Reflecting on the American Chinese Restaurant Road Trip: Interview with Indigo Som

Since I’ve been reading on-the-road travel books, I have been wondering about alternate points of view to man-in-truck-takes-the-backroads. I did find the 2020 book, Overground Railroad by Candacy Taylor, which I commented on here, but I remembered Indigo Som’s Chinese Restaurant Project and wondered if the documentation ever became a book. It has been three years since we communicated, but Indigo answered my email with links to the information in a former blog and a local cultural website.

 In 2003, Indigo received assistance to continue what was originally self-funded research for her conceptual project: documenting Chinese restaurants in the United States. She received funding for two trips, one to the midwest in May 2003, due to a residency invitation to The Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota (population of 17 Chinese American residents), the other to the South, a grant from Creative Work Fund, in September and October, 2004.

The photos on the blog don't load any more, but you can see photos and more commentary here: "visual culture in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond." The trip culminated in an exhibition, Mostly Mississippi: Chinese Restaurants of the South at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco, March 2005. It was accompanied by a "slim catalog," which may still be available through CHSA, or Indigo writes that you can contact her through her website.

In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the writer quotes Indigo as saying, "she isn't so much documenting her travels as sifting through them to better understand Chinese restaurants as a cultural reference point in the American experience." Whose experience? From what perspective? Does everyone have a story about eating in one? Is there a Chinese restaurant or two or five in every city? How did they get there? What do people think of when they think "Chinese restaurant?" The article further points out that Chinese immigrants were originally recruited as a replacement for slave labor, but instead, they opened businesses.

Meanwhile, back then, Indigo had created a survey, collecting memories, history, and anecdotes, and asked people to send menus from across the country, which they did. (If you go to the start of her blog, December 2002, you can begin reading about survey results and "Don't scare the customers.")

I know Indigo from when we were both active in the Pacific Center for the Book Arts, a membership organization with roaming addresses, a precursor to San Francisco Center for the Book. I admired her book art greatly: first, Howards and Hoovers, a book of Chinese American male names constructed like a paint sample color guide, then 1995’s no one to call home/girl, a book of Chinese American female names, an extra-long accordion that collapsed into a tiny box. I was able to purchase a copy of the latter, showing it to my students, and later including it in the 2017 exhibition and catalogue, Books of Course. In addition to her intuitive design sense, Indigo is a compelling writer.

I felt there was a likely continuation to the story and was curious how it looked to her, sixteen, seventeen years later. She agreed to an interview, which follows. 

Woo's Pagoda, Eau Claire, Wisconsin
photo: Indigo Som

AG: Hi, Indigo! So we’re looking back, and I’m wondering what has stuck with you after all this time?

IS: How much I learned! How much I didn’t know when I started & how much I know now. It’s strange to me how obvious everything seems now, but I had to go to those places & talk to those people to learn it. Just all the factors that contribute to “why is this restaurant here & what are the stories of the people who run it?” A lot of those stories will be with me forever. I love that I got to experience all of it, vs. just reading about it in a book.

AG: How did the trip change your perception of America or Americans or of Chinese restaurants?

IS: Before, I thought that there were good Chinese restaurants & bad Chinese restaurants, & that the bad ones were the ones non-Asians went to. I learned, experientially, that “American Chinese” is a cuisine unto itself, with its own norms, that has only a tangential relationship to what Chinese people call Chinese food. I’m sure I ran across that information before going, but I don’t think I really understood exactly what that meant.

I feel an intimacy with all those Chinese restaurants now that I didn’t have before, so now whenever I unexpectedly run into a Chinese restaurant, there’s a feeling of familiarity, & I would even say tenderness.

As for America… I think every American who’s not from the South, especially non-Black people, should travel there. There’s so much foundational history there for the whole country.

In general, I unlearned a lot of my coastal urban bias & classism, & looking back I’m a bit embarrassed at how much of that I carried into the project, although I think that was actually an unstated goal at the time. Becoming a better ally is a lifelong project!

AG: Can you give an example or two of the “American Chinese” cuisine and what Chinese people call Chinese food?

IS: American Chinese: crab rangoon

Cantonese: steamed whole fish. There is so much regional variation in Chinese food that you can’t really say it’s one thing. Remember it’s a big country!

AG: It appears that some of the Chinese restaurants were owned by Korean, Thai, or Vietnamese people. What’s the story there?

