By Pat Tanumihardja
Northwest Asian Weekly
As expected of the wired Generation X-er I am, I Googled “Serve the People” to find out more about the book and the author. I was a little surprised; what I thought was a cleverly coined book title was actually a political slogan stemming from a speech Mao Zedong delivered on Sept. 8, 1944, in memory of a fellow Communist party member.
Don’t be mistaken. Jen Lin-Liu’s book is not a politically charged tome. Just like the dim sum that Lin-Liu describes and makes, this book is light fare. A freelance journalist and food writer living in Beijing, Lin-Liu chronicles her adventures in cooking and eating, from the time she enrolls in the Hualian Cooking School in 2005, to her internships at eateries both humble and lavish, to the founding of her own cooking school.
Despite the recent saturation of China-centric books (thanks in part to the Beijing Olympics), this upbeat memoir is nonetheless an entertaining read. It’s punctuated with fascinating social commentary, not to mention mouthwatering descriptions of food, authentic recipes and light-hearted anecdotes.
As a second generation Chinese American growing up in Southern California, Lin-Liu was exposed to Chinese food and culture. But nothing from her childhood could have prepared her for the challenges that lay ahead. Not only does she have to stand her ground in a male-dominated environment, she struggles to follow her lessons in a second language.
In China, Lin-Liu also comes face-to-face with the corruption that infiltrates daily life in China. Because many students couldn’t afford to retake their exams, her teachers and school officials even encourage her to hire a “gun hand,” a professional test-taker, or to just plain cheat!
The attraction of “Serve the People” is not so much Lin-Liu’s culinary adventures (which include an investigative visit to one of the country’s largest MSG factories and a stint harvesting rice in the rural village of Ping’an), but rather in the vignettes of Chinese society we see through the characters she meets. Her cooking mentor, Chairman Wang, frequently peppers their cooking lessons with memories of the Cultural Revolution. She speaks, not without fondness, about the time she was “sent down” to the countryside to grow millet and sorghum and work in a coal mine.
After graduating from cooking school, Lin-Liu interns at Chef Zhang’s noodle stall. Zhang came to the city to better support the family he left behind in rural Shanxi province and toils in his humble noodle stall seven days a week. Lin-Liu also befriends Qin, an 18-year-old waitress who left her hometown in Sichuan province for a poorly paying dead-end job. Qin gets only one day off a month and lives in dismal conditions in a narrow alcove behind the restaurant kitchen with 20 other waitresses.
For balanced reporting, Lin-Liu gives us a glimpse at the other side of the coin — a burgeoning urban middle class hungry for luxury after decades of turmoil and deprivation. She dines at upscale restaurants with teacher Jiang, a food writer for Chinese Vogue and Shanghai Tatler, and, of course, she samples exotica like dog meat and penis (bull, sheep, donkey, you name it). Lin-Liu also writes about her exploits during her internship at Jereme Leung’s upscale Shanghai restaurant, Whampoa Club.
By recording the lives of the average man/woman (or just man or person if you prefer) on the street, Lin-Liu showcases an intriguing slice of contemporary China in the full swing of social and economic transformation. ♦
“Serve the People – A Stir-Fried Journey Through China” by Jen Lin-Liu is published by Harcourt Books.
Pat Tanumihardja can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.