“The Search for General Tso”: expanding the Taiwan story

Recently, I watched the documentary “The Search for General Tso.” For those in the U.S., it is currently available on various digital mediums (such as Netflix, Amazon.com, iTunes, etc.) for streaming, rent, or purchase. The name of the documentary in Chinese is 尋找左宗棠, and was released in May in Taiwan, and can be seen at 高雄市電影館 (Kaohsiung Film Archive). The purpose of the documentary is to find the origins of the dish called General Tso’s chicken, or 左宗堂雞. The dish becomes a starting point to discuss Chinese food in America, and the history of Chinese immigration and Chinese people in America. The documentary includes interviews with prominent scholars on Chinese in America, which includes prominent scholars on Chinese cuisine and history from the U.S. and Europe.

The documentary takes an American focused view, so its target is probably American audiences. In one part of the documentary, we travel to 湖南 (Hunan), the home province of 左宗堂. We meet scholars who show us around his hometown, where there is an hotel and an elementary school named after him. We see his home, and a large statue dedicated to him. But when it’s time to explain his significance in Chinese history, those interviewed are in a studio or office, and are people in America and Europe.

It is not until the end of the documentary that we learn that one of the people we met in China is a descendent of 左宗堂, who is now a 左宗堂 scholar, and was basically showing us his family history. But this is already far after there was a humiliating scene where the filmmakers gave him a fortune cookie: not knowing what it was, he asked if it was edible; upon biting down, he found the piece of paper inside. I assume the filmmakers did not bother to explain to him what the cookie was, just so they could get the reaction of him eating a piece of paper.

I was starting to get annoyed at that point in the documentary. It’s a silly way of showing that people in the East do not know about something that was obviously concocted in the West. Since I’m sure the filmmakers knew that already, they should have had one of their historians point that out, rather than humiliating someone over the fact that he didn’t know how to eat a fortune cookie, or that people did not know the Americanized 左宗堂雞. Hint: if it has American broccoli, people in the East probably will not recognize the dish as a Chinese dish.

It is not until the end of the documentary that it is revealed that the true origin of 左宗堂雞 is from Taiwan, originated by chef 彭長貴. We are taken to Taiwan for a much too short interview with 彭長貴 (who is now in his 90s) and his son, 彭鐵誠. Footage of chefs at 彭園 was edited with other cooking scenes in a way that it is not until 彭鐵誠 holds the plate and says, “This is how we make General Tso’s chicken,” that we know the footage was of the original being made.

There is no introduction at all to 彭園, which began as a restaurant founded by 彭長貴. It is now a restaurant corporation run by 彭鐵誠. The restaurant corporation is famous for its banquet halls and fine dining. Chef 彭長貴 has been called 湘菜之神 (god of Hunan cuisine) and 國宴御廚 (chef of the state banquet) by the media.

The story of 彭長貴 is glossed over and not given the recognition he deserves in the documentary. However, his story is not lost in Taiwan. The following videos are in Mandarin. This Taipei Times restaurant review of 彭園 includes a good summary of the story of 彭長貴 and his restaurants, in English.

The following is a documentary on the life of 彭長貴.

This news clip has footage of 彭長貴 (at age 96!) recreating his 左宗堂雞.

This news clip introduces the dish and includes interview with 彭長貴. Notice in the beginning the host says to the audience, “左宗堂雞 is a famous dish that you thought may have come from China, but it really is from Taiwan.”

The 左宗堂雞 that 彭長貴 made famous is a banquet-style, high-end dish. The following clips are cooking shows where chefs show home cooks how to recreate the dish (there’s a mix of Mandarin and Taiwanese in these clips).

This first clip has a funny alternate 左宗堂雞 origin story. This show focuses on making a dish for less than 59元 (roughly $2 USD).

This cooking show focuses on health, so the recipe has been slightly altered.

The following was produced by 新光三越 (Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department store) to teach viewers how to make 左宗堂雞 for Mother’s Day.

