Grub Street: The absolute best Chinese restaurant in Chinatown (NYC)

Grub Street (by Hannah Goldfield):

For six weeks, the editors of New York Magazine and Grub Street are publishing a series of definitive lists that declare the absolute best versions of 101 things to eat, drink, and do. The idea that there is “no good Chinese food in Chinatown” has prevailed for quite some time now; it’s an argument that’s been put forth by our own Adam Platt. It’s true that if you’re looking for Chinese food that will expand your mind and thrill your palate, you’re much better off trekking to Flushing or Sunset Park, or even other parts of Manhattan. It’s also true that there’s a certain brand of Cantonese food — made bland, sweet, and gloppy to cater to a certain American sensibility — that dominates in Chinatown, or at least most people’s idea of the neighborhood, and some of it is genuinely bad. But there are dozens and dozens of restaurants in the neighborhood — with new ones opening regularly and old ones changing hands. Not all of them are Cantonese, and some of them offer food that is very good — plus a whole lot of atmosphere. Herein, five of the absolute best full-service Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, right now.

The Absolute Best

1. Royal Seafood
103 Mott Street, nr. Canal St.; 212-219-2338

It’s a good idea to call before making plans for dinner here; though they don’t take reservations, except for large groups, the entire place is often bought out for banquets. Even when they’re not closed for a private event, you might find yourself an unwitting participant in one, since they often rent out half the dining room for weddings and the like, bisecting it with a curtain. But what could be more fun than eating festive, family-style Cantonese standards — like the really excellent off-menu lobster you’ll see on almost every table, hacked into shell-on pieces, then lightly fried in batter and strewn with ginger, scallions, and garlic — while listening to the joyous sounds of celebration from the other side? It’s an institution, as integral to the fabric of the local community as it is welcoming to outsiders, with cheerful pale-pink tablecloths, friendly but efficient service, and plenty of delicious non-lobster dishes, too, including the addictively crispy, caramelized fried Peking pork chops; a steamed half-chicken, served with the requisite salty scallion-ginger-oil condiment; and full dim sum service on weekends. For a similar but calmer and less exciting experience, Oriental Garden offers many of the same dishes in a much smaller dining room, which makes, especially, for a refreshingly non-hectic dim sum destination.

2. Spicy Village
68 Forsyth St., near Hester St.; 212-625-8299
Spicy Village, formerly known as Henan Flavor, is a definition hole in the wall: a narrow sliver of a space that lets in almost no natural light, with just half a dozen tables. Food arrives, for the most part, in Styrofoam, but that does little to detract from its fantastic flavors, imported from China’s Henan province. Jagged-edge hand-pulled noodles show up in bowls of rich, steamy lamb or beef broth bobbing with brisket or fish balls, and again dry-sautéed with egg and tomato or dense, pungent black-bean sauce. Perfect steamed pork dumplings come a whopping 12 to an order, for just $5 — almost nothing on the menu is more than $6. An important exception is the $13.75 Spicy Big Tray Chicken, beloved by Danny Bowien and Mark Bittman; it’s a mess of juicy dark-meat bone-in chunks and tender quartered potatoes enveloped in a dark, satisfyingly beer-based braise, flecked with Sichuan peppercorns and cumin and fennel seeds. It’s best ordered with a side of those hand-pulled noodles, and/or a couple of “pancakes,” arepa-like doughy rounds with crisp exteriors that come plain or stuffed with minced pork or egg.

3. Great New York Noodletown
28 Bowery, nr. Bayard St.; 212-349-0923

Ask a celebrity chef for her or his favorite places to eat in Chinatown, and you are likely to get New York Noodletown among the responses. Open daily until 4 a.m., it has a reputation for being nothing more than a place to fill a drunk stomach cheaply, and it’s true that the grimy-tile-and-fluorescent-light atmosphere is probably best appreciated (read: ignored) under the influence, but the food is also much better than it has to be, no matter your mental state. There are noodles, of course, in soups topped with juicy slices of roast pork, chicken, or duck, or served in a room-temperature tangle drizzled with a tangy ginger sauce that will make the back of your throat tingle pleasantly, plus a scattering of shredded raw scallion (it’s the dish David Chang credits as the inspiration for the chilled ginger noodles on the menu at his Noodle Bar). And when in season, soft-shell crabs are salt-baked to a deeply satisfying, light-as-air crackle.

4. Big Wong King
67 Mott St., nr. Bayard St.; 212-964-0540

There is something deeply comforting about Big Wong King, which serves up top-notch versions of many Cantonese standards, but is an especially good place to get a warm bowl of perfect congee, topped with roast duck or salted pork and chopped thousand-year egg, and best ordered with a giant fried cruller for dipping. It’s hard to imagine a better breakfast. They also do a mean steamed rice crêpe, flecked with tiny dried shrimp and scallions and drizzled in soy sauce — or, for a full on carbfest, get the one that comes wrapped around slices of that same fried cruller. To top it off, the service is a thing of wonder, with waitstaff moving around the room in a seamless ballet, delivering and removing plates and pouring tea and water with an efficiency that could be studied in business school. Depending on what you order, you can be in and out of here in 20 minutes. Which is not to say you’ll want to be; the late-’70s décor, which includes a wood-paneled wall with a groovy round doorway that divides two dining areas, is part of the charm.

