A Heavy Choking, A Monster Roars, A Neglected Dawn

by Chris Zhongtian Yuan

I heard about dad’s retirement a few weeks ago. For some reason the news hit me really hard. It sounded as if he was finished, as if he was done with making things, as if he retired from being an artist. But I know I am being melodramatic again - he retired from the University he taught for almost 40 years, and perhaps retirement is something he has been waiting for all these years. Until this day, he still rents a studio from the University. And perhaps now he can finally spend more time in the studio.

I remember eating boiled rice for the first time in dad’s studio. I was perhaps 10 and I’d take lunch breaks from my nearby school everyday. Dad would paint all day long but he’d always try to make a couple of dishes, mixing soup, meats and veggies. There was one day he got lazy and simply boiled day-old rice with water, only adding a few pieces of leftover bok choy and salted fish. I bursted into tears when I saw the rice - few ingredients had been hidden inside and for a second I thought I was having plain rice for lunch.  

In Ang Lee’s 1994 film Eat Drink Man Woman, each meal exists as a set of instructions where traces of conflicts and intimacies are meticulously analysed and repressively presented. Each meal is an elaborate way to resemble the very structure of the family — desire pouring over red meat, vegetables devoid of love, soup not longer heals, lingering fogs veiled by steam dumplings. The more implicit a meal is, the more explicit the entanglement is. And when the sense of taste eventually returns, the household patriarch’s desire finds its way back. What had delayed the taste bud? The lack of love.

If food gives us hints of what a person might be going through, then what was dad going through? Was he having one of those days contemplating an artist career that seemed to have no beginning or ending? Was he simply distracted by his thoughts and brushes and only fast to realise lunch was not ready at all? And why was I overreacting to this plain meal? His studio wasn’t big and teaching job wasn’t stressful. His friends got famous. His friends sold for millions. He was still the same until he couldn’t paint anymore. And then mom told me about dad’s mother.

My grandmother was a cook for the local community canteen. She passed away when dad was still in high school. She died of lung cancer and apparently the cause was cooking oil fume. But why didn’t they ventilate the kitchen? I ask my dad. Ventilation? You would be lucky to not miss a meal those days. Dad answers with a smile.

A little bit of research tells me that cooking fumes induced lunger cancer is rather common within non-smoking Han Chinese women. 90% of non-smoking Han women regularly cook family meals. For my grandmother who was cooking for both her family and the local community, it was no surprise that she inhaled much more cooking oil fume than others. After her passing, dad’s family stopped cooking with high heat and oil for a long time. They ate noodles, soups, steamed buns and a lot of boiled rice. Here is a typical recipe:

Vegetables Boiled Rice


rice, Chinese cabbage, tomatoes, wheat noodles, eggs, spring onions


two teaspoon of soy sauce, a pinch of salt, one teaspoon of white pepper power

  1. Add one cup of water into a small pot
  2. Add cabbage and tomatoes into the pot once water is boiling, and add half of chopped spring onions
  3. Add wheat noodles and cook for 5 minutes or until almost cooked
  4. Add leftover (preferably day-old) rice and cook for another 5 minutes
  5. Add egg and all sauces. Turn off heat and add the rest of chopped spring onions

It took me 15 minutes to recreate this recipe at home. During the process, I had the weirdest flashback - dad peeling garlic with his typical deadpan facial expression. Those moments stayed with me. Those were the years he had stopped loving mom, I thought. He’d get up every morning and have the exact same boiled rice and a steam bun for breakfast. One day, he picked me up from school and when we almost got home, he asked me, if mom and I were to divorce, who would you pick?

Making a good bowl of boil rice requires almost no culinary skills. The mundane act of boiling water while doing the roughest kind of chopping would do the job. While making the recipe, one can sink into one’s mind completely without paying attention to everything else. Perhaps, the escapism was why dad became obsessed in the first place.

I read about the Transcontinental Railway workers way back in college. It was a freshmen writing seminar about Asian American History. I had the most intelligent, intense and hysterical professor, who would encourage us all to scream at the past. But to scream at the past isn’t easy. Sometimes the past rather prefers to be archived, locked up until the end of times. The emotional labor of digging it out requires courage — the kind of courage that makes you so vulnerable when you reconstruct scenarios and search for psyches in the most cruel environments.