Overall, I found “The Search for General Tso” to be a good documentary. As a documentary about the history of Chinese people in America, the history of Chinese cuisine in America, and the history of Chinese restaurants in America, it does an exceptional job. It touches on all the important aspects of the greater culture that the dish represents. I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about the history of Chinese culture and Chinese cuisine in America. It is a documentary that needed to be made, to recount the origins and evolution of American Chinese cuisine, as well as the experience of Chinese immigrants in America. I especially enjoyed the clips with Cecilia Chiang, and it reminded me that I still need to watch the documentary about her, “Soul of a Banquet.”






Sit-in at Ministry of Education continues

As part of the ongoing protest against high school curriculum changes, students have continued an over 24 hour sit-in in front of the Ministry of Education. Protest groups have announced a rally at the Ministry of Education at 7pm (August 01 2015).

Since the latest break-in and sit-in occurred, the international news and news wires have picked up and written about the situation.

BBC: “Taiwan students storm education ministry in textbook protest”
Voice of America: “Taiwan Students Protest Student Leader’s Death”
NY Times Sinosphere blog: “Protesters Upset Over Textbook Changes March on Taiwan’s Education Ministry”
Associated Press: “Taiwan students storm legislature, Education Ministry in curriculum protest” (via LA Times)
Reuters: “Textbook protest: Taiwanese students storm education ministry” (via The Sydney Morning Herald)

Update to protests against high school curriculum changes

The latest round of news started with the Ministry of Education announcing it would seek charges against students arrested on July 24 for breaking and entering. Among those that would be charged were journalists, who also protested against arresting journalists and defended their rights as members of the press. In response to the unprecedented news of the MoE suing students, an English translation of the news was published on 新頭殼.

Sad news broke the afternoon of July 30, when it was reported that 林冠華, a member of a student group protesting against the curriculum changes, was found dead from an apparent suicide. The Taipei Times articles “Student protester commits suicide” and “Curriculum Protests: Interview: Lin gave interview three days before death” are good reports in English.

Students broke into the MoE at roughly 1:30 in the morning on July 31. As of 11am, they were still there, calling for the resignation of the current head of the MoE. Note that the head of the MoE has never had direct discussions with students regarding the curriculum change. The response to the students is that the minister has events away from the office and will be unavailable.

The latest news is that 立法院 (the Legislative Yen) will hold a discussion at 3pm on July 31 to determine if an emergency session will be called to deal with the issue of the curriculum change.

For those following the news, 新頭殼 has organized all their articles on the issue. 苦勞網 has also been updating their facebook page. And of course, there is the facebook page of 北區反課綱高校聯盟.

Update to protests against high school curriculum changes

It looks like students’ call for revoking changes to the high school history curriculum has not resulted in a reasonable response by the 教育部 (Ministry of Education). There have been further protest since I last wrote about the situation.

There were protests at 教育部 on July 5 and 6, 2015. This was the first time metal structures were positioned in front of 教育部, to keep students from entering the building. There were protests by student groups at the 國教署 (the administration of 教育部 that handles K-12 education) on July 13, 2015 and July 17, 2015. Students were able to lift the metal gate and enter. The MoE has planned explanation meetings in four cities on July 23, 2015. However August 1, 2015 (the date the new curriculum will go into effect) is looming and students are ramping up their protests.

Students have organized a protest for the afternoon of July 22, 2015 in front of 教育部. They plan to surround the building before the end of the work day. The best Facebook groups to follow for up to date information are probably 北區反課綱高校聯盟 and 反黑箱課綱行動聯盟.

I do hope the 教育部 responds with something reasonable. The one person who hasn’t come forward at all with a response is the head of 教育部. In the announcement of the meeting scheduled for July 23, it explicitly stated that he would not be present at any meeting. At some point someone needs to be accountable for making a poor decision that influences all students’ education. Attempting to teach an unbalanced curriculum is the last thing that should happen. As the students have said: this is not about pro-China or pro-independence, this is about providing a curriculum that explores all views and being open about our past.

As an aside, it looks like history teachers in Texas are dealing with the aftermath of a curriculum change and will have to do their best to teach a balanced curriculum even though their teaching materials are not balanced at all.

