Causeway Bay, with the ring-shaped footbridge? The busy markets with the open-air butcher shop provides a great visual while the meaning of flesh and shell is discussed.

Yau Ma Tei street

Sham Shui Po street

In the meanwhile, the 2017 Ghost in the Shell is a box-office failure in the U.S., but seems to be doing better overseas.

Making xiao long bao

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Let me tell you, homemade xiao long bao (aka those pesky exploding dumplings) are still an elusive one on my lifetime food to-do, for a good reason. (This was a lone attempt in 2004!) Somehow, you need to get gelatinous parts of pork with pork meat mixed together in the right proportion so that it’s solid-ish at room temperature, but then partially melts into the soup that makes it famous at steaming temperature.

The skins are probably the hardest part. If you make dumpling skins on your own, as we’ve tended to have done during our 2004-09 dumplings parties in Montreal (I’ve abandoned the practice in Hong Kong), they have always been on the thick side. I’ve never researched why they always seemed to inflate, but with my current bread know-how, I guess it’s the gluten contents of your flour.

Cantonese theatre on Lamma Island

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Cantonese theatre at Yung Shue Wan soccer pitch, Lamma Island

Every year, there’s a bamboo theatre set up from scratch at the soccer pitch near my home. In a matter of days, a temporary theatre made out of bamboo sticks (and surely some metal support) is setup to host Cantonese opera for Tin Hau’s Birthday on the 23rd of the Lunar Year. The soccer pitch happens to be just across the street from the Tin Hau Temple and just by the harbourfront in Yung Shue Wan.

It’s interesting to live in what’s technically the New Territories and definitely a rural area, which is only a 25-minute ferry ride to Asia’s most important financial centre. The festivities will go on until May 2 and, exceptionally, ferries out of Yung Shue Wan will run until 12:30 a.m.

Finding Taiwanese mandarins in Hong Kong

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Taiwanese mandarin orange

When I was living in Canada, I used to consume citrus fruits purchased in bulk with my family — a whole box of 30+ orange from Costco or crates of clementines from the supermarket. They make for a great quick snack, especially clementines, that are seedless and very easy to peel.

In Hong Kong, oranges are easy to find, but not so much for clementines. Since moving to Hong Kong, mandarin oranges (or 柑/kam in Cantonese) are the alternative. They are bigger, but usually have the trade-off of not coming in a seedless variety and are still somewhat harder to peel.

Mandarin oranges sold in Hong Kong usually overwhelmingly come from mainland China. Despite knowing about the Taiwanese ones, it wasn’t until recently, after consuming a lot of them as I was trying to shake off a seasonal cold back in March, that I paid attention to them. I even bought some a few years ago in my neighbourhood, but never realized how different they could be.

The mainland variety peels a lot easier, but the ones that I bought have always been drier and of varying quality (they taste fermented). Taiwanese mandarins are a lot sweeter and considerably juicier.

Taiwanese mandarin orange

Taiwanese mandarin orange

The Taiwanese ones are harder to find and you have to look to find them. According to a FAO estimate, 15.2 million tonnes of tangerines, mandarins, clementines, satsumas were produced in mainland China in 2013, compared with only 185,000 tonnes in Taiwan (around 80 times less).

In Taipei, I bought 8 for 100 TWD (~3 USD, so one is close to 40 cents) at a fruit shop outside Songjiang Market. The ones I bought on Friday were 6 HKD each, which is 77 cents, so roughly double the price. But if they’re specifically selling the fruits as coming from Taiwan and that the difference in taste and texture are so noticeable, it’s not surprising that there would be a market for them.

Sheung Wan fruit stall - Taiwanese mandarin orange

Sichuanese at the Shek Tong Tsui cooked food centre

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良品

I really enjoy going to cooked food centres, natural descendants of the Hong Kong dai pai dong. One of my favourite ones is on the 2/F of the Shek Tong Tsui market, in the west of Hong Kong Island, close to HKU. I’ve never known it by name and simply called it “the Sichuanese” (for the record, it’s called 良品 / leung ban) and used to go there with friends after work.

We returned to that market for the first time in maybe a year or two, and ate at the Sichuanese, where we hadn’t been back for even longer (last time, we had hot pot nearby). The bright yellow signs that served as menu were gone and replaced with something a lot more sober. I was initially afraid that the place closed down, but upon asking whether they had their trademark “saliva chicken” dish, to which they answered positively, I was at least sure that if it was new management (not sure if it was), they kept their old dishes.

I did the ordering: saliva chicken, green beans fried with ground meat, pork slices with garlic and shrimp with a salted egg “sandy/golden” sauce. And we shared two large bottles of cheap lager, which is what you definitely should have with a cooked food centre meal. Back in the days, they even kept Pabst Blue Ribbon in the freezer (or a very cold refrigerator), and the bottles would be covered in frost from summer’s humidity.

Pork slices with garlic / 良品 at Shek Tong Tsui cooked food centre

A bottle of Tsingtao

Prawn with salted eggs sauce / 良品 at Shek Tong Tsui cooked food centre

It’s too bad that I forgot to take photo _before_ eating. But it was just simply too delicious.