5. Wonton Noodle Garden
56 Mott St. nr. Bayard St.; 212-966-4033

There is no shortage of wonton soup in Chinatown — it’s on the menu almost everywhere — but it’s nice to know that one of the very best versions is at a place so named for it, sometimes also referred to as New Wonton Garden, due to a change in ownership. A big corner of the dining room is devoted to the soup’s making, with a huge vat of deep golden, intensely umami broth (if the flavor comes from MSG, they’re using it masterfully) simmering at all times. Poured over a nest of thin egg noodles and a handful of neatly wrapped wontons filled with juicy pork and perfectly crunchy shrimp, it makes a filling, excellent meal, but there are plenty of other things on the menu to supplement, from classic roasted meats to Cantonese-style lo mein, served with a side of broth.

NYC to welcome ‘Year Of The Monkey’ with Lunar New Year Festival

Fireworks over the Hudson River for the Chinese Lunar New Year on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015. (Credit: CBS2)

CBS New York/AP:

 New York City will be celebrating the Lunar New Year with a five-day festival early next month.

The Year of the Monkey Celebration” runs from Feb. 6 through Feb. 10.

The festival, presented by the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, is hosting a myriad of events, including the “The Fantastic Art China” exhibition at the Javits Center, where traditional and contemporary Chinese artworks will be showcased.

Environmental conservation efforts for monkeys in China also will be highlighted.

A Hudson River fireworks display set to the music of Oscar and Grammy Award winner Tan Dun is scheduled for Feb. 6.

The Empire State Building is also planning a light display for Feb. 6 and Feb. 8. And the New York Philharmonic’s 5th Annual Chinese New Year Concert will be held at Lincoln Center on Feb. 9.

Last June, Mayor Bill de Blasio made the Lunar New Year an official public school holiday. An estimated 15 percent of New York City school children celebrate the Lunar New Year.

VICE: The Strange Tale of ‘Shrimp Boy,’ the Old-School Chinatown Gangster Being Sent Back to Prison

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Kwok Cheung Chow, a.k.a. Raymond Chow, a.k.a Shrimp Boy, at the Ghee Kung Tong headquarters in San Francisco in 2007.

VICE (by Max Cherney):

Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow was convicted by a San Francisco jury Friday on 162 separate charges. Prosecutors painted a picture of him as a dangerous thug who ran a well-oiled crime machine dealing in drugs, illegal booze, and cigarettes—a heartless operator willing to murder in cold blood when necessary. As a result, Chow is likely facing life in prison, though he plans to appeal.

The conviction brought to an end nearly two years of legal wrangling and drama that was extensively followed by the local media. At one point, Chow’s lawyers made headlines by trumpeting court documents they said implicated local government officials in unethical behavior at best and criminal corruption at worst—though none have been formally charged.

Twenty-nine men and women, including Chow, were named in the initial charging documents—a lurid 137-page affidavit that included the now-convicted former State Senator Leland Yee‘s apparent aspirations as an international arms trafficker. The now-disgraced Yee pleaded guilty in 2015 to a single racketeering count centered around his alleged arms business and propensity for taking bribes from government agents. (He’s awaiting sentencing.)

I was closer than most to the case, covering it for a local magazine, a blog, and a weekly newspaper. I first met Chow at the San Francisco county jail, a soul-sucking compound in the belly of the city’s “tech district,” South of Market. The metal stools, thick glass windows, and ongoing clang of gates smashing shut made for onerous circumstances, but Raymond and I continued a dialogue throughout his trial. I always found him irreverent and upbeat—Chow’s longtime girlfriend told me after the verdict that he’s “insanely strong” and “very Buddha-like.”

He was willing to candidly discuss the government’s accusations, proclaiming his innocence and describing Ghee Kung Tong, the local organization the feds say was involved in all sorts of illegal activity, as a “private self-help group.” (Tongs are fraternal organizations for Chinese-Americans and are sometimes accused of being fronts for crime.)

It’s a weird way to get to know another human being, through glass and over a telephone, via conversations the government is likely recording and will almost certainly use against the prisoner if possible. “I don’t want to make friends like this,” Chow told me during one visit. He later offered to cook us dinner when he got out.

I have never shaken Shrimp Boy’s hand, but know more about his life than many of the people I talk with regularly on my current business reporting beat. That might have something to do with the way Chow throws out details of his life in a manner that seems almost reckless: During the trial, he admitted to doing blow, “cut[ting] someone up” at the age of nine (he details the experience in an unpublished memoir he shared with me), buying sex after getting out of prison, and even taking money from undercover FBI agents—though he maintained that he wasn’t taking the dough in return for overseeing criminal behavior of his alleged associates.

Chow has undeniable charisma. He’s big-mouthed and big-hearted and always (if you believe him) looking out for the immigrant community he’s a part of. According to those close to him, the man is broke enough that he had to live with relatives and his girlfriend upon getting out of prison in 2002, his most recent stretch in the federal pen. (Somehow, though, Chow always seemed to wear tailored, two-piece suits on the outside.) If he does have millions of dollars, even his lawyers have no idea where all the cash is—they took on this marquee client pro bono.

Chow is represented by the office of famous defense attorney J. Tony Serra, which is how I started covering him in March 2014. I was lucky: Curtis Briggs, an associate of Serra’s I had previously worked with, was angling to bring Chow on as a client. The man trusted me, and invited me over to listen to the call as he pitched Chow from their offices in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood—a building that reeked of weed. (“We do things differently,” one of Serra’s staffers told me.)

