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Film Review: The Search for General Tso (2014)

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Film Review: The Search for General Tso (2014)

This documentary is both informative and fun to watch. Although it is ostensibly about the eponymously-named chicken dish found on most Chinese-American restaurant menus, The Search for General Tso is really a story about the Chinese experience in America, a heady topic that is made pleasantly comprehensible in a scant 1 hour and 11 minutes.

Director Ian Cheney begins by telling us about the historic General Tso, aka Zuo Zongtang, who rose to prominence in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Zou (born in 1812) is known as one of the scholar-officials who worked to suppress the great rebellions that threatened the imperial Chinese government during the second half of the 19th century—particularly the Taiping Rebellion, which claimed more than 20 million lives. Zou is described as a Chinese patriot who tried to maintain Chinese values in changing time. We learn that he loved the fiery peppers that flavor the food of his native Hunan province, dishes such as Secret River Fish, Double-Cooked Pork, Local Goose Casserole, and Original Flavor Beef Hoof. However, there is no mention of the entree that bears his name in China. So where did General Tso's Chicken originate?

Like any good storyteller, Cheney uses this unanswered question to create tension and build upon our curiosity. To find out the answer we must wait; but the answer becomes less important as the journey takes us down unexpected paths and revelatory turns, leading us to a profound realization of the causation and impact of the transplanted Chinese on their new home—the United States. As the film reveals, General Tso's chicken is an American phenomenon, just like Chop Suey and fortune cookies, born out of a uniquely Chinese response to the endemic racism encountered by those who immigrated to California in the 1850s - 1860s. Pulled by the allure of Gumshan "Gold Mountain," and pushed by unrest at home, the Chinese in California were subject to mounting racism that culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This Act of Congress, extended twice and made permanent in 1902, effectively marooned nearly 100,000 Chinese in The United States and would not be repealed until 1943. However, the response of these stranded and rejected immigrants to this predicament would forever shape the culinary landscape of the United States and the rest of the world.

Simply put, the Chinese in America overcame the repressive racism they encountered by winning over White-American stomachs. Beginning with Chop Suey Houses around the turn of the century, Americans fell in love with traditional Chinese dishes adapted to an American palate that craves sweet, salty, and deeply-fried foods. This approach paved the way for modern fast food and elevated Chinese as the go-to comfort food for generations of Americans, unrivaled by all other foodstuffs with the possible exception of pizza, which brings me to the reason this film might be useful in a classroom.

Food is an automatic in when it comes to engaging students, and this film serves it up in Cheesecake Factory-sized portions. The Search for General Tso also deftly explores the intersection of race, culture and history in a way that is effortless for the viewer—because it is so much fun to watch! Students will not realize they are learning because they will be too busy drooling over images of fried, saucy nuggets and other saliva-inducing culinary treats. However, they will also gain a deeper understanding of the history, politics, and economics of race in America, as told through the experience of the Chinese. As for the origin of General Tso's chicken? You'll just have to watch for yourself!