Calling author Cheuk Kwan a globe-trotter would be an understatement. He writes that he has six places he calls home: Jiujiang, his ancestral village in southeast China; Hong Kong, where he was born; Singapore; Tokyo; Berkeley, California; and Toronto, Canada. He speaks several Chinese dialects, French, Japanese, and, of course, English. To him, travel—and, in turn, migration—is life.
From 2000 to 2003, Kwan traversed five continents to shoot Chinese Restaurants, a 15-part documentary series that captured the stories of Chinese immigrants who run eateries in surprising, far-flung locales like the heart of the Amazon, rural Saskatchewan, and the peaks of the Himalayas. Now, two decades later, Kwan recounts the personal, political, and historical aspects of his gustatory odysseys in Have You Eaten Yet?: Stories From Chinese Restaurants Around the World (Pegasus, Jan. 3), a written companion to the film series. Originally published in Canada, Kwan’s current home, its U.S. edition offers “a heartfelt and entertaining culinary and historical survey of the Chinese diaspora,” our review notes. Kwan spoke with Kirkus via Zoom from Toronto; the interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How does it feel to see your book make its way out into the world?
I’m overjoyed. I never thought of myself as a writer, nor did I consider myself a filmmaker when I made the film series 20 years ago. I’ve been an engineer my whole life, but I just wanted to tell the stories of family-run Chinese restaurants around the world.
So becoming a filmmaker and an author are your second and third careers?
I call them passion projects. There are a lot of things I wanted to do in life, but I was shunted into an engineering career by my parents. But I always loved photography. Even in high school, I was president of the photography club. In 1998, when I was 48, I had the chance to take a summer filmmaking intensive at NYU with all these young kids. But I thought, “I’m going to learn my craft.” It was great—when we were working on sound mixing, Steven Spielberg was working in the next booth over. And now I’m 71 and making my debut as an author. That comes after many years of considering myself a storyteller. Back in my youth, I co-founded The Asianadian, an Asian Canadian magazine on arts, politics and culture. My co-founders and I were trying to give a platform to writers and poets, and I was an editor and publisher well before I started working on this book.
When it came to writing the book, what did you want to capture in words beyond what you’d captured on film?
I thought a book would allow me to be more expansive and go deeper into the conversations I had with restaurant owners, bringing out a lot of things that a 25-minute episode would not do justice. The film was not research-oriented; it was a journey of discovery. For example, in South Africa, I was almost like a psychologist to [Onkuen Ying, a restaurant owner in Cape Town], bringing her out of her cocoon. Eventually, she did open up [about Apartheid-era segregation policies between Chinese immigrants and South Africa–born diasporic Chinese].
As I visit these different countries, I have an affinity to these restaurant owners, and I tell a bit about my life story and cultural upbringing as a diasporic ethnic Chinese. I thrive in bringing out these stories. We may come from different worlds, but we can meet together in the same conversation.
How did you think about framing such a wide variety of stories?
It was very important to me that the marketing of this book didn’t say that it was about Chinatowns. I was very focused specifically on family-run Chinese restaurants, and I wanted to write about issues like assimilation and intercultural mixing—topics that are important to my life—with as much variety in the geography as possible. I wanted to avoid cliché and the obvious destinations like San Francisco or London. I mapped out my travels from year to year with the intent to cover the whole world. I got to five continents.
When it came to the design of the book, I said, “No golden dragons, no red lanterns. I want to de-stereotype Chinese-ness.” When I shot my film, one of the best compliments I ever received was from a local who said, “I live in that city, and that is exactly how we live.” I wanted to bring to life the everyday moments in these Chinese restaurants, beyond the obvious. For example, if I were trying to capture local life in Paris, I’d never shoot the Eiffel Tower.
And food can be such a perfect vehicle for talking about religion or other ways of life, as you write in the section on Turkey.
When I visited Turkey in 1976, it inspired me when I found out that the only Chinese restaurant in Istanbul at the time was run by Muslim Chinese, which meant no pork. Food is a way in to talking about history and geography, and I’ve been a good student of cooking from my mother. I know that pork is the most versatile meat in Chinese cooking, and its absence [at this restaurant] became a way to write about migration, how Islam came to China, and Muslim Chinese ties to Turkey. When I met the Wang family [who run China Restaurant in Istanbul] and heard their stories, I learned I was of the same generation as the kids and that we had similar experiences of displacement, with me leaving Hong Kong and living in three different countries before I was 18.
The world has changed so much since you originally took these trips in the early 2000s. What did it feel like to revisit these journeys as you were writing during the pandemic?
I wasn’t thinking about the pandemic and the racial uprising when I started writing, but as I was looking for a way to wrap the book up, the current wave of anti-Asian hate was happening. I mention my anti-racism work in the book, which has been a part of my life for a long time. I joined that social movement in my 20s, fighting for our identity and recognition as Asians in North American society. I had my awakening moments on identity during the years I spent in Berkeley, where I dabbled in the Asian American fight for identity. Later, I was involved in Black Lives Matter.
Looking at my whole timeline, I realized the present moment would work as the epilogue. My partner in bantering [in this section] was Ken Hom [a Chinese American chef whose BBC TV series made him a celebrity in the U.K. and beyond], who probably left America because of racism. I didn’t want to be didactic, so I kept the tone casual. We spoke about how it felt for us, respectively, to go back to Hong Kong, and [our] having that shared lived experience meant I didn’t have to explain things to him. I wanted to capture the journey of where I am and where we fit as members of the Chinese diaspora.
Hannah Bae is a Korean American writer, journalist, and illustrator and winner of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award.