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Chinese Restaurant Project, A

by Indigo Som

Restaurant Reviews

Summer Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(2) page(s): 29

What is your earliest memory of a Chinese restaurant? As an artist and writer, I want to know; that is one way I want your help. Another purpose is to collect a takeout menu from every single Chinese restaurant in the United States. You can already visualize that this will be a big audience--participation exercise. Everyone can be a member of the participating audience. As one of many, you join one sub-component of this umbrella Chinese Restaurant Project. Keep in mind that mine is a long-term multifaceted investigation of relationships between Chinese restaurants, American culture, and American identity. Your help is wanted and needed to make this a really successful project; so welcome aboard!

Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous throughout the United States. They constitute an integral part of one part of American life. They are most pervasive and a visible manifestation of Chinese American presence in this country. For most Americans of non-Chinese descent, Chinese restaurants are the main point of contact with the Chinese culture and its people.

American perceptions and concepts of Chinese-ness and Asian-ness have been profoundly shaped by experiences with Chinese restaurants and Chinese food. These influences remain generally unacknowledged, even invisible. Historic patterns of racism stereotype Asian Americans as perpetually foreign. How is this happening vis-a-vis Chinese restaurants and their interaction with American people? That is one thing I want to know.

Chinese food, despite its position as a fixture in the American foodscape, remains an exoticized outsider to the usual considerations of American culture and identity. This project hopes to stimulate critical recognition of the Chinese restaurant as an archetypal icon of American experiences. It poses questions about the place of Chinese restaurants in the American imagination, each of our imaginations and our collective imagination.

The consistent presence of Chinese restaurants in places otherwise notable for the apparent absence of anything--or anybody else Chinese--is particularly fascinating. It metaphorically epitomizes the confluence of issues already outlined.

As part of this project, I travel in search of these restaurants to photograph them, interview restaurant patrons and workers, and collect take-out menus. For example, in September 2002, I drove to Wyoming with my video collaborator, Donna Keiko Ozawa. We visited thirty-four restaurants in two weeks. In May 2003, the Anderson Center in Minnesota offered a residency to work on this project. I took a week's trip through Wisconsin with friend and colleague Irene Chan. We visited a total of thirty-six restaurants that month. The next trip will focus on Mississippi and Alabama and Chinese restaurants there. What will be done with all this material? Actually many things. One plan is to create and exhibit new work in a variety of media. This will be done throughout the course of the project instead of working toward a single final exhibition. The project already had its debut; it was at the Mills College Art Museum in Oakland, California in October of 2003. That exhibit included a group of enlarged Chinese restaurant photographs almost a yard square.

In addition, the project has a website, including a blog. It has project updates posted. And, there are the Chinese restaurant experiences. Further ideas include drawings, site-specific installations, and a book. So you can see that the project continues a career-long quest to call attention to that which is hidden in plain sight.

The project questions the unquestioned. It looks at details of our daily lives. Past work focused on the concept of many small repetitive actions or events accumulating in a significant reality or presence. The Chinese restaurants of this country embody this idea perfectly.

How does that involve you beyond being a menu collector? You can participate in two ways, and I urge you to do both. Send takeout menus to me. My name is Indigo Som. You can mail them to me at P O Box 5053 in Berkeley CA 94705. In addition,I hope you will tell me about your Chinese restaurant memories. You can do that by clicking on 'survey' at this project's website, which is: http://www. indigosom. com

You can also contact me by e-mail at indigo@well.com and please do become an important component of this research project. I look forward to hearing from each and every one of you, so contact me real soon. In advance of your doing so, many thanks, thanks, and more thanks for sharing your earliest memory of a Chinese restaurant, and more. Welcome aboard to its audience-participation component.

We, at Flavor and Fortune, are pleased that Chinese restaurants and their menus are receiving much deserved attention. This project deserves your cooperation, as does adding to the collection of a frequent contributing writer Harley Spiller. Some of his take-out menus are on display as indicated after his articles in the hard copy of this issue. So do collect two Chinese take-out menus wherever you go. To save you time, energy, and postage, you can send them to this magazine, and we will send one to Indigo Som and the other to Harley Spiller. They will both thank you very much.

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