The Belle of Chinatown
(by Paula T. Lin)
Guilty but proud—that’s how I feel about telling this tale. I am an American actor, model, and writer of Chinese descent, Brooklyn-born, and a Connecticut Yankee raised in her Mama’s court. When some insensitive lout greeted me with the comment “American Chop Suey," I wondered if that's why I'm so mixed up. Or should I say a savory blend of the best and worst spices Mama threw into my wok?
Mama grew up in poverty, literally. Always a hunger for more food and a better life. She was ashamed of being poor and being looked down on, the second oldest child of nine born to Chinese immigrants. They did not eat dog or cat but lots of pig feet. She did not understand that the Catholic school nuns charitably gave her the best food to eat: oatmeal. So she fed her portion to the cat slinking by. Of course it was in her blood to work in the family laundry, but also stereotypically true to help run two family restaurants in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. What entertaining stories Mama told me as I grew up! Mobsters would frequent Far East Restaurant and China Night. Mama had to peel and feed a banana to one cook dying of syphilis. The editor of Seventeen Magazine wanted her on the cover, but PoPo, my grandmother, said no, only bad girls did that. When it was quiet, I got to play with the cash register or snack on pineapple chunks.
Mama got out from under a tough start in life. She became the belle of Chinatown, a cover girl for World Magazine, walking to work as a legal assistant with a hat box in hand amid whistles from admirers, treated to dim sum every day. She had a 19-inch waist back then and was one of the organizers and contestants of the first NYC Miss Chinatown Pageant.
(Mama in her modeling days)
It’s said that the quickest way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Whatever my Aunt Kim Kim concocted behind the scenes when Papa came courting worked for Mama. After my folks married and moved to Connecticut, Mama learned to cook well really fast. I have feasted on her scrumptious egg custard with soy sauce, spare ribs with black bean sauce, sea bass with fried ginger and scallion, egg drop and wonton soups. I sometimes helped to make the wontons, but usually I was not allowed in the kitchen. Education was more important than cooking. My parents believed that studying to get into college was the start of fulfilling the American dream.
Growing up suffering made Mama quite stern and angry at times. I could still sense her anxiety even though she “married well" to my orthopedic surgeon father. While my sisters and I did not have many hugs and kisses, we got used to it, and to the wall of silent tears all those years.
I graduated from Trinity College, joining a study abroad program in Great Britain for part of my education. Tea with cream and sugar and scones became comfort food when I was stressed. Divorce packed on the pounds too. Mama and I live together now, and she doesn't shop for us anymore, but for sure with the pandemic, I have this innate survival instinct to stockpile food and supplies—just not as severe as Mama's early life needs.
The guilt of sharing family history stems from the "secretive" and "stoic" nature of Asians—stereotypes come from somewhere, right? Also the discomfort of sharing can also be a major quirk in our family. Having a Chinese heritage in America has always been a mixture of confusing, discomforting, and pleasant.
But I’ve come through guilt to pride, acknowledging that she who knew “best" did her best for her daughters. I think I get you now, Mama, what you wanted for me—the life of a little princess, always with plenty to eat. You grew up hungry—hence the continuous stockpiling—and never wanted your daughters to suffer likewise. I honor you as the best chef who knew how to stir my pot, sometimes to the boiling point. You put lots on my garden menu of life, and it flourishes today. Love and gracious thanks.
Paula T. Lin is an actress, model, and writer in Orange, Connecticut, and a former broadcast journalist at global news organizations in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. She is also a standardized patient actor at two prestigious medical and nursing schools in Connecticut. She can be found on IMDB.
Sea Bass with Ginger
fresh sea bass, de-scaled and cleaned
fresh ginger, sliced fine
oil for frying
Steam or boil the fish until the eyeballs turn white.
Place on a large plate.
Heat oil in a wok or large pan, and fry ginger until crispy.
Pour hot oil over fish.
Season with soy sauce, to taste.
Add ginger and pickled cucumber around fish.
Sprinkle with scallions.
Serve with white or brown rice, using the mixed oil and soy sauce as "gravy."