Tony Serra, right, an attorney for Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, pictured at left, listens to speakers at a news conference in San Francisco, Thursday, April 10, 2014. 

I watched and listened as Briggs, a tall, handsome ginger in a suit, reeled in Shrimp Boy. The lawyer worked with a frenetic intensity and passion, and as we waited for the call, Briggs and former-gangster-turned-community-leader Eli Crawford offered their take on the local character.

To hear Chow’s defenders and friends tell it, he’s a community worker of sorts—Crawford described how he and Chow had been giving talks to the city’s troubled youth. In Chow’s memoir, he writes about speaking to high schools, middle schools, and at-risk youth—all to stop kids from following in his footsteps. He also writes that he partnered with a local politician and organized a series of talks about Chinese culture and heritage, for which the city presented him with an award honoring his contribution.

Of course, Chow also has a history of criminal activities including armed robbery, arson, and assault. In his early days, he was a gang enforcer and describes in the book the surgical precision he deployed when hurting enemies. “Beating someone down for a living is a science, ain’t nothing random about it,” Chow writes. “You appraise the target for strengths and weaknesses…. Inflicting injury is a delicate balance, like a recipe you season to taste. You have to be able to evaluate the level of damage you’re doing while you work, and you can get pretty damned good at figuring in the cost of an injury right there, heat of the moment. Most importantly though, you have to know when to stop.”

Later, Chow claims in the unpublished book, he founded a band of home invaders that robbed people all over the Bay Area. He also claimed to have run a brothel and siphoned $250,000 in profits from that operation into a growing coke distribution business back in the 1980s.

But according to Chow and his supporters, that criminal life ended in the 1990s. Indicted on racketeering charges in 1992 and convicted in 1996, Chow was part of a massive case that sent an atomic shockwave through the West Coast crime world. The feds disrupted what might have eventually become the largest heroin trafficking ring in America: The crooks’ plan was to unify disparate gangs and start shipping in smack from the Golden Triangle in huge quantities.

Chow was released from prison in 2003 after cutting a deal with the feds and testifying against his former boss and mentor Peter Chong. (Chow claims in the memoir he had no choice because Chong betrayed him by paying for Chow’s lawyer to take a lavish trip to Macao, sending her off with $60,000 worth of designer handbags—and an agreement to drop Shrimp Boy as a client.)

At the time, Chow recalls in his memoir, the decision to testify against Chong challenged his view of the world. “Some 30 years before, as a child, I’d set out to become a gangster,” he writes. “I sacrificed 20 of those years—the prime of my youth—locked up, a key player in a world that completely vanished beneath my feet. All the gang leaders, dope pushers, scandalous ex-cons and tough guys I’d known were long forgotten and out of the game. Everybody I’d come up with in Chinatown had flipped or cooperated somehow. Once upon a time, they all believed in our code and lived by it. Now every last one had shattered it.”

Those claims may have contributed to Serra taking on Chow as a client, since the attorney doesn’t usually represent people who might be called snitches. “I represent a beautiful man who 12 years ago transcended a lifestyle most people never have the courage to walk away from,” the defense attorney told me when I was writing for San Francisco. He experienced a true epiphany after prison and became a role model for many unfortunates. He has devoted his life since then to bona fide social causes.

As a free man, Chow rubbed shoulders with celebrities, talking loudly and publicly of making a film about his life story. In 2006, after a community leader named Allen Leung was gunned down, Chow took over his post as top boss, or Dragon Head, of the Ghee Kung Tong. (Chow was convicted for arranging Leung’s murder on Friday.)

Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow with a man his girlfriend says was a federal undercover in 2011.

Federal prosecutors vigorously argued during the trial that Chow’s work in his community was nothing more than a disguise, offering him cover to oversee a group of old-school Chinatown thugs and their illicit money-making schemes. The gang allegedly trafficked drugs and untaxed hooch and smokes, plotted murders, laundered money.

For their part, Chow and his lawyers maintain the case is bigger than the one-time crook—and insist the investigation shed light on how power in San Francisco really works. They say Judge Charles Breyer was prejudiced against the defense from the start, chopping down their witness list from 48 to less than ten and refusing to consider evidence that implicated city officials. Briggs called Breyer an “attack dog whose sole job was to guard the elite’s secrets and to usher Chow as quickly as possible to life in prison.”

It took a lot of balls to do this with America watching, but that is an indication of just how comfortable the people he is protecting really are, and it illustrates their time tested trust in him,” Briggs added.

Both Serra and Briggs have vowed to appeal, and Briggs argues they have a good shot, though Friday’s verdict was obviously a resounding win for the prosecutors—a victory observers were pretty much anticipating. As Stanford Law Professor Robert Weisberg told the San Francisco Chronicle, “If you have tapes that are perfectly consistent with informant testimony, then juries convict a great deal of the time.” He added that he expects the verdict to be upheld.

Whatever happens with the appeals, Chow is going to spend years behind bars, an environment he knows well by now. And the networks of local political power and crime he spent much of his life in will hum along without him. Shrimp Boy supposedly got his nickname from his grandmother in Hong Kong, who apparently believed that a pseudonym would protect the short kid from evil spirits.

KCET: How senior fashion is turning heads in San Francisco’s Chinatown

You Tian Wu 82, about his fashion philosophy: “When you’re young you don’t have to care about fashion. But when you’re old, you have to.”

