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Martin's Dinner: Homage to a Genius

by Harley Spiller


Summer Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(2) page(s): 17 and 18

It’s 'Snake Sleeping in the Snow Year,' a promising fifty-two weeks for humans who warehouse as assiduously as grizzlies bearing down for hibernation. It’s natural then that Martin Wong, the artist, collector, and bon vivant extraordinaire, was honored this New Year 2001 with a ten-course feast. Twenty-five guests gathered at the Nice Restaurant, 35 East Broadway, a spot chosen by the directors of Penny Pilkington and Wendy Olsoff’s art gallery in SoHo. The banquet was ordered by Martin’s mom, Florence, a Chinese-born American who has for many years railed against the preposterously mundane Buddha’s Delight dishes served at rice-eterias outside Chinatown. All too often this grand-sounding vegetarian dish tastes only of tin-can and salt water.

Mrs. Wong displayed restaurant acumen by successfully ordering a complicated mélange truly worthy of a Buddha. A tall tangle of steaming golden, green, and earth-toned treasures featured fresh gingko nuts, clear mung bean noodles the Cantonese call fun tsee, white crunchy chrysanthemum-shaped fungus, baby Chinese broccoli, taupe bean curd sticks and more, intriguing a pretty tough crowd of bi-coastal artists and art workers. It was tops.

Also known as dried bean curd, or 'second bamboo,' bean curd sticks are made from the second layer of residue remaining when creamy curd is extracted from fresh soy beans. The long, dried, sticks are about half inch wide and twenty inches long, bent in half in plastic packages that cost a buck or two. Stiff and striated with shiny, enamel-like surfaces, they become chewy and nut-like when reconstituted and cooked. Second bamboo also comes in sheets used for wrapped and rolled pastries and snacks. It was funny how I first learned about one of Martin's most beloved foods. In 1995, he came over for a home-cooked supper featuring a winter casserole of black mushrooms, bok cai, bamboo shoots, fresh arrowhead root, and the bean curd sticks, which I had not known were his favorite. He surprised me because although he was slim, he scarfed down a huge amount of food. Then he found the bowl where some remaining bean curd sticks were soaking and ate all of them. Later, he told people that he got sick from the meal, failing to mention that I had repeatedly asked him not to eat the soaked but uncooked bean curd. Martin’s giant appetite for food and social life is the stuff of legend. Some theorize he had a hollow leg because he often ate dinner with one bunch of Lower East Side pals, only to be seen again the same evening, dining with another. Westerners commonly think that big people eat a lot. However, Asians know that slim folk with active lifestyles can actually eat more. To wit, at Nathan’s annual Coney Island hot dog eating contest, a five foot two inch one hundred and ten pound Japanese man, Hirofumi Nakajima, whipped Queens' six foot three inch and three hundred twenty pound Ed, The Animal, Krachie, three years running!

As an ABC (American Born Chinese) who could not read, write nor speak his parent’s native Cantonese, Martin developed a tenuous relationship with the Chinatown in San Francisco and the one in New York, places where he had homes. This dichotomy between cultures was easy to spot on Martin: his Fu Man Chu seemed ever shadowed by a Stetson. He envied my trips to Hong Kong, wondering how I got along without the language, and confiding that he did not have the courage to visit his ancestral homeland because he knew locals would razz him. Martin knew the intricacies of the Chinese diet and despite his California upbringing, he refused ‘not to be Oriental.’ Perhaps that's why he painted the kitsch and ornamentation of Chinatown again and again. He treated Chinese temples with the same reverence as Bruce Lee or Kato, a laundry or a package of moon cakes, always investing realistic images with cultural fusion. In gigantic paintings like one he did of a Chinese New Year Parade in which a dragon prances in a swirl of firecrackers and celebrants, Martin depicted himself as a lost and frightened boy, not sure what to make of so much culture. Perhaps as an attempt to answer such questions of cultural identity, Martin filled shelf after shelf with collections of ceramics, wood carvings, lunch pails, music posters, and curios from Chinatown and elsewhere. It seems that both his painting and collecting activities were ways to examine his heritage, to debate whether these objects were merely ornamental or possessed of deeper meaning. This debate can be felt in the paintings, such as the one illustrated in the hard copy of this issue, done in 1992 of Hopsing Oyster Sauce.

Hop Sing Lung oyster sauce is still available at many markets, at about $2.75 for a fourteen-ounce bottle. The label is the same as in the painting except that the man's portrait has been replaced by a fanciful dancing dragon. Basically a straightforward but oversized representation of a bottle of cooking sauce, with a painted gold frame and the manufacturer's name repeated for background, the deeper significance of this seven foot acrylic on linen painting reflects Martin’s ongoing inner debates about ‘Chinese-ness.’

Martin said it was the only brand of oyster sauce he ever bought because although he could not read the Chinese characters, he recognized it as the one his mother used. That was the raison d’etre for this gigantic portrait of a commonplace comestible, not at all unlike Andy Warhol's famous explorations of Campbell’s Tomato Soup.