Saliva chicken is really more like a “mouthwatering chicken” than being made from any corporeal fluid. It’s a boiled chicken that’s then served with a mixture of chili oil, spices (including peppercorns) and maybe peanuts, garlic if you like that.

With bowls of rice and drinks, it was only HK$105 per person, and we were definitely full.

Making a Montreal smoked meat in Hong Kong

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Montreal smoked meat sandwich in rye flour bread with yellow mustard

On almost every trip home that I make, I would bring back a piece of my home back with me to my new home. This is my third attempt to recreate what Eastern European Jews brought to Montreal a hundred years ago, which soon became synonymous with Quebec’s metropolis (on par with poutine and bagels). The other times, I tried with pieces of beef brisket that were simply too small or cut for stews where you weren’t expected to cook the piece whole.

Before Easter, last week, I went to a butcher shop called Feather & Bone on Gage Street in Central that sold chilled Australian beef at a reasonable price (about 1/2 of what you normally pay at City Super). Beef brisket was HK$135 per kilogram (per comparison, 1 kg of smoked meat is sold CA$18/kg or HK$100). I got a portion worth HK$220, about half of the piece that the butcher had at hand.

I took out the extra fat covering the chunk of meat and covered it with a mix of curing salt (hard to find anywhere — I had to order it online and had it delivered to my parents in Canada), and spices in seed form (coriander, mustard and pepper), and a little bit of Schwartz’s mix (not necessary if you have stuff like onion powder, garlic powder or paprika).

For six days, I let the salt and nitrites in the rub be absorbed by the meat in my refrigerator. On Thursday, I put my brisket in cold water and put it back into the fridge. And did the same on Friday. Then on Saturday, I started the smoking, which consisted in having some wood chips be lightly burnt in a large pot that I destroyed in a previous attempt at making smoked meat. You could probably substitute this with liquid smoke, as suggested in the Lady and Pups recipe.

I steamed for two hours, but the result was pretty tough, like a roast. From previous experience with stews, I could definitely tell I didn’t steam it long enough.

Today, I steamed it again for myself and guests, and this time in a much smaller pot and for longer (around three and half hours). The result was absolutely perfect and felt and looked like what I expected buying at the best delis in Montreal.

(If you try this at home, salt and spice quantities are relative to your meat, maybe a tablespoon of curing salt per kg of meat, around the same quantity of regular salt. Spice mix should just be enough to cover the piece, and you could get creative, but coriander + mustard + pepper sounds just right. You’ll just need to prepare some more spice mix to rub again after desalinating.)

Montreal smoked meat pre-curing with dry rub

Montreal smoked meat cut in slices

After the steam today, you could cut into the meat as it was butter. The meat filaments would lightly break up and crazy delicious when picked from the plate mixed together with the beef fat and leftover seeds. The slices were served in homemade rye bread that I made on Saturday with yellow mustard spread all over the place.

If I had to change something next time, I’d probably try to source my pepper better. I’m not sure if what I got was correct (a random HK brand selling seeds from Malaysia). But more importantly, I’d probably use less salt and curing salt (with has 6% nitrites — which gives the red tinge to cooked meat). Despite desalinating for one day in fresh water twice, it was still too salty in the end.

The only effort really was in grinding the spices and waiting for the smoking to work. If I substitute for liquid smoke, maybe this could be extremely painless and a sure winner for future parties.

I’m always extremely happy to try making things myself, like back in the days on this blog when I explored for Chinese food in Montreal. Nowadays, it happens more often with Western food that I try to make on my own, because the restaurant equivalents are either out of price (for what they are) or denatured beyond acceptability.

DEBRIS: Vhils at Central Pier No. 4, Hong Kong

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Vhils at Central Pier No. 4, Hong Kong

Generally when the top of my pier is transformed into something, it’s either some sort of private party for luxury brands or a showroom for development projects. This time around for art week, my pier was transformed into an exhibit by Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto aka “Vhils”. His techniques range from screen-printing, metal etching and super high frame rate videography.

I only realized that the exhibit was right under my nose when a former colleague tagged this neon sign installation posted this.

After climbing two flights of stairs to reach the roof of the pier (whose upper floors I never had the chance to enter despite commuting through every day for the last six years), you will enter a tent-like temporary structure and start with portraits made of columns of styrofoams. It’s unmistakably the artist’ style: the edges, the hybridity, the verticals.

The spine of the exhibit is a super slow-mo video taken on the streets of Hong Kong playing on long horizontal screens, which might be around Tsim Sha Tsui, the Star Ferry and Nathan Road, with a mesmerizing soundtrack of beeps and bops from the city and/or your Facebook webapp. Who knew you could either make lights flicker in post-prod or that they just flicker on their own when in filmed at a very high rate?

Some of the art used found materials in Hong Kong, like doors that the artist etched faces on, or paper advertising posters that he would stick together and carve into so to reveal faces.

The exhibit “DEBRIS” runs until tomorrow, April 4 at 8pm.

IMG_0266-ANIMATION