(Photo: Andria Lo/Chinatown Pretty)

Panda Express kicks off food truck tour with “Orange Chicken Waffles” at LA’s Chinatown Summer Nights

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FoodBeast (by Peter Pham):

Panda Express is heading on a special cross-country tour in honor of its love for orange chicken. Using a customized food truck, the chain will be traveling to select cities giving away free samples of their original chicken recipe to fans and patrons.

The Chinese-food inspired fast casual chain will also be offering a limited Orange Chicken and Waffles dish. Now that sounds like something we’d follow a truck around over. Make sure to get there early though, because only 200 servings will be available.

The event will kick off on August 22 at LA’s Chinatown Summer Nights which starts at 5pm. Aside from giving away food, Panda will also host a variety of activities and cooking competition for fans to enjoy.

The chain will be sporting the hashtag #OrangeChickenLove for the promotion.

Shaolin Monks in London’s Chinatown

A look inside Eddie Huang’s Chinese New Year feast, topped off with Hennessy Milk Tea

Eddie Huang’s Chinese New Year menu was complemented by an endless amount of Hennessy’s Red Ram cocktail. 

The Daily Meal: 

Chinese New Year… If you’ve never celebrated before, here’s a look at one Chinese chef’s interpretation.

Last week, a few days in advance of the real start of the Year of the Goat, Baohaus chef Eddie Huang hosted a New Year’s celebration in partnership with Hennessy, a label which will be especially familiar to anyone who’s attended his or her share of Chinese weddings.

Huang’s menu for the evening, a six-course affair put together in the tiny kitchen of No. 7 Restaurant in Brooklyn, featured lion’s head chicken soup, Hainan lobster salad, chili miso-braised fish, and Szechuan roasted black garlic chicken. As an interlude, guests were treated to a traditional lion’s head dance typically reserved for boisterous Chinatown streets around New Year’s.

The evening’s sponsor made sure that every glass was full of Red Ram, a cocktail created especially for the evening. Eddie, who has partnered with Hennessy in the past, even created a Hennessy Privilege Milk Tea (paired with egg tarts from Taipan Bakery in Chinatown) that actually made this author appreciate milk tea (black tea sweetened with condensed milk).

When we sat down with Eddie to talk about his love for the holiday, he brought over a full plate of roasted chicken and recalled his early role in the kitchen.

My mom worked, so she would call me on the way home, and I would get things ready so that when she got home, she could just cook. I was always my mom’s prep cook.”

Quickly, that role expanded to one of household handyman.

My mom bought a pressure washer and had me pressure wash the house. She would see other people get services, like this guy pressure washing or this guy cleaning the pool, and she would be like, ‘What chemicals do you use? Where do you buy the machines?’ and she would be like, ‘Guess what? You’re now pressure washing the house and cleaning the pool.’

There are lots of things you wouldn’t think kids can do until parents force them to, I offer.

Mulan joined the army,” Eddie says in agreement.

On Fresh Off the Boat, the ABC sitcom inspired by Huang’s memoir of the same name, we’ve yet to see a young Eddie face these challenges. The chef has made it clear that the resemblance between the show and its source material continues to diverge. Will there be, for instance, an episode of the show that features this holiday — the most important one of the Chinese calendar?

I don’t know if any of this will be on the sitcom because they never do any of the real s–t on that show, but on Vice we’re gonna do it. You’re on Vice right now.”

And, lastly, who in Huang’s family is known for being the most generous giver of the all-important red envelope?

Grandparents.”

“A conversation with cultural critic/Jeopardy champ Arthur Chu on nerd culture, Asians, and media

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The Awl:

Since Arthur Chu’s historic win streak on Jeopardy! early last year, he’s shrewdly turned his still-minty viral celebrity into a regular gig as a cultural critic and, as some have put it, “the ombudsman of the nerd community.”

At Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Manhattan’s Chinatown, we talked about milking his fifteen minutes, the crisis of nerd culture, and becoming an unlikely Asian-American male icon over a plate of chicken feet. (For me, since he politely declined.)

Is online celebrity strange?

It is, because stuff that’s happening on Twitter, you feel like it’s the whole world and you step off for a few minutes and it doesn’t matter to the majority of people. Even to the extent that it does, there’s a huge decoupling of what makes you important online. A lot of times, I just throw up my hands and say, “I don’t even know what my follower count means anymore.” You just have to keep that in perspective. It affects the real world but it’s something separate from the real world.

What did you do after Jeopardy!?

Call up publicists and PR firms, and said straight up, “Hey, do you work with viral celebrities?” Then I’d ask, “If you were me, how would you hang on to the fame, how would you monetize it?” I got good answers—they weren’t bad answers—but it was stuff I couldn’t imagine myself doing. It was stuff like, “Well you should take the whole idea of game theory and you should become an advice kind of guy, you should do lifehacker stuff, stuff like how-tos on how to invest, get a mortgage.” I said, “That stuff doesn’t interest me.” I didn’t want to keep talking about that for the rest of my life.

You started writing for the Daily Beast. There was that piece that was a critique of nerd culture, and specifically the misogyny in nerd culture, which seems to be a topic you’re obsessed with talking about.

I was the weird smart kid when I was in school, and it sucks being isolated for any reason. But especially guys in our culture, when you feel like you have no romantic prospects, the girls look down on you. It’s baked into our TV, books, and media, that validation comes from girls who like you, and being rejected by girls is sort of being rejected by society. I didn’t date much, and when I’d have fights with my girlfriend in high school, it would always come back to me feeling this sense of being judged. Like, you’re a girl, you’re attractive, you’re automatically on this higher level than me, on this pedestal. People always talk about this like it’s a good thing. The nice guy narrative—“Oh, I admire you so much. I would lavish so much attention on you”—that quickly becomes about getting what you want. Resentment.

