By Val Wang
May 24, 2012
BOSTON — Sometimes the best way to find the flavor of where we live is … through a restaurant.
Not the fancy places people cross the region to see. The humble spots where people stop and get something to go — and in the process, have conversations across the counter that make life a little bit more human.
WGBH News' Val Wang is spending the next 6 months documenting these for her project "Planet Takeout": a look at Chinese food, our neighborhoods and ourselves.
Wherever you go, there they are
Every neighborhood in Boston has at least one. In the heart of Roxbury there’s Peking House in an old Church’s Chicken building. In Dorchester, Yum Yum stands shoulder-to-shoulder with nail salons and Irish bars. Jamaica Plain has Food Wall and Charlie Chan’s. They are among the almost 10,000 Chinese takeouts that dot the country, preparing more than 2 million meals every day.
Ever since I’ve lived in big American cities, first New York and now Boston, no place has fascinated me as much as the local Chinese takeout. Each is deeply a part of their neighborhood but also somewhat separate. The people who work there come from halfway around the world to serve Americanized Chinese food to people of every color. Those on both sides of the counter have to meet each other halfway, often at a bulletproof window.
This cultural crossroad teems with stories. I think of the humble takeout as a lens through which we can see both the tightly knit local neighborhoods of Boston and global immigration patterns to the city. And most importantly, we can see how the two fit together.
One restaurateur's journey
Tom Chen was born in Hong Kong. After a decade of working in Chinese restaurants he bought his own takeout in Chelsea, Mass., called Dragon Kitchen. He ran it for a decade.
Most of his customers were Latino. He said they tended to order three dishes: lobster sauce, shrimp fried rice and chicken wings. Every week, he sold 400 pounds of chicken wings. And because he had to adapt to his customers, he learned basic Spanish. Shrimp fried rice became arroz con camarones. Chicken wings, alas de pollo. And lobster sauce was salsa langosta.
Chen said he didn't know much Spanish beyond what he needed for the job, “but I try to make a living. So everybody will adjust yourself.”
It wasn’t easy running a takeout: mastering simple Spanish, learning the names of his regular customers and, on two life-threatening occasions, getting held up at gunpoint. But it was a big step up from bartending, his previous job.
While most restaurant profits hover around 40 percent, Chen said Dragon Kitchen cleared 60 percent.
“The takeout restaurant basically is work hard, long hours. You can make a better income. Buy materials by myself, then we cook it, we prepare. Just four people, work close together. I see co-workers more than my wife. The kids, I never saw my kids. The kids go to school at 7 o’clock, get back at 9, we’re still working,” said Chen.
He sold his takeout 10 years ago and bought a more upscale sit-down restaurant in Needham called Mandarin Cuisine.
A tight-knit world
Talking to Chen may seem easy, but in my experience, it’s difficult to walk in the front door of a takeout asking to interview workers and customers. He only opened up because I met him through Helen Chin Schlichte — or "Auntie Helen," as everyone in the Chinese immigrant community calls her. A native of Charlestown, she is very active both in Chinatown and in the city at large. Auntie Helen immediately understood my predicament.
“Even though you’re very Chinese and you can speak fluent Mandarin, they’re not quite sure if you’re from the IRS, or from Homeland Security," she said. "There are all kinds of reasons that they might be a little wary until somebody comes along to say, ‘Okay, this is a great project. This is one that would be terrific for you to participate in and for you to be a part of this larger community of takeout restaurants, and it’s okay to talk to her."
I asked Chen what he would have said if I’d come in the door of his old Chelsea takeout asking to interview him. “No,” he responded simply. “I say, ‘Nope, you kidding me?’ Eighty percent, or 90 percent, close the door for you. I already know that. First thing, they don’t know you" — and if they don't know you, they don't know why they'd do you a favor.
Furthermore, Chen said, "Most Chinese people don’t like [to] talk in public. They need to close everything in their mind. They’re not open. Even your father, your mother, won’t open anything for you, right?"
When asked for his explanation of that dynamic, Chen responded, "That’s the way we brought up. Like, why we eat rice?”
I started to wonder about the underlying social structures that hold the community together — and keep outsiders at a distance. So I called Baruch College professor Ken Guest, an anthropologist who studies Chinese immigrant communities living in New York.
“The Chinese restaurants are deeply embedded in an ethnic economy. And there is a sense of ethnic solidarity that people draw on to make a go of it. There’s a way in which that economic framework also shapes some of their notions of how they are in American culture, where they fit. It frames a lot of their business and social networks,” he said.
Networks were the key word here.
“Get somebody know somebody," Chen summarized. "From the back, not from the front. You walk in the front, you don’t get any answer. They will tell you they’re busy. No. Thank you. That’s it. Get somebody behind the owner. If you not Helen Chin introduce you, you won’t be sitting here. I tell the truth.”
It’s good advice. I found I had to work through existing networks — social service agencies, civic groups, food suppliers, menu printers, academics, filmmakers, hoping someone could introduce me to someone else who could get me in that proverbial back door.
But the project also needs the other half of the story: your half.
I found Philip Lodge, 17, at Yum Yum in Dorchester after school, waiting for his takeout order.
“Well, I got hungry after I left school, so I just had to eat a little meal before I go home," he explained. "A $2 plate of rice and ribs and I added crab Rangoon, fried shrimp and chicken teriyaki."
And it's not a rare visit. "I come like three times a week. My mom told me that their food was good so I started ordering my own plates, and I liked it," he said.
I bet you’ve probably been to a Chinese takeout before — you might even be a regular at one. Or maybe you went to one with your family growing up. If so, I want to hear your story.
If you have a story about a Chinese takeout, give Val and Planet Takeout a call at 617 477-8688. It's a free call in the Boston area, and the recording will explain what to do. You can also leave a story, upload photos or listen to others' stories at planettakeout.org.
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