In order to proceed, I choose poetry. I choose to write not as a poet but as a human being trying to piece together evidence of my subjects long buried in the past.

I try to travel with them from southern China. The people

Who were part of the greatest diasporas in human history. Across

Oceans to south, west, east, southwest and southeast. Some

Came to California. In the early 1850s

The America was a wild wild place. To arrive there

Means to make something brand new. Something grand

So grand that they would not be able to understand

I had seen enough injury and death across the ocean. I saw

The body of a fellow traveller, trapped in cold and

The illusion of reaching the wild west. The wild west

Awaits the vulnerable, the brave, the strong, the sick. Snowstorms

Down the mountains and swept them all. The tunnel

Through Sierra Nevada. Then followed

The strike. Death rate is 15 percent if

You are on British ships, and 40 on Peruvian

What they did eat and how

Did they (not) survive

They came from villages of Guangdong where

Rice provided base for preserved vegetables,

Dried fruits, mushrooms, herbs, spices, nuts, teas

Life structured around farming and the milestones

Of birth, marriage, death and mourning. And cycles

Of simple meals: root corps, green vegetables, fish, fruits

They wanted to carry these to the wild west, to travel

Through Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, the redwood forests

And towering Sierra Nevada mountain range. But things were

Dried up, salted, preserved, fermented

Across the ocean

Repeating the names of the foods in an unfamiliar structure feels strangely vivid. By placing them in unexpected spaces between lines, these names came to life in the psychic landscape. I had heard the sounds of pouring boiling water onto dried fungi so that they become edible after 15 minutes or so. I had listened closely to salted fish sizzling in the heated wok. Water is squeezing, water is almost squeezing on lard. Fruits are violently rising to the surface of the pot. The herds tease tenderly. A monster roars, a heavy choking, a neglected dawn. One common recipe goes:

Cantonese Salted Fish Fried Rice


Oil, onion, salt-cured fish, rice, shaoxing wine, fermented vegetables

  1. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in wok over high heat
  2. Add onion until it becomes translucent
  3. Add salted fish and cook for 5 minutes until funky aroma rises
  4. Add cooked rice
  5. Add shaoxing wine, fermented vegetables, more oil and salt

On February 15, 1875, 801 Chinese passengers arrived at the dock of San Francisco. They brought the most familiar recipes and edible items. They never knew that they would change America forever. After the Transcontinental Railway was finished, trade became vast, travel became cheap, time and space were annihilated but forests and buffalo died forever. As the foundation of the nation’s capitalism was laid down, a path to exceptionalism and patriotism was built, and so was a road to racialised wars and endless cynicism.  

I had wondered what gave me the drive to write about the Railway workers. After all, my diaspora years in America were fundamentally different. My privilege almost disqualifies me to write about them. But as I grew older, traces of their collective history became interconnected with my own. Chinaman, or the way people talk to you, or exclude you, or the questions they ask you at border control, or when they joke about you as the “Chinese worker”. As a “Chinese worker” who got an architecture job fresh out of college in Copenhagen, Denmark, I cook a lot of salted fish fried rice. I’d think about ways of joining a wooden beams and how then to multiply those members to hold up a giant structure. I’d think about how to hollow out a fake mountain landscape and fill it with shinny steel things. I stayed up late because people thought that was the only thing I wanted to do. Perhaps, part of me played along with people’s projection of me, and when I finally rebelled I had become this monster figure roaring into nothingness.

I have always wanted to reconfigure my relationship with America, bringing it closer to reality and further away from my imagination. The closer you get, the more illusive it becomes. The kind of illusion only bursts when you leave. I knew I had to get out of it before its fake-niceness devours me entirely. I moved to London to start over. Somehow, I had carried this dialogue from Happy Together (1997) with me:

(Leslie Cheung) - Lai Yiu-fai, we could start over.

(Leslie Cheung) - Do you regret being with me?

(Lai Yiu-fai) - Dam right I do. I had no regrets until I met you. Now my regrets could kill me. 

Returning to reality proves to be less interesting and sometimes unnecessary. Until today, I still grapple with the question - how did it all start?

