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"The Soul of A Banquet"

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Angela Lee
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"The Soul of A Banquet"

Here is the trailer to "Soul of A Banquet" - I watched it on Kanopy, but not sure where else you can find the whole documentary.  Here is their website:

Here is a short interview/bio about Chiang by the Chinese Historical Society of America.


This was a lovely documentary/biography for the Mother of North Chinese cuisine in the United States, and focuses on the life of Celia Chiang, who is credited to introducing America to "authentic" Chinese food with the opening of the successful Mandarin restaurant in San Francisco in 1961.


Given our deeper discussion about what makes something "authentic" I thought this was a pretty bold claim to be making, As I watched it, I realized that what Chiang was describing was something that stepped away from the Americanized version of Chinese food that was served across the US.  She was introducing something that was part of her memory and her past, and was in some ways classist because it reflected the cuisine of her elite experience before she immigrated to the United States. But she realized that there was an opportunity to introduce a more high-end elegant experience for dining. 


It's helpful to know that Chinese food back in the 1960s and for decades later really reflected a synthesis of food from Chinese immigrant laborers, who were isolated because of the discrimination of the Chinese prior to 1960 due to the Chinese Exclusion Act 1882, and a reaffirming of exclusion in 1924 immigration laws.  The fact that Chiang was able to build such a successful business as early as 1961 is quite remarkable, since this is before the opening of the strict immigration quotas with the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that brought a new, and successive waves of Asian immigrants into the United States. 


This film also reflects several intersectionalities because as a woman, Chiang had to overcome certain challenges since the restaurant business was pretty much dominated by men (and still largely is), and also to re-envision Chinese food beyond the cheap, fast fare (or "chop suey houses") that it had been known for.  The other layer for her story is that she had to overcome the discrimination against Asians in America during that time, and started her business in the early 1960s before the civil rights movement and the larger Asian American identity movement that arose as a result. 


Chiang was an innovator as a restauranteur.  As I watched the documentary, I realized many of the familiar Chinese dishes that were being introduced and displayed in the film are also the result of her introducing these dishes and preparations and dining experience to the larger American consciousness.  I would definitely love to show parts of this film to a class that might be studying about the diverse cultures in the United States, and also the syncretism of cultures that happen through immigration.