“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.”


“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.

“I Voted” Sticker in Chinese

On election day in the U.S., I saw this particular “I Voted” sticker online:

The sticker has “I Voted” in three languages: English, Chinese, and Spanish. The statements in English and Spanish seem very positive and upbeat, with exclamation marks. The Chinese translation 我已投票 comes across as happy as your computer telling you its virus library was updated. The statement 已更新 is used in software to mean that it has been updated. The use of 已 makes the statement rather formal and boring. It makes voting seem rather mundane, which is probably the opposite of what the sticker is supposed to project, given the statements in English and Spanish. 我投票了! also means “I Voted!” and sounds much more exciting. Plus, it also has an exclamation mark.

Do you know the World Cup country names in Chinese?

Since the world is now focused on World Cup events, it’s a great time to learn some World Cup related words in Chinese. Unfortunately, the FIFA website is not available in Chinese (traditional or simplified). The next best place to check out scores would be google Taiwan. Clicking on the World Cup graphic of the day will lead to the scoreboard, entirely in Taiwan Mandarin.

分組 gives the group standings. Country names can be tricky because they are typically transliterated, unless there’s an historic name. These standings are no longer valid, I took the screen shots after the June 18th games. If you’d like to review the phonetic symbols, you can take a look at my post on 注(ㄓㄨˋ)音(ㄧㄣ)符(ㄈㄨˊ)號(ㄏㄠˋ).


A 組 Group A
巴(ㄅㄚ)西(ㄒㄧ) Brazil
墨(ㄇㄛˋ)西(ㄒㄧ)哥(ㄍㄜ) Mexico
克(ㄎㄜˋ)羅(ㄌㄨㄛˊ)埃(ㄞ)西(ㄒㄧ)亞(ㄧㄚˇ) Croatia
喀(ㄎㄜˋ)麥(ㄇㄞˋ)隆(ㄌㄨㄥˊ) Cameroon
B 組 Group B
荷(ㄏㄜˊ)蘭(ㄌㄢˊ) Netherlands
智(ㄓˋ)利(ㄌㄧˋ) Chile
澳(ㄠˋ)洲(ㄓㄡ) Austrailia
西(ㄒㄧ)班(ㄅㄢ)牙(ㄧㄚˊ) Spain


C 組 Group C
哥(ㄍㄜ)倫(ㄌㄨㄣˊ)比(ㄅㄧˇ)亞(ㄧㄚˇ) Colombia
象(ㄒㄧㄤˋ)牙(ㄧㄚˊ)海(ㄏㄞˇ)岸(ㄢˋ) Côte D’Ivoire
日(ㄖˋ)本(ㄅㄣˇ) Japan
希(ㄒㄧ)臘(ㄌㄚˋ) Greece
D 組 Group D
哥(ㄍㄜ)斯(ㄙ)大(ㄉㄚˋ)黎(ㄌㄧˊ)加(ㄐㄧㄚ) Costa Rica
義(ㄧˋ)大(ㄉㄚˋ)利(ㄌㄧˋ) Italy
英(ㄧㄥ)格(ㄍㄜˊ)蘭(ㄌㄢˊ) England
烏(ㄨ)拉(ㄌㄚ)圭(ㄍㄨㄟ) Uruguay


E 組 Group E
法(ㄈㄚˋ)國(ㄍㄨㄛˊ) France
瑞(ㄖㄨㄟˋ)士(ㄕˋ) Switzerland
厄(ㄜˋ)瓜(ㄍㄨㄚ)多(ㄉㄨㄛ) Ecuador
宏(ㄏㄨㄥˊ)都(ㄉㄨ)拉(ㄌㄚ)斯(ㄙ) Honduras
F 組 Group F
阿(ㄚ)根(ㄍㄣ)廷(ㄊㄧㄥˊ) Argentina
伊(ㄧ)朗(ㄌㄤˇ) Iran
奈(ㄋㄞˋ)及(ㄐㄧˊ)利(ㄌㄧˋ)亞(ㄧㄚˇ) Nigeria
波(ㄅㄛ)士(ㄕˋ)尼(ㄋㄧˊ)亞(ㄧㄚˇ)與(ㄩˇ)赫(ㄏㄜˋ)塞(ㄙㄞ)哥(ㄍㄜ)維(ㄨㄟˊ)納(ㄋㄚˋ) Bosnia and Herzegovina


