“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.”







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.

“Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters” Kickstarter

For those who are interested, there are less than three days left to pledge!

來學正體字 | Learn Traditional Chinese Characters

The Kickstarter deadline for Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters by Outlier Linguistic Solutions 久茂語林 is only a few days away! The dictionary aims to explain characters based on the latest research and academic knowledge of the Chinese language. It looks like a great project and is something to consider investing in. The dictionary looks suitable for everyone interested in the Chinese language.

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Translated books published in Taiwan, but not China

Previously I had heard a lot about books being censored in China – as in chapters and portions taken out before publication. I take that to be common knowledge about China. Two books published last year brought this situation back to light: Evan Osnos’ “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China”, and Hillary Clinton’s memoir “Hard Choices”. Osnos’ book was published in the U.S. on May 13, 2014. Clinton’s book was published in the U.S. on June 10, 2014.

Before Osnos’ book was released, he wrote New York Times opinion piece regarding the difficulty of publishing his book in China. The last paragraph of the essay was:

In the end, I decided not to publish my book in mainland China. (It will be available to Chinese readers from a publisher in Taiwan.) To produce a “special version” that plays down dissent, trims the Great Leap Forward, and recites the official history of Bo Xilai’s corruption would not help Chinese readers. On the contrary, it would endorse a false image of the past and present. As a writer, my side of the bargain is to give the truest story I can.

Articles about the ban on Clinton’s book were citing this Buzzfeed article. Still4Hill blogged about an email from Simon & Schuster, verifying the ban and releasing a new excerpt, the chapter on China.

I believe Osnos’ situation is more unprecedented, where an author refuses to censor a book for the China audience, which I completely laud. Clinton’s situation is probably a bit more common, where the publisher who wanted to buy the rights figures that there’s no way the book will pass the censors and fulfill the requirements of the original publisher.

Perhaps one thing that has passed people’s attention was that both books would be published in Taiwan. Both books are worthy of being translated into Chinese and made available to Chinese readers. However, if an author writing about a sensitive subject, such as China, wants to publish in China, it will most likely be an incomplete version of the original book. The only way to preserve the original material is to publish the book in Chinese in Taiwan, where there are no censorship restrictions.

The Buzzfeed article mentions that Business Weekly in Taiwan had the rights to Clinton’s book. 商業周刊 (known in English as Business Weekly) is part of a larger media group, 商周集團. I like reading 商業周刊. While the main articles focus on business and finance, there are also articles about daily life and news. Clinton’s book was published on June 12, 2014 with the title 抉擇. The release in Taiwan coincided with the release in the United States. She was interviewed by 商業周刊 on June 19, 2014 in Los Angeles.

The questions are posed in Chinese, but Clinton responds in English (with Chinese subtitles), the questions and translations are:

1. 如果你是台灣總統,如何做到與中國交往,同時又保持政治上的自主?
If you were the president of Taiwan, how would you handle relations with China while maintaining political autonomy?

2. 所以你認為,經濟上的依賴,會降低政治上的獨立自主?
So you believe that economic dependence will lower political independence and autonomy?

3. 你是否覺得,當台灣與中國靠的越來越近,美國與台灣就越來越遠?
Do you feel that as Taiwan and China become closer, the United States and Taiwan become farther apart?

4. 你認為台灣政府的兩岸關係處理得好嗎?
Do you believe that the government of Taiwan has handled cross-strait relations well?

Osnos’ book was published in Taiwan on January 28, 2015 by 八旗文化 with the title 野心時代:在新中國追求財富、真相和信仰. The ad in the front of the book says 全球唯一指定中文版, meaning “the world’s only official Chinese version.”

Joseph Esherick describes his experience with censors in this foreign policy article. His book “Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History” was published in the U.S. in February 2011, and came out in China (with the title 葉:百年動盪中的一個中國家庭) in July 2014. The book was released in China and only the simplified Chinese version can be found. I suppose the U.S. publishers are not concerned with making an uncensored traditional Chinese version available in Taiwan.

Louisa Lim’s “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited” was published in the U.S. in June of 2014. I have not seen a Chinese version, but will keep an eye out for it.

台北調 (Taipei Tone) – 柯文哲 (Ko Wen Je) campaign album


柯文哲 (Ko Wen Je) won the 2014 election for Taipei mayor. He ran as an independent candidate, with endorsement from the DPP. One of the ways he raised funds for the campaign was through an album called 台北調 (Taipei Tone).

The songs for the recording began with an open invitation to submit demos. Songs were chosen through online voting and a selection committee. The demos are available on SoundCloud. The track info has the artists’ thoughts about Taipei and song lyrics. A total of 82 demos are available. The language of each song is also listed on the demo page: 英語 is English, 台語 is Taiwanese, 華語 is Mandarin, 演奏曲 means instrumental, and 客語 is Hakka. The artists include established independent artists, up and coming artists, and people from the community.

Twelve songs are on the final recording: eleven songs chosen from demos, and a campaign song that was already written. In addition to being available on Spotify, the album is also available on YouTube, iTunes, and kkbox. There were multiple concerts held to promote the campaign.

I’ve included some tidbits about the tracks and artists. The links in the track name are to lyrics at SoundCloud or kkbox, and links to artists are to FB or StreetVoice pages.