I imagine Martin growing up sharing two fine cuisines, the hippy food ideals prevalent in and around 1960's Berkeley merging neatly with his parent’s healthful Chinese diet. Modern California cuisine shares the Chinese theory of attaining healthfulness with the use of many vegetables, a little protein, plenty of grain, and loads of variety. Today's West Coast dining trends seem ahead of New York’s in as far as healthier, socially conscious and vegetarian offerings go, in both Eastern and Western cuisines.

Specifically, dim sum is invariably lighter and less porky in San Francisco. It's the only city other than Vancouver known to this reporter which proffers truly healthy and light tea lunches like at Cityview Restaurant. Their unique and cleansing cilantro-stuffed dumplings delight. In a downtown business district on Commercial Street off Kearney, Cityview also pushes carts full of Scallops Shu Mai, Tofu-stuffed Eggplant, Shrimp with Chive Pouches, and rarely seen and altogether tantalizing Jalapeno Leaves in Black Bean Sauce. Pork is not omitted; rather, fine cuts of baby pig are encased in thin rice dough with plenty of powerful ginger. This is fusion cuisine at its peak. It is the best of both worlds symbiotically merging to create an improved food ethic. Maybe we should call this mix, 'Calinese.'

Martin portrayed his Aunt Nora in a 1992 acrylic on canvas painting. The Ms. Chinatown, is an alluring entertainer reclining on a black velvet divan in smoky nightspot typical of exotic dens that proliferated around the Roaring 20's. Just like the Chinese New Year’s Parade painting, Martin inserted an image of himself into this painting, a sort of self-inspection of his bloodlines. Nora worked in the 1930's as an emcee at the Lion’s Den, a popular Chinatown nightclub in San Francisco. She was also a dancer at the better known Forbidden City, named for Beijing's famed imperial residence, which presented acrobats, magicians and other entertainments.

Born in 1946, Martin missed the heyday of ’chop suey cha cha;’ nonetheless, he always celebrated in the spirit of this riotous cultural conflation of Chinese food and late night North American style partying. This exotification of things Asian blossomed alongside the simultaneous growth of Shanghai as a world nightlife and cabaret capital. It was so pervasive that Chinese restaurant/nightclubs proliferated nearly everywhere in New York. The 1930's road-houses, like Jerry Benson's House Party, dotted the Long Island highway that Gatsby made famous, crowing about their Chinese chefs but mainly selling booze. Broadway, uptown, was loaded with Chinese hot-spots and chic, of-the-moment Manhattan boîîtes like The Hollywood Cafe all proffered Chinese food, as did, surprisingly, the famous Stork and Cotton clubs.

But back to 2001 and the celebratory banquet. The last two dishes served were also first class, the Nice kitchen challenging the palate even after eight courses. Their home-made wheaty E-fu noodles were so delicious that they deserve a whole new adjective. The ecru-colored hillock was ethereal and aerated like a proper matzah brie, a mild mushroom flavor allowing the noodle itself to take center stage. Marigold-colored (how it got that way I don’t know) Young Chow Fried Rice was clean and elegant, well balanced with a mild smokey aftertaste. Was it from the Virginia ham that Calinese cuisine might cut back?

The opening salvo of the dinner had been a true chef’s special: Oceanic Black-bean-sauced Squid and Scallop showstoppers encircled by fried cakes of Shrimp-stuffed Tofu. Heavy on the black pepper, it made everyone smile. The ever-popular Ping's Restaurant on Queen's Boulevard also serves such a black black sauce. Pepper and fermented soy bean is a hip and fiery coupling! The Sauteed Beef Filet with its peeled, crunchy asparagus bottoms was perfect, and a Shredded Mushroom Imitation Sharks Fin Soup was excellent, if a bit thick with starch. Roast Chicken was obviously fresh, pink, delectable, and distinctly non-Purdue.

Big chunks of Fried Sea Bass with Fuzzy Melon were tasty but oily and the Twin Ginger Lobsters were a tad overdone. The Deep-fried Shrimp ringed with Western broccoli and drizzled with mayo was good for some. The three-hour well-rounded repast ended with a classic Red Bean Soup and lots of lingering among the happily stuffed friends of Martin.

Martin Wong, the dean of Chinese American artists, was a painter of undeniable genius whose works now rest in the permanent collections of the New York Historical Society, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among other places.

He succumbed to AIDS last year at the age of 53. A short while later his father Ben also passed on. His playful personality is sorely missed, but thankfully, his work lives on in many prominent museums and private collections, One of them, the New York Historical Society, is where this author is currently presenting family programs based on the theme of collecting, an item he knows well as he continues to enhance his own six-thousand-plus menu collection.
The author thanks Flo for many years of warm and genuine friendship, and also Wendy, Penny and the PPOW. staff, Daze, KK, PV, and Pinman. He also advises that the Hopsing Oyster Sauce was painted by Martin Wong in 1992, is acrylic on linen, 84 x 32 inches, and reproduced in the hard copy with special thanks to the PPOW Gallery.

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