Weeks before leaving Texas, I received a phone call from him. I have only met him once in my entire life. For less than 24 hours, we were cramped in his one-bed apartment. Beijing had one of its darkest, most polluted days. We had Pho, went to his place, had sex and the next day he worked on his upcoming solo show in the same apartment. His assistant showed up to deliver materials, prepare box lunches, and translate a broken piece of writing. We lost contact until one day he called me - he says, would you marry me? I remember listening to those words in the barren landscape of Texas. Then I heard about his wedding, only to realise we were performing for each other all these years.

I still remember the only meal we had in the pho restaurant. The performance was on and food was average. Later I tried to make pho at home. To make a classic pho is almost impossible at home. The soup base alone is a laborious project:

Homemade Pho


Beef knuckles, onion, fresh ginger, cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, star anise, whole cloves, cardamom pod, salt, fish sauce


Dried rice noodles, raw eye steak, thinly slice onions, cilantro leaves

  1. Add beef bone in a large pot of water to boil for 5 minutes. Drain bones and rinse and then add bones back to stockpot covered by cold water
  2. Grill onions and ginger on stove for 10 minutes until they become charred
  3. Add cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, start anise, cloves and the black cardamon pod to a dry frying pan. Place onto low heat and cook for 5 minutes
  4. Bring stockpot to a gentle simmer and add charred onions and ginger as well as toasted spices
  5. Add salt, fish sauce, rock sugar and continue to summer broth for 3 hours
  6. Remove bones, onions and ginger from broth then strain broth through a fine mesh strainer
  7. Soak dried rice noodles in hot water for 20 minutes until soft
  8. Place slices of raw beef into bowl and top with hot broth. Finish broth with onion slices and cilantro

The years after I first met him, his success soared. Meanwhile I hustled. In those times, Pho became a luxury that can only be recreated at home. The art market became less predictable. Dad stopped selling completely. I worked as a dormitory advisor for a year just to cover rent during college. Mom mailed me a bag of instant hot dry noodles and I ate it for months. Later, I learned how to make hot dry noodles at home: peanut butter instead of sesame sauce, garlic rinsed in boiled water, flavoured preserved vegetables are salty and sour, nothing sweet goes in, bitterness mixed with spices, noodles are entangled but then forcefully separately by wind and oil.

Years after our first meeting, our intimacy turned into conflict and eventually transcends to friendship, marked by mutual therapy, gossip sessions and the occasional gesture of holding each other up. Chinese queer diaspora, somehow the previously strange-sounding term, have now become synonymous with who we are. I came to peace with who I am, where I am and what I’m cooking for dinner. I never admitted to him that I have always been a fan of his work, ever since I first saw it ten years ago. When I told him about my move to yet a new place, he said to me:

New lands you will not find, you will not find other seas.

The city will follow you. You will roam the same

Streets. And you will age in the same neighbourhoods;

In these same houses you will grow gray.

Always you will drive in this city. To another land — don’t you know

There is no ship for you, there is no railroad.

When journey becomes remote and unreachable, one’s longing becomes intertwined with a collective from another time and place. The imagined loss, forgotten violence, intimate tales, songs that linger, reconciliatory meals, recipes that are bland. But luxury divides, while blandness reunites us all.

And my time with dad is now tied up with the most bland recipe. These days, I often wonder what would dad do now after his retirement. He finally found a new gallery to support his work, regardless of sales or medium or content or form. I wonder if he still makes boiled rice for breakfast. I wonder if he is actually happier than most of his friends.  


袁中天 著

几周前,我听到父亲退休的消息。因为一些原因,这消息对我打击很大。听起来好像他的人生结束了,好像他再也不会创作,好像他不再想做艺术家。但我知道我又在夸张了 – 在大学里当了40年老师,也许退休早已是他这些年一直在等待的事情。直到现在,他还在学校里租着工作室。这之后他终于可以花更多时间待在工作室里了。

我还记得第一次在父亲的画室里吃烫饭的场景。当时我大概十岁,每天中午,我都会从附近的学校回到父亲的工作室午休。父亲经常一整天都在创作,但他总会尽力多做几个菜给我,有汤,有肉,有蔬菜。有天他偷懒,就只用几片青菜叶和咸鱼,加剩饭和水一起煮。当看到饭的时候我哭了 – 碗里看起来只有白饭,那一瞬间我以为自己的午饭就只有这个。

