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Tue November 20, 2012
Chinese Takeout: A Locus of Cultural Tension
Chinese takeouts live within a cultural paradox.
Take Yum Yum for instance. It’s been serving Chinese food for more than 30 years in the heart of Dorchester’s diverse Fields Corner. On one hand, it’s part of the urban fabric. On the other — it’s a world apart.
I met one of Yum Yum’s regulars, Joyce, after she ordered shrimp fried rice and she told me what brought her back.
“They’re nice to me, they know me. I was pregnant with my son 6 years ago and I was working from 2 to 10, and I would call here on the way home leaving from work and I worked out in East Boston, and they would stay open and wait for me until I get here,” she said.
Joyce is African American, a fact that ordinarily wouldn’t be mentioned in this story. But the cultural crossroads of a Chinese takeout — how these businesses connect with community of all colors — is what sparked my curiosity in producing the Planet Takeout series. Are there tensions in running a Chinese takeout in black and Latino neighborhoods?
Joyce said she won’t go to other Asian-run businesses. It’s a matter of respect. She said, “One thing that I do notice is that a lot of Asians, they don’t notice your face. You can come to them a million times and they do not know your face.” But as for Yum Yum’s counte man, “He does know your face. And I even think he knew my voice and my order before they had caller ID.”
There was an overflow of tension in the spring of 2012 in Washington, D.C. That’s when Marion Barry, the former disgraced black mayor and now a councilman, attacked what he called “dirty” Asian businesses in his ward.
Barry fired off a series of tweets that laid out his grievances: Asian-run businesses should hire from the community, serve healthier food, keep their shops cleaner and dismantle the thick plexiglass that separates them from the community.
Barry suffered a major backlash — but his racially charged comments raised questions. Were there legitimate points to be made? Back at Yum Yum’s I heard from another regular Albert Watson, who is black.
“I’ve always found that fascinating. You can come into a neighborhood, sell your food and make your profit and I’m not that sure that you’re putting that profit back into the neighborhood. It would be nice if that did happen but it would seem to me that it don’t,” he said.
One reason is Yum Yum’s size. With a staff of just three, all of whom speak their hometown dialect of Toishanese, they have no room or need for employees hired from the neighborhood.
Giving back to the neighborhood
“Giving back? People are barely making it,” said MIT Urban Studies professor Tunney Lee. He’s been hearing the same arguments for years. He grew up in Boston’s Chinatown and has studied how waves of immigration have created and recreated the ethnic landscape of the city. “I think someone like Marion Barry has to understand that the people who are providing the service are also poor. Also struggling. I don’t know what he expects of them. I mean, they’re not going to provide Little League uniforms or come to community meetings,” he said.
Though perhaps Little League uniforms are exactly what’s needed. Evelyn Darling is the executive director of Fields Corner Main Streets.
“In an ideal world, small business owners, they would be really connected with the local community. There’s one shop in particular that I can think of where the owners really take the time to meet their customers, know them, know their names. I know there are businesses here, including that particular business, where they will donate to the Little League or other community groups,” she said.
I asked Timmy Chan, the cook of Yum Yum, whether local organizations have come in asking for donations. He nodded. “Yes, but we have no money to give. Business is bad, so how can I donate money?”
Plus, he and the other staff work over 10 hours a day. Even if they wanted to give back, there isn’t much to give.
“The amount of profit anybody is making are razor-thin. I think the bankruptcy rate for restaurants is huge, something like 40 percent go broke within 5 years. And takeouts are even more marginal. Plus crime on top of that,” said Lee.
He believed the late-night cash-only takeouts had a reason to put up barriers. But danger is just part of the equation: “Often, a lot of that is that they don’t speak English very well. So it’s very hard to be part of the community. For the people running it, it’s just a place to make money.”
A model takeout?
In the past few months I’ve been spending a lot of time in takeouts. I’ve found one in in Roxbury that defies all of the stereotypes: Peking House has been in the mostly African American neighborhood for more than 40 years — and has been passed down from one generation of family to the next. Peter Pang is now in charge.
“Peter knows people’s names. It’s almost like the old Cheers. Everybody in here, I bet he can tell you about their family and he can tell you about what they eat,” said Peking House regular Robert Lewis, who is also the founder of Hoopz Excellence, a basketball program in Roxbury that helps at-risk youth.
“Peter has been a stellar guy in the community,” said Lewis. “It’s important for guys like me because we survive off a lot guys like Peter that have a business in the community, but also that will contribute. And not just money all the time, and not just obviously, food, but just time.”
Pang helped start a football team for high school students to keep them off the streets. He coached the team for 10 years. He recalled one time when his players were from four different neighborhood gangs.
“It was a lot of swagger and a lot of trash talk. I don’t think they meant anything of it, but it was just that attitude, and I wanted them to change that attitude because with that attitude you’re not going to make it in society,” said Pang. “So I had to bring them together, and we brought them together. They were a great group. And the last game we lost to Worcester, which was the state finals, 45 seconds to go, and one of the kids started crying. I said, ‘Why are you crying? We lost, no big deal. We had a great year.’ And the kid said, ‘No, coach. I won’t be on the field with these kids any more.’ That was the winningest moment in my life.”
William Biggs, one of his former players, came in to order some shrimp fried rice, boneless spareribs and chicken wings. He said, “It’s pretty strict with Peter. He’s a real character. He runs around the field going crazy while he coaches.”
Pang says that other Chinese immigrant families he knows would never run a takeout in Roxbury.
“They don’t like it, but they don’t know what I know. And they’re not willing to reach out. It’s easy to pass judgment before you get to know the people. I’d rather know the people before I pass judgment,” said Pang. “Because I’m going to be here regardless. I’m going to be here 10 hours a day, 4, 5, 6 days a week. I might as well enjoy the people that come through the door.”
Planet Takeout is a documentary project from WGBH, Zeega and Localore, a national production of the Association of Independents in Radio,with financial support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Share your takeout story and photos at our website.
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