Your Culture Shanghaied
Chrome countertops and dark corners, vinyl booths and neon highlights. Chinese delegation across the the Japanese and everyone just keep cool for a minute—Jimmy Carter’s at the bar ordering tequila shots and pitchers of High Life.
Once the yellow ribbon had been tied and the Chevy is in the Levy someone’s going to do Elvis. Everyone’s going to do Elvis. After last call drunk Asian men will be falling over each other in a tangle of laughter and tears and a half-remembered conspiracy involving escorts. No more Diaoyu. No more Senkaku. The islands are now the premiere free port Chinese restaurant and karaoke resort. Let the Taiwanese run the place if it’ll shut them up.
No more Chinese, no more Japanese. The Ambassador embodies the technicolor dreamcoat promise of our melting pot society; your culture Shanghaied and bled dry. While eating at a steakhouse in the backwaters of Kansai I stared at lassos on the walls and sizzling platters of beef at every table. It wasn’t insulting. Every salaryman staring at John Wayne on TV paid a deeply confused reverence to a mythology of the west.
Here in The States we don’t believe in the Pioneer corporation or MSG. We ravish them for cheap pleasure and cannibalize our own idealized past by rigging black lights over a crumbling malt-shop aesthetic and soaking everything in Jägermeister and yesterday’s vomit. John was holding up an entire race of people on his shoulders and my two-bits of Japanese heritage proved more authentic than the ripoff salt and pepper calamari churning in our guts. On stage a white girl bust out Biggie while her friends raised the roof. The staff was a uniform shade of pasty and if there were any Chinese in the kitchen they had been warned about showing their faces. Everyone is welcome, I’m sure, if they’ve got five bucks for the cover. Or if they’re underaged. Teenyboppers get stuck in a segregated juvenile detention center where the lights are brighter and you don’t have to wait for tomorrow’s hangover to feel ashamed.
Nate couldn’t get his legs to work and conscripted me to sign him up for a song. I cut through the drunken excitement squirming in front of the stage but was stopped cold by a Hot Topic mannequin running the sound system.
Karaoke has never been my thing. I’ve been surrounded by the polite applause of a dozen teenagers giggly on soda in Osaka but they made the machine work while I made excuses. At The Mint in San Francisco people dance up to the coked out KJ with slips of paper and throw anal beads on your head while you’re cutting through from the transient food shack next door to the shared bathroom. This was less humiliating than causing shock and outrage by violating the sanctity of The Ambassador’s KJ booth. Hot Topic threw me into the neighboring glass stall where I was degraded by a Dell desktop running customized Karaoke software. The next customer grew tired of waiting for me and took charge. They’re not running some backyard wrestling operation here: create an account, chose a username, enter the thirteen digit alphanumeric song code, leave a DNA sample, major credit cards only.
Thanks, I’m actually signing someone else up to sing John Michael Montgomery. She didn’t ask for my number. Hot Topic kept glaring at me through the partition. Rather than wait for security I split with Aaron and never got to see how country Nate really is. We left our friends to the greasy booth, the hordes of weekend binge-drinkers and minor league celebrity, the seatless bar, the half-realized confluence of cultures.
* * *
White people in the parking lot, an entire nuclear family of them. We had not played phone tag, written on calendars and driven miles to eat where shiny happy protestants congregate after Sunday service. Here in the suburbs. In a strip mall. In a converted Chili’s sharing a parking lot with a Gentle Dental, Goodwill and some sort of furniture store.
Kublai Kahn’s sat on the edge of the Tenderloin where you could still catch hepatitis if you touched anything but the schizophrenic trying to eat his shopping cart probably wouldn’t knife you. You had to weave through drunks spilling out from the gay bar and walk up a narrow flight of stairs to find it. On your right was the sliding glass door, the room beyond hidden behind a heavy black velvet curtain. Know Your Monkey. On your left was a grimy little hovel where sunlight fought through grease hanging in the air. Fuck a menu, five dollars all you can eat. The buffet of frozen meat chips wasn’t just pork, beef and chicken. It was duck. It was goose. It was venison. Buckets of vegetables, pounds of ground ginger and minced garlic, various oils, a bottomless bowl of noodles. A guy holding a stick stood by the stone grill waiting for whatever you’ve thrown together. Old Chinese guys chainsmoked and argued through quarts of Tsing-Tao. Sticky plastic table cloths. Egg-flower soup and rolls while you wait. Then the guy with the stick yells ‘hello’ at you, holding your bowl. Eat one. Eat two. Smoke a cigarette then back for round three.
Then prices went up to seven bucks. When I last ate there I saw a table of white people looking at a menu and it smelled like someone had tried to strip away years of grime with a bucket of ammonia. The guy with the stick brought food to the tables and didn’t say a word. Kublai Khan’s disappeared.
A Taste of Sichuan isn’t some back alley immigrant lunch counter but the restaurant draws a mostly Chinese crowd. Servers in various stages of integration were darting around wearing mismatched surplus uniforms. The hostess handed Aaron a plastic UFO paging device that would light up and sing the Star Spangled Banner when a table was ready. Johnny V was peering at chilled gelatinous blobs impervious to western marketing campaigns. Old Chinese guys were ducking outside to fish their butts from the ashtray in between courses. No golden pagodas, no five and dime Buddhist shrines, just a place to bring your family for a meal, the more generations the merrier.
We got stuck in a corner of the side room near the bathrooms. There wasn’t time to feel slighted. Platters piled on fast and hard, bathed in orange and red oil. Chunks of rabbit bones, fish simmering in an unholy broth of peppers, chilled tofu stained by ground chilies and scallions. You won’t find any of their Wild Side dishes on the delivery menus slipped under your door. Things could have been pared down, padded with bamboo shoots, and laid out on angular plates. Celebrity chefs would rave and critics would bullshit on the cultural significance of chili oil. Fashionistas would rack up credit card debt for tiny samples. Food bloggers would swap photos of their favorite meals and brag about their tolerance for spicy food. But there’s no fame whoring here. A Taste of Sichuan is a family restaurant slopping out a mess of comfort food for people who remember gnawing on pig ear and Swimming Fire Fish when they were young. Little kids dribbled rice mush on the floor while parents cackled over beers and snapped pictures. Management hasn’t even gotten around to reupholstering everything gold and red pleather.
A server asked if we wanted boxes but we ordered more beer. The hostess came to explain that they were closing and handed us the check. Standing in the parking lot we stared through chili vapors and grease and hot pot steam beading on the windows of the restaurant’s other dining room. It was packed. Food was being served, drink was flowing, laughter was uproarious. Yeah, it was closing time, but no one kicks regulars out early.
I never wondered if the old Chinese guys hanging out at Kublai Khan’s resented my being there. It was almost their private club, their place in this new world, and it got watered down for new customers and swallowed up by generic money making enterprises. Maybe they did. The whole city was mine, why did I have to fuck up their place? You can’t really resent being ushered out the door as other people enjoy their spot, their little piece of where they came from in the place where they have come. Everyone looked happy and at home.
Picture is a screengrab of The Ambassador’s Facebook page.