I feel like what happened with Jeopardy! was that I got public recognition of my membership in this club. The nerd club. I was specifically lambasted online for being a nerd. If you want to talk about nerds being an oppressed class, a ton of people attacked me in public for being socially awkward, the way I came off. And yet I still have a huge problem with the narrative of the nerd underdog that’s being used to justify all of these things. Awkward guys have taken a lot of abuse, but we are not the actual victims right now in society. We’re taking our past victimization and using it to justify the terrible things that we do. Weirdly enough, I started saying this, and this past year become the year of the big events that highlight that. Elliot Rodger, Gamergate, the low-level nastiness that’s in gamer culture just blows up, and starts drawing attention to itself. That’s not unique there. You see it everywhere when people say, “Oh Christians are oppressed in the US. Or white people are oppressed.” Everyone wants to have that victimization narrative.

How do you see this affecting Asian-American men?

Speaking of horrible things on the Internet, there was a forum called AutoAdmit. One of their memes was this guy who would get really mad and post a photo every time he saw a white guy with an Asian girl. You know this is a long simmering issue in our community. That blog “Stuff White People Like” had a post that said, “What do white guys like? Asian women.”

Everyone thought that he was an Asian guy for a while because of how angry he sounded about that. Anytime there’s a fracture between Asian man and Asian women, it’s always like, Well who are you trying to date? Why are you trying to date white guys? Why are you trying to date white girls?

I’m in this Facebook group that’s basically just Asian guys railing about why Asian women don’t date Asian men, and their perceptions about how Asian men are emasculated in the media. There’s all of this anger and resentment.

Yeah! I mean, I can speak to this. When The Joy Luck Club, way back when, was a bestseller, the one woman’s story whose life most closely mirrored Amy Tan’s—she marries a white guy. And it’s the happy ending. Every Asian man in this story is a horrible abuser, or he’s an unloving cold fish that gets dumped for a white guy. It was a small part of what the book was about. But for a lot of Asian guys, it hit pretty hard. Some guys make it a whole part of that men’s rights activist thing, saying Asian women are privileged relative to Asian men—Asian men are almost an unnecessary demographic.

A lot of the positions you take perhaps aren’t mainstream Asian-American positions. Talking about race, talking about police violence, talking about sexism.

You get raised to run away from politics. That was how I was raised, in an evangelical Christian family. People from our backgrounds, you want to be just like everyone else. You want to integrate into American culture, you want to be invisible, you want to be the same as your white friends. For me, that was very much true. For a long time I’d say things like, “Why bring up race? Why not try to be colorblind? Why not have an identity that’s distinct from any racial background you have?” I was one of those guys. I’m an American. No hyphen.

There’s just a point—the more you confront what America actually is and how America works—you can’t say that America is apart from race. America is race. It’s a series of colonies that were founded by people taking land away from people who they felt didn’t deserve it. Because of race and then working the land with people who were enslaved because of race. It’s built on that. Do you look at your black friend and say, “I don’t see your race. It’s just a coincidence that you get stopped by cops when my white friends don’t. It’s just a coincidence that this black kid got shot”? When you try to be an actor and you look around and say, “Hey, there’s no other Asians here. Weird”? There are all these spec sheets that they put out, audition sheets, and they all say, “Whites or other race.” I’d like to keep thinking that it’s just merit, but gosh, it feels like, once you actually have your eyes open, you can’t keep lying to yourself about that stuff anymore.

What does it feel like to become a bit of an Asian-American icon?

I thought it was weird. I compared it to Linsanity when I first started thinking about it. It’s not just that there is a successful Asian-American that’s in a field that we’re not used to—we get sick and tired of the same narrative, someone with a web-based business, some computer scientist, an engineer. To see someone become successful in a different way, it’s liberating. I didn’t think an Asian-American winning on Jeopardy!by itself would be a big deal. The funny thing being there’ve been very few champions who are Asian-American—the contestant pool has been overwhelmingly white. So it was funny when it happened and people were like, “an Asian guy winning Jeopardy!, that’s predictable.”

The idea of an Asian in the news for being controversial and unapologetic, for having strong opinions… Asians are supposed to work hard and do well but not to make waves. Not to create controversy. When you’re raised to think that’s not your place, to me, it’s important to make that space. It’s okay to be loud and rude and opinionated as an Asian. It’s a good thing.

Margaret Cho comes to mind.

Yeah, like Margaret Cho! Her show, her standup is so good, and her show, as soon as they gave it to her, they were like, “We can’t let this happen, we have to shape it into something that we’re comfortable with.” Pat Morita did stand up his whole life, he was a very outspoken, profane, funny guy. But America remembers him as Mr. Miyagi.

That’s how I remember him too, to be honest.

Exactly. That’s what they want to see. So it’s always fighting to see something else, to push some other narrative.

Did this influence you as a kid? This lack of a different narrative about Asian-Americans.

I often grew up in communities where there weren’t many Asian kids, so I tried to identify with my white friends.Then there was the flip side, in high school, when we moved to California, and there were a lot of Asians. I didn’t fit in with them either. My dad always had this idea, once you’re with other Asians who won’t reject you because of your race, you’ll fit right in. I was like, “No! I’m still a weird person.” Most Asian-American kids in LA are like white American kids in LA—they have certain tastes, and it was very, very different from me. It was always me kind of feeling like, whatever community I’m in, I’m always different. Having spent a lot of my life feeling alienated from the Asian-American community, it’s weird to be welcome back.

