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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 f