By John Liu
“What is your dream?”
Tay and Val started in Singapore and traveled around the world asking this question for the last five years.
Then they shared the stories and inspired everyone around them. Their journey brought them from Singapore to Seattle. One day they were homesick and wanted to eat Chinese dishes that reminded them of home. Unfortunately, what they ordered turned out to be much different than what they expected. As a result, they used a documentary to explore the origins of Chinese American food businesses with a focus on Seattle’s International District.
Who exactly are Tay and Val? Siang Hui Tay is a storyteller who has 12 years of experience working in the film and TV industry as a director. Xinhui Val is an actress, TV producer/director and has five years of experience working in the digital media industry and 13 years of experience in the film/TV industry. “A Taste of Home” serves to answer questions like “How did the chop suey combo come about? What’s a Joong and what are ingredients in it? How did they ever insert those fortunes into the fortune cookies? What happened to Mon Hei Bakery after the fire? Val and Tan examine 100 years of Seattle’s Chinatown-ID in search of “A Taste of Home” which the only documentary film series featuring five of the oldest Chinese American food establishments in the ID.
I was one of the lucky 100 who was able to attend the premiere of “A Taste of Home.” Val had just announced the waiting list was close to 100 people! The community hall has a max capacity of 150 people, but Tay and Val wanted room for the audience to also experience the tasty dishes featured in the documentary.
The emcee for the film’s premiere June 27 was none other than Maxine Chan, our Seattle food anthropologist. She gave some background information about the Chinese American businesses and explained the origins of the Chinese dishes served. The entire documentary could not be screened because that would disqualify their entry into film competitions in the future. We were treated to 10 minute snippets of the featured film. The following is a brief description of what we saw:
Tai Tung Restaurant
Tai Tung is the oldest Chinese restaurant in the International District and has been opened for 80 years. Migrant workers stopped by Tai Tung while pursuing the American dream. The bar area served as a great place for single men to eat and socialize. “Chop suey,” meaning a combination of everything, was a traditional family meal created for single men. The only thing that has changed in the 80 years was the price. Tai Tung has become a family institution for many generations. Harry says life keeps changing, but he is fine with change as long as the change is good.
Tsue Chong Noodle Company
This noodle factory uses 10,000 pounds of dough products a day and makes four different styles of noodles. The workers give the products personality and the business livelihood. The family and relationships represent a huge part of Tsue Chong. Many of the Chinese restaurants in Washignton use Tsue Chong fortune cookies.
Fortuna Cafe was one of the few places to serve Joong all year long. Joong aka Zongzi or Chinese tamales, can be served in many different forms differing with the leaves used based on the ingredients inside. They all usually included some form of sticky rice. Everyone got a laugh when Ching Chan of IDEA Space struggled to make Joong in the documentary. At each table, we had a quick competition to see who could cut the Joong’s strings and unwrap the bamboo leaves without tearing them within 30 seconds. I don’t believe anyone was successful at doing it in time. Afterwards, we were served three types of Joong, and they were all delicious.
Mon Hei Bakery
Mon Hei was the first Chinese bakery in the International District and known for their cocktail buns and Chinese donuts. Unfortunately Mon Hei had to close its doors after the Louisa Hotel caught on fire in Dec 2013. This was the only business that was closed during the filming of the documentary. We get to see a glimpse of how owner Annie is struggling with transitioning to a life without running Mon Hei. Annie said, “She lost her home and misses her customers.” We got to experience Mon Hei cookies baked out of her own home.
Yik Fung Co.
This historical grocery store will be included in the final film. Tay and Val requests your help with any historical pictures of Yik Fung or any other Chinatown grocery stores. More info below on how to help.
After indulging in chop suey, crispy noodles in a traditional takeout box, Mon Hei cookies, and Joong you get a sense of appreciation of the tradition, the complexity and time involved in cooking food from past generations. I like how Val attempted to make each food that was painstakingly mastered by family for many generations.
Tay and Val have requested our help to send stories of Chinatown food businesses or any pictures you have of the four featured businesses. Visit www.atasteofhome.us for more info and get updates on the progress. Submit photos of historical Chinatown businesses to: firstname.lastname@example.org. The documentary is sponsored by community partners 4Culture, Department of Neighborhoods, and SCIDpda. (end)