Update to 玉山 vs. 喜馬拉雅山 in high school history curriculum change

After the issue about whether “our nation’s” (Taiwan’s) highest peak was 玉山 or 喜馬拉雅山 in the high school history curriculum, the National Academy for Education Research (part of the Ministry of Education) distributed a press release, clarifying the roles 玉山 and 喜馬拉雅山 have in the curriculum. In the junior high school sociology curriculum, 玉山 is mentioned as Taiwan’s highest peak, while 喜馬拉雅山 is mentioned as the world’s highest peak. In the high school geography curriculum, 玉山 is mentioned as East Asia’s highest peak. (Although it is true that the word 臺灣 Taiwan is used, not 我國 our nation.) The press release also said that the claim made by a high school teacher that the high school curriculum changes included making Taiwan’s highest peak 喜馬拉雅山, not 玉山, was unsubstantiated. In the same news article, activists against the curriculum changes wonders why the MoE was quick to respond to the 玉山 vs. 喜馬拉雅山 issue, when the MoE did not respond to 20 out of 31 questions posed to them during the seminar held at 臺中一中 on June 9th.

Taiwanese students and activists protest against high school history curriculum changes

The ongoing fight against high school history curriculum changes began last year. The changes basically changes the narrative on Taiwanese history – diminishing or using biased opinion as truth about 戒嚴時期 (Martial Law era) and 白色恐怖 (White Terror). Early on, the primary activists were educators, academics, and civic groups. However, starting last month, high-school groups started showing up online, declaring their school, and that they were students against the black-box curriculum change. More recently, civic groups have said that if the changes are going to be implemented and not revoked, they will take to the streets in July.

I was really glad when I saw that students were standing up for themselves. Too many times in Taiwan, students are told to just study and not care about social or political issues. But as we’ve seen from social movements in the past, this is a generation of high school students so much more aware of the history of Taiwan, and of the social issues that are still being fought. This is a new generation of students, born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, who have seen a fully democratic Taiwan, and know our current open society as a given. I’m glad they are not taking it for granted!

I would like to think that these students are influenced by parents who themselves are more open to discussing our past and the truth in history, away from required reading in school. A rough estimate would be that the parents were born in the 1960s and 1970s, and experienced part of the Martial Law era, but also experienced loosened restrictions as high school and college students.

The fact that these high schools students are standing up for their rights is even more of an argument that the voting age needs to be lowered to 18. These students have educated themselves on how it will influence their education. They are fighting against the brainwashing that prior generations were subjected to as part of the national education curriculum. Perhaps this is the reason some politicians are against lowering the voting age – they are afraid of the opinions of these students.

On a more personal note, the latest news that the curriculum change included making Taiwan’s highest peak 喜馬拉雅山 (The Himalayas), not 玉山 (Jade Mountain) brought out a really adverse reaction. When I was in elementary school, I had to learn a song called 中華民國頌 (Ode to the Republic of China). It was basically in line with the history curriculum at the time: all about China. It described grasslands, the Yellow River, the Yangtze River, and, yes, the The Himalayas. I don’t remember how often I heard or sang the song, but it’s so embedded in my memory that now when I see the words 喜馬拉雅山, I remember the melody and rhythm of the song. Talk about brainwashing!

That was what life was like then. I memorized the geography of China, the history of China, and the biased view of a glorious ROC. It wasn’t until later that I learned about the atrocities of the ROC government, the fear during White Terror, and the suppression of rights during Martial Law. None of this was in my textbooks. Adults, most likely from their own experience of living through all of it, never mentioned history or politics. I have been playing catch up to learn about the geography and true history of Taiwan. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to make it up completely, but I’ll try. This is not just my story. This is the story of generations of Taiwanese who were denied the right to learn from an unbiased curriculum.

The current curriculum does cover Taiwanese geography and a more comprehensive view of Taiwanese history. Languages that were once banned in school are now being taught. The approved changes to the history curriculum turns back the clock on Taiwan’s education system and sovereignty. Everyone should be concerned about it. We already know what happened in the past and how it influenced generations of Taiwanese. As we grapple with our past, we need to make sure future generations are not subjected to the same influences.