IS: There is a long-established market for American Chinese food, not for Korean or Vietnamese food. Even Thai food, which I thought would be more widespread, was not; one restaurant owner said customers didn’t even know what/where Thailand was & confused it with Taiwan!!!

AG: You were able to record interviews with some of the owners—whatever happened to the recordings?

IS: For the Southern trip, which was funded by the Creative Work Fund, I collaborated with Chinese Historical Society of America, so they have all the interview recordings from that trip.

AG: How was traveling with this goal different from other travel?

IS: Well it was exhausting! I love traveling for pleasure. This was not that. I was really driven to dig in to these questions I had. There was a burning creative, emotional & intellectual motivation for these trips. Honestly, I miss having that intense obsessive drive, but I don’t miss the exhaustion.

AG: How did being a woman and/or being of Chinese descent affect how you were treated?

IS: I was afraid every time I hit the road. When I went to Wyoming [the first, self-funded trip] it was only a year after 9/11 & only 4 years after Matthew Shepard was killed. But everywhere, people were friendly & welcoming. I came away from all of it thinking most people are basically nice, or at least polite. I don’t know if that’s still true, if it would be the same now or not.

In many cases, there seemed to be a novelty to my being Asian that sort of disarmed people or piqued their curiosity; I don’t think white or Black people would have the same experience at all. Being Asian meant I fell outside the intense white/Black dynamic in the South, so I could talk to anyone.

In Wyoming & the South I was traveling with my partner at the time who was also Asian American. We were so scared of anti-queer hatred & actually made a policy decision to be closeted during both trips, but most people were so distracted by our Asianness that I don’t think our queerness even occurred to them. In the Midwest I was traveling with another Chinese American friend, the artist Irene Chan, & that was where we felt some people treated us like, “help the poor lost Chinese girls find the Chinese restaurant.”

Being a woman, I’m perceived as very non-threatening & harmless, & even more so as an Asian woman. It’s a pernicious stereotype that turns out to work pretty well for talking to strangers. Of course by the same token I also had to look out for my own safety; I’m pretty careful & I think I was also very lucky not to have major problems or scares.

AG: What do you wonder about those places or people now?

IS: I often wonder about the people I met & their restaurants & how they are now. I read recently about how a lot of Chinese restaurants are closing because their immigrant owners succeeded in creating other opportunities for their kids — that the closure of a business in this case is a sign of success. The kids don’t want to take over the family business because they have better options. The kids I met in those restaurants are well grown up now & I wonder what they’re doing.

AG: Where else did you visit? And what was notable there?

IS: I fell in love with the landscape in Wyoming. As a city dweller I think I have a deep need for that kind of vast open space. The visceral experience of it is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been.

AG: Do you feel you would ever want to travel the country again? What, if anything, would you do differently?

IS: Being in plaguetime makes me so itchy to travel everywhere & anywhere! There were some states that got away; I still never made it to Montana & I would really like to go. I’m older now so I would go more slowly LOL! But honestly, I’m more keen to travel outside the country. There are so many countries I’ve never been to.

AG: Are people still sending you menus? Do you get comments with them? Do you have some favorite menus and/or comments you can share? And are people still filling out the survey?

IS: People kept sending menus for a long time, but it seems to have died down finally. I still welcome them at PO Box 5053, Berkeley CA 94705! The survey had a brief intense flurry mostly due to a New York Times article, & then has been quiet for a long time, so if folks want to fill it out, I would be thrilled:

AG: Tell us a little about your current art and/or writing practice, if you would…

IS: For the past few years I’ve put my creative energy into rebuilding my life after a very long, toxic relationship ended. I’ve worked on some projects that were really just for myself, different ways of looking at or reimagining myself & my life. One of them was photographing the winter light in my house, looking deeply at the beautiful stillness, silence & spaciousness (aka the three precious pills of dzogchen). I’ve made a first cut editing those photos into book form but I’m not sure whether or not they really need to become a book, or if there’s some text that they’re waiting for.

AG: Thanks, Indigo! It was great catching up with you. Thanks for sharing your experience. I hope you stay safe and well.


dinahmow said…
You know some wonderful people and find such interesting links!Thank you.
As I read this I had to keep blinking as tears welled.Not always sad ones.
Alisa said…
Thanks for reading, dinahmow! We try to look for meaning on this great blue marble, don't we?