How so?

In retrospect, I know there’s been Asian-American activists being very loud and political even before I was alive, but where I lived, it just wasn’t visible. That’s not something we do, that’s something that Black activists do. I think it would’ve made a lot of things easier for me if I’d had those messages—like it’s okay to be mad about racism, it’s okay to talk about it, it’s okay to think about and analyze things in terms of race, instead of just pretending like you don’t notice.

Would you describe yourself as an Asian-American activist?

I’d like to think of myself as one. A slacktivist, maybe. I haven’t put in as much work as people who’ve put in work, but it’s something I care about.

So what’s next for you?

I’m looking at writing a book about my journey on Jeopardy! and the idea of success around nerdy guys in America.

Any title ideas yet?

No, not yet.

Time to get on the Chu-chu train? I can tell from your face that you’re not really into that.

Ken Jennings likes Chu-phoria.

Fusion: ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ uses black culture to talk more candidly about Asian culture

Fusion: (by Molly Fitzpatrick)

It’s clear from the first ten seconds of Fresh Off the Boat, the new ABC sitcom about a Taiwanese family moving from Washington D.C.’s Chinatown to Orlando, Florida, that 11-year old Eddie Huang is an anomaly and he just doesn’t fit in.

In the opening scene, the camera pulls back to show his tiny figure swathed in the baggy, brightly colored clothes synonymous with the hip hop uniform of the time, and little Eddie struck a now-familiar pose: he defiantly crossed his arms high across his chest and nodded, not unlike the way Kool Moe Dee and Run D.M.C. used to do at the end of a knowingly dope rhyme. This universal symbol of defiance was now being deployed to signify a little kid’s discomfort with his recent relocation from Washington D.C.’s Chinatown to the bright, bland landscape of suburban Florida. Young Eddie fully intends to shock with his wardrobe, using it to intimidate bullies and parents alike. A massive part of Eddie’s real life and onscreen cultural assimilation rested heavily on his affection for hip-hop culture.

But if there’s a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, which one was this?

I went to Los Angeles in November to have a warm weekend with an old friend. On our last night in town, we went to see a benefit show at comedy hotspot Nerdmelt. Towards the end of the show, a buttoned-up white guy got on stage. He was nerdy in a way that reminded me of the nerds I grew up with in the 80s—light-washed jeans hemmed a little too high, a bulky, gray sweater with a generic winter pattern printed around the shoulders, and the kind of plain white, shell toed sneakers that you buy when you care more about cost than fashion. His short brown hair was pulled to the side, the way boys used to do on picture day in junior high with one of the hundreds of black plastic combs the photographer pulled out of a box for each student. It didn’t feel like a costume, but it could have been.

The first 5 minutes of his set were entirely comprised of his telling the audience he was going to “smack dat ass.” He made his voice deep when he used that phrase, like Geoffrey Holder or Barry White, and said “smack dat ass” over and over again until I wasn’t sure if I was watching a comedy routine or if I was part of an elaborate prank. I wasn’t annoyed by the repetition; I was surprised that the entirety of this comedian’s joke so far was that he was a white man affecting a black man’s voice, and that his act was predicated on the asynchronous visual of his being a white guy talking like a black guy. It made me deeply uncomfortable; I crossed my arms and sunk lower in my chair, waiting for him to finish. As far as I could tell, I was the only black person in the audience. I was also the only person not laughing.

I had a similarly uncomfortable feeling when Eddie stepped out of the dressing room to the beat of MC Breed’s “Ain’t No Future in Yo’ Frontin’” at the start of the pilot, begging his mom to buy him the pinky ring, stacks of gold chains, and Starter jacket he was trying on at JCPenney’s. Was the only thing funny here that he was biting a cultural style that didn’t necessarily belong to him? And if so, what’s so funny about it?

I liked these first episodes of Fresh Off the Boat, and I’m not just saying that because ABC cuts my paycheck. It’s as funny as any other family-oriented sitcom and shocking in all the right ways — a fellow student lobbed the word “chink” at Eddie in a lunchroom scene in the very first episode. It’s moments like this that remind you about the different set of rules minorities are often asked to follow and how uncommon it is to see them showcased on TV; when Eddie’s parents came in to discuss the racial slur, they flipped the usually apologetic script and asked the principal how he could allow such language in his school. It was a teachable moment that preferenced the wisdom and anger of Eddie’s parents instead of bolstering the racist system they were trying to work within. They were just parents sticking up for their kid, but that’s harder to do when part of your parenting includes an extraordinary effort to assimilate to white culture. There hasn’t been a primetime sitcom starring an Asian family in 20 years (the first one was Margaret Cho’s short-lived All American Girl in 1994, also on ABC), meaning an entire generation of Asian-Americans have grown up without seeing their faces or their cultural values represented on the small screen in a big way. This scene, from the moment Eddie is called a racial slur to the second his parents are done talking to the principal, does more to evoke the multi-layered, intersectional reality of most immigrants and minorities, that constant push and pull between wanting to fit in and wanting to break out, than almost anything else on TV right now.

