Fresh baos from a Chinese house

Updated: 2013-03-29 11:33

By Kelly Chung Dawson in New York (China Daily)

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 Fresh baos from a Chinese house

Restaurateur and vice-TV host Eddie Huang explores race in his memoir Fresh Off the Boat. Atisha Paulson / for China Daily

When restaurateur and Vice-TV host Eddie Huang was doing stand-up comedy as "Magic Dong Huang," his favorite set was called "Rotten Banana." The bit revolved around the idea that Asian American mass shooters like Virginia Tech's Seung-Hui Cho might actually be doing the community a favor, de-neutering public perception of the Asian male. Replace the model-minority myth with a violent "delivery boy gone wild," and Americans might actually fear an Asian man for more than his math skills, he argued.

"In America, we're allowed to play ONE role, the eunuch who can count," Huang writes in Fresh Off the Boat, a memoir about growing up in Florida with Taiwan-born parents. "Whenever I tried to articulate what I really felt about being Chinese in America, my dad said I sounded like a slant-eyed Malcolm X [But] my only goal as a comedian was to stomp the life out of the model-minority myth and present a side of me to audiences that crushed their expectations of what it was to be Asian-American."

Riffing on the emasculation of Asian men, Huang told a comedy club crowd: "White people weren't scared of kung fu, but you know what they were scared of? Black people," he recalls. "The subversive joke was that I wanted people to understand how 'negative stereotypes' that stigmatized black culture could be used to empower Asian and Arabic people."

Huang's particular brand of brash humor and love of street culture have built him a faithful following among visitors to his quick-serve restaurant Baohaus, readers of his blog The Pop Chef and now, a growing audience for his Vice-TV show, also called Fresh Off the Boat, in which he has traveled to Miami, Los Angeles, Taiwan and elsewhere to explore food cultures. In February he taped a "TED Talk" for TED2003: The Young, The Wise, The Undiscovered, a conference hosted by a nonprofit organization that has previously showcased Bill Gates, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and fellow food personality Jamie Oliver.

In person, Huang speaks with the lilt most associated with hip hop; he's not only outspoken about his love of the genre, he claims to identify with the struggle it espouses. His naysayers have frequently cited that aspect of his persona as inauthentic, but Huang has always felt the "otherness" of being Chinese in America, he said.

"People don't understand Asian identity in America," he said. "We're viewed as flat characters in the American narrative. I grew up in a time when people were like, 'Chinese people are dirty, they're stinky, they're bad people.' I've always had a lot of feelings about the fact that the America I saw wasn't the America that I was told existed. Just like High Fidelity isn't actually a movie about music, this book isn't about food: it's about race and the immigrant story."

At a recent reading of his book at New York bookstore McNally Jackson, Huang noted that immigrants live in two worlds: the one created by their parents at home, and the dominant culture in which they work and live. What's viewed as necessary discipline in Chinese culture might be seen as child abuse in American culture, only one of a number of gaping cultural divisions he struggled with as a child. He is admittedly obsessed with race and what it means to be Chinese, and how ethnicity can impact a person's identity, ego and capacity for happiness, he writes.

But the economic rise of China has already played a part in boosting public perceptions of Asian masculinity, he said.

"People today have a healthy respect and fear of China, and that's a good thing for Asian Americans," he said. "People are realizing that Chinese people are here to stay. We need China, and China needs us. No more sensational stories about Chinese kids eating lead paint or dogs - instead, America's saying, let's try to understand them. There's less resistance now."

He compared himself to a newly unlocked video game character. "I'm just another character in the village. I'm very outspoken about being Chinese, and all I'm trying to say is 'This is one face. This is a face you're going to have to deal with. I'm a new character you've unlocked in the American video game.' Am I the only character? No, there was Chung Lee. But I'm a character you're going to have to deal with now."

As a chubby Chinese kid who strained against the expectations of decidedly un-Western parents, Huang got into a fair share of trouble. He was dead-set on not fulfilling Asian stereotypes, he writes. In high school and college he faced assault charges, resulting in felony probation. Later he started a street wear retail company, became an attorney for the law firm Chadbourne and Park, and briefly dallied with journalism, a field in which he was immediately told he'd never succeed "with a face like that," he recalls. Even his father once told him his face would prevent him from ever being on TV. As a loud-mouthed rebellious Asian with a lack of respect for authority, he wasn't only "not white," he was for many Americans not Asian either, he writes.

But the one constant in his life was a family-nurtured reverence for cooking authentic Chinese food - incidentally, also the only area in which Western culture has always accepted Chinese people, he writes.

Fresh Off the Boat, which was edited by Chris Jackson, who also worked with the rapper Jay-Z on his 2011 memoir Decoded, describes a life-long obsession that clicked into place on a trip to Taiwan after Huang's second arrest. Buoyed by a culture that seemed to finally provide answers in his ongoing efforts to define himself, it became clear that he should pursue a career in Chinese food, he said.

He landed a spot on the Guy Fieri-hosted televised competition show Ultimate Recipe Showdown (on which he lost), and soon after launched his Taiwanese gua bao-specialty eatery Baohaus, proclaimed by New York Magazine in 2010 to serve "New York's Best Bun."

Although Huang has been extremely outspoken in his pride for Chinese culture, he's also vehement in his rejection of the Chinese fixation on price over quality. He cited the crop of Chinese imitation restaurants in New York's Chinatown that compete purely on price.

"There's no integrity to it. That's something I don't respect about Chinese culture and business in America - it's a complete lack of respect for each other's ideas and originality," he said. "Because of that, Chinese in America make money, but we don't always have power or respect."

Rafael Martinez, Huang's friend who appears in the book and is now involved with Baohaus, noted that the recent media spotlight on Huang seems to hinge on the novelty of someone who looks and talks like Huang revealing himself to be intelligent.

"People look at him and don't realize he's not only smart but he's savvy," Martinez said. "They think he's some wild dude screaming on a blog, but he's actually honest and measured. That honesty and his connection to his culture is what makes the food - that's the way the book works, the way the show works, and what he's about. That shouldn't be novel, but unfortunately it is."

Huang is now in the planning stages for a second season of his Vice-TV show, and has begun work on his second book. He declined to comment on the content of his follow-up efforts, but described both as "crazy."

And although he's excited about his success, he's fully prepared for failure and a reversal in fortunes: "I guess that's ultimately pretty Chinese too," he said.

(China Daily 03/29/2013 page11)