It would take approximately two thousand years for the earth’s longest continuous political empire to finally learn, the hard way, that it was not the center of the world. No eponymous ‘middle kingdom’, but a periphery to others with comparable self-regard. A state which, as the loss of the Opium Wars, the looting and despoil of the irreplaceable Summer Palace, and the indignity of foreign concessions on home soil would establish, was now one among many
. This lesson struck at the root of Chinese life. Thereafter: civil war, the waning of imperial style, and heterogeneous visions of modernization. The founding of the People’s Republic of China (in 1949) established a final rupture, abolishing the throne and, eventually, with the onset of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (in 1964), rejecting the past’s material trappings—temples were smashed, scrolls burnt, and countless artworks destroyed in a paroxysm of (manipulated) historical-self-loathing. And yet, despite this, analogous to the syncretic manner whereby animist iconography haunts Buddhist art, aspects of imperial style could never be completely excised. Like aesthetic muscle memory, certain elements could not help but return, here and there—a decorative motif, on a bowl, perhaps, where no one was looking for ideology; elsewhere, still...
But another dimension of China’s imperium, its totalizing way
, was never, ever, in doubt or endangered. Cutting across communist ‘modernization’ and the capitalist alternatives pursued by other Chinas (Hong Kong and Taiwan) is a shared credo: namely, that the trans-generational masterpiece of Chinese cuisine is an empire so rich and resilient that it can never be dismissed or overthrown. Perhaps, even, it is the only
way. Visit Florence, Italy, in high-summer, next to the Santa Croce Basilica, on a piazza fringed with sunny trattorias, and note the line of tour buses decanting Chinese tourists into that one restaurant on the corner with a Cantonese menu. Visit any of the world’s historical capitals and, if you’re looking out for it, you will find the same. While these visitors certainly appreciate the gleaming spires of European architecture, jewels from an age of conquest and expansion, and even a little spaghetti, the palace of Chinese gastronomy ever whispers to them from a side-street—that Marco Polo most certainly brought noodles from China, and not the other way around
. Taking a seat within such a restaurant, frequently done-up with (neo)imperial decorative trappings, the hungry guest knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that her heart abides in this place—this palace: a locus of taste which radiates ever outwards from the center point of a rice grain, rippling through space and time so profoundly as to vouchsafe a sovereign dwelling.
In the presence of Chinese cuisine’s age and splendor, historicist interior design trappings are an obvious choice for restaurants. Indeed, it is only to be expected that, as the genesis and codification of so many recipes took place in the Emperor’s kitchen, this has become an obvious touchstone. Who doesn’t want to eat like a king? With respect to Chinese restaurants on Western soil, we may also note the appeal (on the part of restauranteurs) to customers’ familiarity with 19th
and early 20th
, a predilection born of colonial adventures in that most exotic (and newly opened up) of foreign realms. But it may not only be business sense that has guided countless design schemes embracing the horror vacui
of snaking dragons, crimson, gold leaf, and carved hardwood, unfolding in a parallel universe to modernism. The sociology of migration may also be relevant, for it seems that a great many such ‘old-fashioned’ decorative schema were chosen by those who fled the anti-imperial ‘communist’ moment of Mao’s China, to Hong Kong, for instance, and elsewhere. These restauranteurs represent a particular couple of émigré generations proffering a retrospective Chinese style in the absence, at least in the mid-Twentieth Century, of an obvious contemporary alternative. But times have changed, the other Chinas have matured, and the People’s Republic has mutated. Slowly, one by one, Chinese restaurants from Beijing to Stockholm are starting to look a different; more minimal, more hip, as a new generation takes the reigns—replete with computer-tablet ordering systems, and with service and staffing as streamlined as the new furniture.
It is this change that concerns Lap-See Lam (a Swede of Hong Kong extraction whose parents ran a Chinese restaurant in Stockholm). In collaboration with her cousin Wingyee Wu, the artist has taken to documenting increasingly endangered old restaurants through photographic and video work. Her series, entitled Room With A View
constitutes a record of all the known Chinese restaurants in her home city; specifically, their insides and outsides (the exterior of one interjected into the view from the interior of another, as if the two establishments were facing each other across the street. A time capsule of sorts, the series addresses the changing face of Stockholm—a city where, Lam asserts, young Chinese (Cantonese, of Hong Kong extraction) restauranteurs are increasingly turning towards ‘fusion’ food, minimal interior design schemes, and running buffets (to take on recently arrived Mainland Chinese run businesses in a race to the bottom).
Additionally, Lam’s Mother’s Tongue
is a three-part video work whose visual component consists in panning/tracking shots through 3D scans of real restaurant interiors. Through a series of three narrators, the work recounts retrospective vignettes from (and reflections upon) lives spent growing up within, and maintaining, the restaurants in question. Throughout, thematic concerns address change, including generational differences, waves of immigration, competition, economics, and the march of technology, through personal lenses. In one sequence a conversation between a narrator/daughter and her mother turns around the latter speaking poor Swedish and fluent Chinese; and the former, poor Chinese but fluent Swedish, and their changing expectations and power dynamics. In their conversations, playing out in their Chinese restaurant, the question of a mother tongues straddles both language and taste
in the broadest sense: ‘Tell the doctor that the heart opens up through the tongue’, says the mother. Later, that most human of organs, the heart, comes to be displaced by a mechanical pacemaker—analogous to the business technology that is destroying family-owned businesses. Elsewhere, the remembrance, ‘Dad came back from Mainland China and said he had seen the future… Robots took care of everything’. The soul and taste of a nation, and the question of identity, through the prism of victuals, and their future. It is along these lines that we must read the three-dimensional scanning component as performing the function of archiving as memento mori
. The future seems decided.
Lam’s work not only registers an aspect of her home city and its changes. In considering the fate of pseudo-imperial style in the hands of emigre businessmen, her art (as the preceding comments should make plain) does not only address restaurants per se but Chinese globality, and globalism’s China. The slick, minimal, look of a computer-managed noodle bar in Stockholm (often no-different to a hipster coffee shop in Brooklyn, or taqueria in Beijing) is a register of a new stylistic token of what Marc Auge called super-modernity. Beyond airports and highways, its ‘non-places’ include interiors that seem to float free from local historical sedimentation, always already somewhere else; familiar because of their non-specific features—always technologically regulated. Theirs is a new international style that does not ape a central capitol
but which register the anonymous sovereignty of capital, its discipline, and the (aesthetic) regime of fungiblity that it demands of its subjects (never itself). Under this sign, today’s China is much like today’s Sweden, in the crucial respect of being subject to the undisputed domination by this empire beyond tradition, religion, community, or bloodline; beyond communism, and indeed beyond social democracy. Against such amnesia, perhaps, and the creeping banalization of walls, chairs, light fixtures, porcelain, and computation, there still remain, however, other aesthetic regimes. You can taste them. They’re right there, on the tip of your tongue, a little flavor still lingers.