But the efficacy of their parenting and disconnect from American pop culture (at least generationally) comes to a head when Eddie displays a love for hip-hop, and particularly his clothes. While his parents happily sing along to Ace of Base, Eddie is a renegade in a Nas T-shirt. When his mother asks, “Why do all of your shirts have black men on them?” Eddie responds, “It’s Notorious B.I.G. Both me and him are two dudes with mad dreams, just trying to get a little respect in the game.” The joke lands (here’s a little kid talking like a streetwise adult about “the game”) but an unspoken discomfort is wedged in there, too — why are you wasting your time on black culture when whiteness is the clear pathway to respectability? Why are you rallying so hard against cultural assimilation? This is complicated by the fact that his mother, Jessica, is also having a hard time with their move to Orlando — when she first meets the mob of blonde, white, rollerblading neighborhood moms she asks if they’re all sisters, and Eddie’s insistence that he take Lunchables to school instead of noodles has her uncomfortably entering an American grocery store for the first time in an attempt to have help him fit in. Eddie’s family is a Matroyshka doll of outsiders; his dad is a wild west-loving Asian steakhouse owner who left D.C. to escape the oppressive cultural values that would have him working for his brother-in-law forever, his mother doesn’t fit in with the cookie-cutter Barbie version of the stay-at-home mom, and Eddie doesn’t fit in anywhere.

 

In this way, it’s easy to understand how hip-hop is crucial to the development of Eddie’s personality and outsider status. He’s trying to find a pathway to respectability on his own terms, which fits in completely with the hip-hop ethos. In a tense cafeteria moment, a potential fight with a loudmouthed white kid is diffused when he sees Eddie’s Notorious B.I.G. t-shirt. He perks up and says, “I bought Ready To Die the day it came out!” to which Eddie replies, “You bought it? I STOLE it.” He’s using the language and posture of hip-hop to cement his social status as a subversive badass when he needs it most. A black kid sitting nearby witnesses the exchange, and scoffs incredulously, saying, “A white dude and an Asian dude bonding over a black dude?” as if it’s the craziest thing he’s ever seen.

2015 Winter TCA Tour - Day 8

But it’s not too farfetched, considering what I remember about the year I graduated high school. In 1995, hip-hop was already mainstream, and having fictional Eddie shop for his hip-hop uniform in JCPenney is indicative of how mainstream the genre had become. Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre were on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1995, and Tupac was on the first cover of 1996, following Ice T’s cover in 1992. Notorious B.I.G. had four top singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1995, and that was the year the Grammys added the Best Rap Album category. White suburban kids were already huge consumers of hip-hop and rap, which may have been why Eddie’s mom found it particularly troubling to see him walk around in Wu-Tang Clan t-shirts — suburban parents were terrified by the rise of hip-hop. They were similarly upset about heavy metal, but its loudness reminded them of a loose connection to rock music. Hip-hop was completely foreign to them, and brought with it a violence they couldn’t access or explain. It was also, at times, absurd and funny and just good music, but the parts that put people on edge glorified and discussed a very real kind of violence. No one wants to see their baby boy lip-synching to songs about shooting someone in the face, least of all the white parents who largely moved to the suburbs to escape that kind of urbanized violence.

But the reason white parents felt terrorized by hip-hop is the same reason I still get uncomfortable when I see someone outside of black culture using the language and posture of hip-hop culture, why the hairs on my arm stand up when white women describe their friendships as “ride or die,” and why Iggy Azalea incurred the wrath of Azealia Banks —hip-hop and rap were born of a specific place, and made for a specific group of people. It was music that was socially stigmatized precisely because of who was in control of the message as well as what they were saying, with lyrics portraying with brutal honesty the systemic racism that created ghettoized conditions to begin with. Hip-hop has since gone global, but in 1995 we were still on the cusp, enough so that people in my predominantly white suburban town commonly used the word “wigger” to describe any white kid in my high school wearing a Cross Colours jacket and listening to Ol’ Dirty Bastard. You weren’t just someone appreciating a style of music or a way to dress—you were a white nigger. You were racially transgressive.

There is a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, the crux of which are the historical lessons of dominant culture and the power structures that uphold them. As Tami Winfrey Harris said in her 2008 article on the topic:

A Japanese teen wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a big American company is not the same as Madonna sporting a bindi as part of her latest reinvention. The difference is history and power. Colonization has made Western Anglo culture supreme–powerful and coveted. It is understood in its diversity and nuance as other cultures can only hope to be. Ignorance of culture that is a burden to Asians, African and indigenous peoples, is unknown to most European descendants or at least lacks the same negative impact.

[…]

It matters who is doing the appropriating. If a dominant culture fancies some random element (a mode of dress, a manner of speaking, a style of music) of my culture interesting or exotic, but otherwise disdains my being and seeks to marginalize me, it is surely an insult.

I don’t think that 11-year old Eddie is insulting, and he’s certainly not part of the dominant culture, which is why this question of appropriation/appreciation in this context is an interesting one. From a cultural standpoint relating to power, Young Eddie has more in common with black culture even if that’s not how he understands his fondness for rap T-shirts. He’s effectively powerless. Perhaps that’s why Eddie Huang has such an affinity for black culture, both in real life and on the show. His struggle seems to be as much about race as it is about just being an outsider, and, as he explains in the pilot, “If you were an outsider hip-hop was your anthem, and I was definitely the black sheep in my family.” He was trying to find a stronghold by honoring the parts about him that he already knew were unique, and hip-hop helped him express that. Huang has (now famously) railed against the TV show for being void of anything resembling his actual experience:

I didn’t understand how network television, the one-size fits-all antithesis toFresh Off the Boat, was going to house the voice of a futuristic chinkstronaut. I began to regret ever selling the book, because Fresh Off the Boat was a very specific narrative about SPECIFIC moments in my life, such as kneeling in a driveway holding buckets of rice overhead or seeing pink nipples for the first time. The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane. But who is that show written for?