在李安的电影《饮食男女》(1994)里,每顿饭都像一连串的指示,有关矛盾和亲密的线索在每一餐饭里被表达,剖析和竭力抑制。每顿精心制作的宴席都喻示着家庭的结构—— 欲望被浇在红肉上,没有爱的蔬菜,不再治愈的汤,热气腾腾的蒸饺遮掩住迟疑的真相。料理越复杂/含蓄,其中心思就越露骨。而当味觉终于恢复,一家之长也寻回了他的欲望。什么干扰了他的味蕾?爱欲的缺失。











2. 水开后将白菜菜和西红柿放入锅中,加入一半切碎的葱

3. 加入面条煮5分钟或至差不多熟

4. 加入剩下的(最好是前一天剩下的)米饭,再煮 5 分钟

5. 加入鸡蛋和所有调料。关火,加入剩下的葱花

我花了15分钟在家里重做这道菜。过程中,我经历了最奇怪的闪回 – 父亲如同往常般面无表情地剥蒜。这些时刻一直与我共存着。这就是他开始不再深爱母亲的那些年吧,我想。那段时间,他每天早餐都会吃一模一样的烫饭和蒸包子。有一天,他放学来接我,快走到家时,他问,如果我和妈妈离婚了,你会选哪个?


大一时,在有关美国亚裔历史的写作讨论课上,我读到有关太平洋铁路(the Transcontinental Railway)劳工的记载。我有位最睿智,热情和容易激动的教授,常鼓励我们对过去发出质疑,但这并非易事。有时过去更愿意被封档,被紧锁,一直到时间尽头。而挖掘过往的情感劳动往往需要很多勇气——当在最残酷的时刻试图重构情境,追寻灵性时,这种勇气让人变得无比脆弱。


I try to travel with them from southern China. The people


Who were part of the greatest diasporas in human history. Across


Oceans to south, west, east, southwest and southeast. Some


Came to California. In the early 1850s


The America was a wild wild place. To arrive there


Means to make something brand new. Something grand


So grand that they would not be able to understand


I had seen enough injury and death across the ocean. I saw


The body of a fellow traveller, trapped in cold and


The illusion of reaching the wild west. The west


Awaits the vulnerable, the brave, the strong, the sick. Snowstorms


Down the mountains and swept them all. The tunnel


Through Sierra Nevada. Then followed


The strike. Death rate is 15 percent if


You are on British ships, and 40 on Peruvian


What they did eat and how


Did they (not) survive


They came from villages of Guangdong where


Rice provided base for preserved vegetables,


Dried fruits, mushrooms, herbs, spices, nuts, teas


Life structured around farming and the milestones


Of birth, marriage, death and mourning. And cycles


Of simple meals: root corps, green vegetables, fish, fruits


They wanted to carry these to the wild west, to travel


Through Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, the redwood forests


And towering Sierra Nevada mountain range. But things were


Dried up, salted, preserved, fermented


Across the ocean







  1. 大火烧至锅热后倒入一汤匙食用油

  2. 倒入洋葱,炒至半透明

  3. 加咸鱼,翻炒 5 分钟,直到散发出咸香味

  4. 倒入煮熟的米饭

  5. 倒入绍兴料酒,咸菜,最后加入油和盐调味




(张国荣) - 梁耀辉,让我们从头来过。

(张国荣) - 你后悔了?

(梁耀辉)- 我后悔得要死。没见你之前我一点都不后悔,现在我后悔得要死。

回到现实很无聊,也很没必要。直到今天,我都在尝试解开这个问题 – 一切都是怎么开始的?









  1. 大锅中加入冷水,放入牛骨至煮沸。5分钟后关火,将牛骨拿出冲洗,再将干净的骨头放入一大锅新的冷水中。

  2. 将洋葱和姜放在炉子上熏烤 10 分钟,直到颜色变深

  3. 在干燥的平底锅里加入肉桂棒、香菜籽、茴香籽、茴香、丁香和豆蔻荚,小火煸炒5分钟

  4. 将牛骨汤煮至微沸,加入烤过的洋葱,姜以及炒过的香料

  5. 汤中加入盐、鱼露、冰糖,炖煮3小时

  6. 从肉汤中捞出骨头、洋葱和姜,过滤肉汤

  7. 干米粉用热水浸泡20分钟

  8. 生牛肉片放入碗中,倒入热汤。最后放上切好的洋葱丝和香菜。









(黄灿然 译)