The Museum of Chinese in the Americas (MoCA) examines a central image of Chinese American life – the Chinese restaurant, in Have You Eaten Yet?: The Chinese Restaurant in America, an exhibit that caps the Museum’s food and restaurant-themed season. Often the first introduction to Chinese culture for many Americans, the Chinese restaurant has functioned since the nineteenth century as a site of cultural exchange. Have You Eaten Yet? traces the Chinese restaurant’s origin and growth in America, and explores how these cultural negotiations have been made over time. It takes a revealing look at Young Entrepreneur
perceptions and expectations through historical menu collections, travel diary entries, and Chinese food myths.
“Have you eaten yet,” is a standard Chinese greeting sharing the same connotation as “how are you?” Its incorporation into the daily vernacular attests to the significance of food in the Chinese culture, where meals are a fusion of art and entertainment and a venue for dialogue and reconnecting with family, friends and guests. MoCA’s exhibit similarly melds food, art and dialogue with an engaging design by graphic artist team Pei Hsieh and Stephanie Reyer. Hsieh and Reyer team with curators Cynthia Lee and Yong Chen to examine the saga of Chinese restaurants through an impressive collection of menus, objects and souvenirs, many of which are from the collection of Harley Spiller.
The exhibit is organized by thematic progression, spanning the earliest “chow chow” restaurants of the West in the mid-1800s; to the nightclub dinner shows of the 1940s; through President Nixon’s visit to China renewing interest in “authentic” Chinese cuisine in the 1970s; up through the take-out culture of today. Visitors will be able to hear vintage radio commercials and excerpts of pop hits that have immortalized Chinese dishes like chop suey and chow mein. Items like menus, glassware and postcards show how Chinese food entrepreneurs have employed exoticism and the ignorance of the curious consumer to attract business. Responding to a call for stories and photographs, families and employees have submitted their own intimate portraits of working in Chinese restaurants and are sharing these revealing narratives in Have You Eaten Yet?
In conjunction with Have You Eaten Yet?, MoCA will hold related programming through June 2005. This includes screenings of Chinese Restaurants, a thirteen-part documentary series by Canadian filmmaker Cheuk Kwan. The documentary takes Kwan to restaurants around the globe, bringing the audience into the lives of extraordinary families as they share moving stories of struggle, courage, displacement and belonging, and what it means to be “Chinese” today. Screenings will be held in September, November, January, March and May around New York City. MoCA will also co-sponsor a program with the New York University Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program and Institute on October 2nd, 2004 featuring chef/food writer Grace Young and photographer Alan Richardson. Their new book The Breath of a Wok chronicles their journey to China to uncover the history and modernization of the wok – the workhorse of the Chinese kitchen. The program will be held at the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program and Institute, New York University, 269 Mercer Street, Suite 609.