The show is missing is the violence that shaped Eddie’s young life, and consequently, his affinity for hip-hop culture. Huang writes very candidly about being beaten by his parents as a child, and a network sitcom will never be able to accurately reflect how that shaped him. It would be an entirely different show on an entirely different network.

Huang gave a TED talk about self-identity in March 2013; he enters the stage singing along to Kanye West’s “You Can’t Tell Me Nothing” but curiously doesn’t mention how hip-hop shaped his identity for the entire 5 minutes he’s up there. It’s not until two months later when he sits down with Ta-nehisi Coates at the New York Ideas festival that he has an in-depth conversation about race, identity and hip-hop. When Coates called him a hip-hop head and asked when Huang first felt like he was a kindred spirit to black culture, Huang made an eloquent connection to his life at home and violence in the music.

“I was drawn to it, and I felt a similarity with it, because I grew up in a home where my parents beat me, right? And I talk about it a lot in the book, and no one needs to feel sad or awkward—that’s what happens in an immigrant home a lot of the time. I’m not co-signing that, I think it’s wrong, but the thing is is that when I heard [Tu]Pac talking about these things, and I heard all this music that was at many times laced with violence, I was a little desensitized towards it. It didn’t put me off. It was not, like, a barrier to my entry. So I would listen. I wasn’t listening for the violence, though, because I think hip-hop is much deeper, but when that’s what you grow up with—parents hitting you and things like that—that’s part of your DNA and fabric whether you like it or not. And a lot of people ask me would you do it different, and I said yeah, I won’t hit my kids like my father beat me, right? But also, they ask me, would you be the same person that you are, and I say absolutely not. And this is the gift and the curse, and I have to be honest about it. I do not encourage people hitting their children, but I would absolutely not be the same person.”

Huang goes on to say that hip-hop made him feel “less weird,” that he could connect experientially to something larger than himself. He also noted that he felt left out of most conversations about race, which were about black people and white people exclusively, until he discovered hip-hop — small things like seeing black culture embrace martial arts in movies like The Last Dragon or the Wu-Tang Clan’s entire oeuvre showed him how someone else appreciated Asian culture. Coates brings up the important point that Wu-Tang’s Asian obsession might have been essentializing that culture, too, and that’s where we come full circle to the idea of what it means to be culturally appropriative once something becomes a global phenomenon. Is there a difference between Tom on Parks and Recreation adoring hip-hop and the rapping granny from an Adam Sandler movie using hip-hop as the punchline to a very obvious joke? The question isn’t what happens to the culture that created hip-hop, but what does it mean to the cultures that embrace it?

How does Fresh Off the Boat‘s hip-hop identity measure up to Fox’s Empire, ABC’s or Black-ish? Both of those shows, in different ways, feature black families looking for legitimacy beyond the constraints of hip-hop culture. In the pilot for Black-ish, advertising executive Dre Johnson is excited about his promotion until he learns he’s been promoted to the head of the “urban” division; in Empire, Lucious Lyon is looking for a way to leave a legacy of success far removed from the shadow of his thuggish beginnings. In both cases, Dre and Lucious still have to work within the boundaries of black culture to achieve legitimacy, like it or not. In the video for the New York Ideas festival, Huang quickly mentions in passing that he is a lawyer, and spends a little more time talking about how much he disliked the constraints of business clothing. That’s the difference between a dramatized version of race and the reality of race; Huang can choose to identify with hip-hop but still go on to be a lawyer and successful business owner. He can hang up the cultural affectations whenever he wants to, simply because it’s something he’s allowed to grow out of. He may not like or prefer code switching, but it’s possible for him. On TV, Lucious and Dre can transcend class quicker than they can transcend culture, and in real life, Eddie gets to do both.

Does hip-hop still exclusively belong to black culture anymore? And does that even matter if it offers a weird little kid some solace? That we’re even able to have this conversation is a result of finally seeing a TV show about an Asian kid having a hard time fitting in. If one of the Modern Family kids suddenly started wearing FUBU and talking with a Bronx accent, it would be an open and shut case of abject racism and posturing, and I’d be yelling about it on Twitter instead of writing about it here. Fresh Off the Boat allows us to consider the experience of being a non-white person in America from a non-white perspective. It opens a window and lets us see how American minorities lean on each other to survive. It’s a little bit like a game of Telephone, but instead of getting a twisted, filtered version of the message about what it means to be a person of color in America after it goes around the rest of the group, you’re sitting next to the originator and getting it straight from the source.

Knowing more about Huang’s background helped me realize that his connection to hip-hop is solid and very much a part of him in a way that hasn’t been made clear on the TV show yet. Unlike the comedian I saw in Los Angeles, it’s also not an affectation; hip-hop music helped Eddie Huang get a foot in the door of what it meant to be American, and what it meant to be different. Those are all still real problems, possibly more so now that America has allowed the far right to pour its poison directly into the melting pot that used to sustain us culturally. It may not be exactly the show Huang wanted, but I can’t help but feel like Fresh Off the Boat is going to help another generation of kids feel like they’re a little less alone.