G 組 Group G
德(ㄉㄜˊ)國(ㄍㄨㄛˊ) Germany
美(ㄇㄟˇ)國(ㄍㄨㄛˊ) USA
迦(ㄐㄧㄚ)納(ㄋㄚˋ) Ghana
葡(ㄆㄨˊ)萄(ㄊㄠˊ)牙(ㄧㄚˊ) Portugal
H 組 Group H
比(ㄅㄧˇ)利(ㄌㄧˋ)時(ㄕˊ) Belgium
韓(ㄏㄢˊ)國(ㄍㄨㄛˊ) Korea
俄(ㄜˋ)羅(ㄌㄨㄛˊ)斯(ㄙ) Russia
阿(ㄚ)爾(ㄦˇ)及(ㄐㄧˊ)利(ㄌㄧˋ)亞(ㄧㄚˇ) Algeria

淘汰賽 are the elimination games. Unfortunately fans in Asia have been staying up until dawn to be able to watch these games.


Modern Chinese art at the Cantor Arts Center

The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University currently has an exhibit titled “Within and Without: Transformations in Chinese Landscapes” that will run through January 12, 2015. It is a great opportunity to view modern art from Chinese artists.

There were a few paintings that I really liked. One was a large piece by Gu Wenda (谷文達) called “遺失的王朝G十六,” with a large character and a mountain landscape. The character took up most of the scroll, overpowering the landscape on the bottom. It is the opposite of classical scrolls, where the landscape is the main focus and words play a supporting role. “午夜的太陽” by Liu Guosong (劉國松) is an example of his “space paintings.” The sun or celestial being is much larger than land. In this case, it was the sun. The main focus of the painting is on a bright orange-red sun rather than the land below.

A painting by Qui Shihua (邱世華), called “untitled (landscape no QSH 22)” looks like white canvas, but then a landscape starts to appear. I wondered if my eyes were seeing beyond white or if was I imagining a landscape. “Sky Moat” by Lu Fusheng (盧輔聖) consisted of clean lines forming a mountain. However, it played on traditional paintings because it was blue all over. The ratio of white (paper) to blue (mountains) favored the mountains.

I also had the opportunity to attend a lecture by lecture by Gu Wenda. I first became familiar with Gu Wenda’s work when I read about his installation “forest of stone steles”. Through the lecture, I became more aware of his exploration of the juxtaposition between east and west, and of language. In “the mythos of lost dynasties”, a fabricated seal script explores the understanding of these characters. As it is, seal script is only legible to calligraphers or scholars; people who know Chinese might know basic ones that are taught as examples. Gu created a script that is completely illegible, whether one knows Chinese or not. It might look like seal script and has the style of seal script, but it is not.

The “forest of stone steles” is another one of my favorites in the exploration of language. Many of the celebrated works of calligraphy come from steeles. However these stone steeles that Gu has made is another play on words. Tang dynasty poems were translated to English, then the English was transliterated to Chinese. The written Chinese characters are supposed to sound like the English translation. But, as with all transliterations, the sounds are not exact, especially since multiple characters put together make up one English word. Again, it’s a poem that is not understood in that particular language – the characters put together do not make any sense.

A first look at “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook”

randomhouseThis post is a few months overdue – Chinese New Year was back in February! I received “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook” by participating in Diana’s virtual Chinese New Year potluck. This won’t be a full review because I haven’t cooked every recipe. I might make cooking dishes from the cookbook an ongoing series. I did get a chance to look through the book and decided to share my impressions.

To start off, imagine my surprise when I got the book and it was sent directly from Random House. I’ve never received anything directly from a publishing house. Pretty cool!

coverThe book has ten chapters, the first being an introduction to various ingredients and tools that are needed. The last chapter has recipes for various basics, like stocks and sauces. The main recipes are divided between the other eight chapters.

There are little historical tidbits among the recipes. I like the term “American-Chinese” for the food in the cookbook. These are not the original Chinese recipes, but rather recipes that have evolved in America.

The recipes look simple and not overly complicated. I think it is ideal for a busy cook or a person who is new to Chinese cuisine. I’m looking forward to trying out recipes from the book. In particular, I really want to learn all the different sauces.