1. 台北天晴 by 嚴正嵐 (Vera Yen)
In Mandarin. A lovely voice. “A sunny Taipei, after the rain, is the prettiest.”

2. 寄望台北城 by 洪立 and 張詠承
In Taiwanese. A song about finding one’s wishes and dreams in Taipei. Taipei has long been the “big city” for many in Taiwan as a place where dreams can come true. There’s concert footage of their performance

3. 台北! 夢想起跑點 by 白芯羽 (Cindy Pai)
In Mandarin. 白芯羽 might only be eight years old, but she’s not a stranger to political events. She performed during the Sunflower student movement. The song continues the theme of Taipei being the beginning of people’s dreams. An upbeat song for a young and cute voice! She is the generation for whom we want a changed Taiwan.

4. 阮住佇艋舺 by 勞動服務 (Community Service)
In Taiwanese. A hip-hop song about 艋舺 (Bang Ka; Monga), the old name for the current 萬華 (Wan Hua) district. 艋舺 is the oldest district in Taipei. The song combines traditional instruments and describes the changes to 艋舺 that happened throughout history.

5. 我愛的台北 by 游景棠
In Mandarin. kkbox lists the artists as 游景棠, 曾翊維, 黃國晏, and 顧典晉, who are the members of 木眼鏡 (Wooden Glasses). A song about the many stories in Taipei. It encourages people to look down their own alleyway, and experience the warmth that people bring to the city.

6. 親眼目睹 by 楊宗翰 (Jerry Yang)
In Mandarin. A song about a different day, inspired by the words of 柯文哲. Describes a world where doing the correct thing is encouraged, and all live in good times with no hardships.

7. 我有一個夢 by 流氓阿德 (Ardor Huang)
In Taiwanese. “I have a dream, a small dream, I wish for a day, where there are no longer people who hurt. I have a dream, a small dream, I wish that people who love each other, can be forever, forever.”

8. 台北調 by 南西樂團 (Nasyy)
In Mandarin. A lively song that plays on the word 調. When pronounced 調(ㄉㄧㄠˋ), the word means melody or tone. When pronounced 調(ㄊㄧㄠˊ), the word means to mix or to adjust.

9. 從你我開始 by Dark Eyes Gypsy Jazz Band
In Mandarin. Very direct lyrics about the failure of the government. “Taiwan’s recovery, starts with Taipei; To save Taipei, starts with you and me.”

10. 站穩了 by Story Teller and 周照棠
In Taiwanese. A song about everyone, from the young to the old, working hard to make a living, despite the inequalities of the city. “There are many lovely things waiting for us to dream, there are many stories waiting for us to write. I will also stand firm, because I am a child of Taipei.”

11. Big City by 李振全 (Jeremy Lee)
In Mandarin. 李振全 has been paralyzed from the neck down after a car accident in January 2013. He was an up and coming artist – check out his performance at the 2012 Hennessy artistry competition. A song about gathering energy to continue to move forward, even while not being able to afford anything, and a sense of not belonging in the city. The original music video is on YouTube, and he performed at a campaign concert.

12. 白色力量 by 包子丸
In Taiwanese. This song was the campaign song. 包子丸 was a composer and lyricist and wrote many Taiwanese songs. He passed away in July 2014. Some of his works can be found at 包子丸的音樂 blogspot and Wang J.D (包子丸) G+. “Daylight slowly comes, what are you waiting for? A new day, or an unchanged past. The fear is that you are accustomed, to this city that never improves. Let us recover its fairness and justice.”

2014 臺灣選舉 | 2014 Elections in Taiwan


This election, more than any others, was really moved by young people and first-time voters. Spurred by the social movements from the past two years, an increase in participation from younger voters was expected. A lot of postings, like this one from the youth group supporting 柯文哲, introduced first-time voters to the regulations at polling places.

Earlier this year there was a movement for young people to change their home registration to their current residence, so they could make vote to make changes to where they lived. Voting is based on the place of home registration, which is not necessarily the same as place of current residence. Many people, especially students, need to go back to their place of home registration to vote.

Another movement encouraged young people to run for local positions. It is crucial for young people to take part in local government, and be a new voice. These people have become some our city representatives. It is so good to see the younger generation participating in politics so soon.

Many people used their skills to get the word out about candidates, or just voting in general. There was a series of student videos that encouraged people to go out and vote. I especially like this one that shows how many decisions in life are actually dictated by other people, but voting is a way to decide one’s future.

There was also a movement to get people involved in overseeing the election results. Community members are allowed to observe pre-voting and post-voting procedures. Voting is from 8am to 4pm. Before voting starts, the poll workers are required to show that the ballot boxes are empty and clean. After voting, the counting begins. Each ballot needs to be displayed as it is counted. This cartoon by nagee expresses the importance of overseeing the voting process.

One issue that still needs to be resolved is voting age. Voting age is based on age of majority, which is 20 years old. However, all males must do mandatory military service at the age of 18, unless he is in school. The drinking age is also 18. So why must people wait until they are 20 to decide one’s government? The voting age of 20 is one of the highest voting ages in the world. The change was suggested in the legislature earlier this year, but since the change requires a change in the constitution, it was unlikely to move forward. An NGO has been set up calling for the reduction of the voting age to 18.