The Search for General Tso and the Chinese American Belonging

Image from The Search for General Tso

Image from The Search for General Tso

Why is Chinese food in America so different from what we see in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong? The film, The Search of General Tso, provides an insight to this phenomenon as it traces the history of a dish particularly popular with the Americans — General Tso Chicken. The film brings its audience to Hunan, China where the namesake is from, and to Taiwan to locate the creator of those sweet-spicy deep fried chicken. What at first looks like a superficial quest to ascertain the ownership of a dish turns out to be a bigger story about Chinese American history.

Since the late 19th century, Chinese labours in the west coast experienced severe social and economic discriminations. Many Chinese Americans are in the laundry and restaurant businesses today because those were the only jobs that the white Americans wouldn’t do and breaking into those industries required little capital and English. Despite hating the Chinese, whom they previously accused of monopolising industries and later, during the Cold War, for essentially being Chinese like Chairman Mao, Americans loved Chinese food. The American Jews (and the Christians who happen to hate spending time with their family) ritualistically order Chinese takeout during Christmas; in Sex and the City, Miranda has a Chinese take-out on her speed dial, and Carrie dates Mr Big in a Chinese restaurant. Chinese food in America is for special occasion and for everyday meals.

Winning a nod from a largely unwelcoming society would not have been possible if the Chinese in America had not cooked what the dominant population liked, for example, sweetness. Alterations of any cuisines, often seen as a betrayal to long standing cultures, have frequently been dissed, but as this film rightly points out, General Tso Chicken and the rest of Chinese American cuisine are testimonies to the Chinese’s resilience and adaptability. Chinese American cuisine is not bastardised Chinese food but another of its renditions (along with Southeast Asian Chinese or Taiwanese food) that reflect the unique social and cultural conditions in which the food producers live.

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