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April 23, 2008

Book Notes - Jennifer 8. Lee ("The Fortune Cookie Chronicles")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles examines the roots of what we Americans call Chinese food. Jennifer 8. Lee does more than track down the origins of dishes like chow mein, General Tso's chicken, and fortune cookies. She delves into the human trafficking that brings restaurant workers to the US and even explores the special connection between Chinese food and Jewish people.

I have long been a fan of Lee's writing in the New York Times, and her first book is a jewel. Combining research with her own personal narrative as a second generation Chinese-American, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is as much about America (and being an American) as it is about Chinese takeout.

The Washington Post wrote of the book:

"Where Lee really shines, though, is in describing the people who have cooked, served and delivered America's favorite cuisine. 'The Fortune Cookie Chronicles' isn't just about the popularization of Chinese food; it's also a story of Chinese immigrants in America. Lee not only traces the history of 19th-century Chinese railroad workers and what they ate and cooked, she also tells the tale of the Golden Venture, a ship full of 286 illegal immigrants that ran aground in Queens, N.Y., in 1993. Most of the immigrants were restaurant workers from Fujian province, looking for a better life in America, only to find red tape and prison awaiting them. 'There is a fairly good chance that the Chinese restaurant worker who cooked your roast pork fried rice, or the woman who took your order on the phone, or the deliveryman who showed up at your door paid tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of doing so.'"


In her own words, here is Jenny 8. Lee's Book Notes essay for her book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles:


My book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, argues that Chinese food is all-American. After all, there are more Chinese restaurants in this country than McDonalds, Burger King and KFCs combined. If our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie, how often do you eat apple pie? Now how often do you eat Chinese food?

A lot of the foods that we think of as Chinese are actually more American and all but unknown in China: General Tso’s chicken, beef with broccoli (broccoli is originally an Italian vegetable), chop suey, egg rolls, fortune cookies. Especially fortune cookies. I was born in the United States and remember learning when I was around 13 that fortune cookies weren’t Chinese from Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. That was stunning to me because of course they were Chinese, we always got them in Chinese restaurants! It was like learning that I was adopted and there was no Santa Claus at the same time. It was a complete shattering of the myth of identity.

My book tells the tales about the people and the history that bring the food to the table.

Unfortunately, I’m actually stunningly musically illiterate so I had to tap my friend Brendan Kredell, a DJ-film grad student, for his deep knowledge of music. These songs, with the exception of Vienna Teng, are not chosen for their musical-ness as they are for their blatant thematic connection to the topic of my book: Chinese food, immigration, the American dream. (So thanks to Brendan, who helped me assemble this list). A few of them stretch back a bit and give a sense of how perceptions of Chinese and Chinese food have shifted throughout American history.

1) Louis Prima and Keely Smith, "Chop Suey, Chow Mein" (Breaking It Up!, Columbia - 1951)
A song by Louis Prima, and one that's arguably somewhat racist. But it's a song about chop suey, chow mein and something called "too-foo," which may be how mid-century Americans ordered tofu, or how mid-century American songwriters managed to make things rhyme.


2) The Ramones, "Chop Suey" (Get Crazy soundtrack, Embassy - 1983)
Chop Suey is the biggest culinary joke that one culture has played on another, and is the subject of one chapter of my book. Americans once thought that chop suey was the national dish of China and adored them, but over three decades it came to dawn on them otherwise. Chop suey in Chinese actually means “bits and pieces” or “odds and ends.” Looking at the lyrics, the song doesn’t have anything to do with the titular food - but it makes for a memorable chorus. There are perhaps alternate versions floating around by Debbie Harry and System of a Down.


3) Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire, "Chinatown My Chinatown" (Thrills, Rykodisc - 1998)
An instrumental composition trying to merge jump, ragtime and Chinese traditional musics. Whether it works, you can be the judge.


4) Crosby & Nash, "Immigration Man" (Graham Nash/David Crosby, Atlantic - 1972) – The three best chapters of my book are arguably about the Fujianese Chinese immigrants who come to American to work in Chinese restaurants. Many of them pay tens of thousands of dollars to be smuggled here. The going rate to come to America is about $74,000. It’s like taking a mortgage out on your life. This song sounds to contemporary ears like pedestrian protest pop of the 1970s, and probably it is.


5) The Flirts, “Oriental Boy” (Hot Production, Born to Flirt, 1984)
Okay. So the guy in this cheery campy 1980s song is clearly Japanese (sushi, sake, Sony, Toyota, karate). Of course, Oriental is not a PC-term in America (“The only things that are Oriental are rugs,” is what we were taught to say). Nonetheless we embraced this song from an otherwise forgettable group when we were kids in Chinese camp (yes, there is Chinese camp) at our dances.


6) Van Morrison, "Tupelo Honey" (Tupelo Honey, Warner Bros. - 1971)
Not strictly about Chinese food, but it begins with a shout out to all the tea in China, and is a very pretty song about a woman as sweet as Tupelo honey.


7) Miss Saigon, “The American Dream” (1989)
It has to do with Vietnam rather than China. Nonetheless it’s a powerful song with provocative lyrics that turn an aggressive lens of west on east and east on west. (“Greasy chinks make life so sleazy”). I loved Miss Saigon with I was in high school, all the controversy over white actors playing Eurasian/Asian characters notwithstanding.


8) Bruce Springsteen, "Reason to Believe" (Nebraska, Columbia - 1982)
This is the best song in terms of encapsulating "the American dream," without actually being called “The American Dream.” The Chinese restaurant workers traveled across the oceans so that their children can follow their dreams, or as someone put it to me “We cook, so our children don’t have to.” "At the end of every long hard day, people find some reason to believe," is the refrain, and in typical Springsteen style, he goes through a list of marginal characters who are all struggling to make it/continue on.


9) Vienna Teng, “Soon Love Soon” (Waking Hour, Soltruna Music, 2002).
I’m a big Vienna Teng fan and would have actually recommended all three of her albums in this list – but that would have overwhelmed the point of this. I reference Vienna Teng obliquely in the book. A Stanford computer science major, she actually worked as Cisco before quitting to become a singer-songwriter. We are a generation of kids who grew up able to pursue our passions (in my case writing, in her case music) because our parents came here to the United States.


10) Louis Armstrong, "Cornet Chop Suey."
Louis Armstrong's first recorded composition from 1928 has become one of the most copied jazz solos of all time. It's not entirely clear why this famous jazz piece has "chop suey" in its name even after listening to him talk about it on NPR.


Jenny 8. Lee and The Fortune Cookie Chronicles links:

the book's website
the author's blog
the author's Wikipedia entry
the author's page at the publisher
the author's upcoming events
excerpts from the book

A.V. Club review
Boston Globe review
Christian Science Monitor review
Entertainment Weekly review
Forbes review
Los Angeles Times review
New York Observer review
New York Times review
Newsweek review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Seattle Post-Intelligencer review
Serious Eats review
USA Today review
Washington Post review

All Things Considered interview with the author
the author's video introducing fortune cookies to China
Authors@Google video of the author
Bat Segundo Show interview with the author
FN Dish interview with the author
Huffington Post piece by the author (where she lists her preparations for her Colbert Report appearance)
Salon interview with the author
Smith interview with the author
Washingtonian interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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