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A Tribeca Film Festival Treat: "The Search for General Tso"

Spoiler alert: Ian Cheney's documentary The Search for General Tso ends with the audience desperately craving General Tso's chicken. Luckily, the rest of the film is full of surprises. For one, who was this military man who lent his name to America's second favorite ethnic dish after pizza?

To whet the palate for a feast of history, Cheney asks sundry Americans this very question. Answers range from the ridiculous to the ridiculous. Traveling to Shanghai, the filmmakers draw blank faces from locals who are shown photos of the crispy, cubed fowl (as seen in photo 1).  One interviewee says it looks like frog. Time Out Shanghai editor Crystyl Mo notes that she hasn't seen General Tso's Chicken as an entry on a Chinese menu. If the good citizery of Shanghai offer little help, two clues point the filmmakers to a place that can: Hunan Province is both a historical miliary center and the home of hot peppers.

With that it's off to Hunan, where the filmmakers find a museum housed in the legendary officer's home. There's a portrait of him in his later years, looking almost cartoonishly bearded and mustachioed under a traditional cap. Chickens pop up in the scenery and even as motifs in embroidered pillows. Like the sweet-and-sour dish, The Search for General Tso is a tangy mix of tender enjoyment and crisply done nutrition to sink our teeth into.

Guiding Cheney et al on their quest is Liang Xiao Jin, a Qing Dynasty scholar and fifth-generation grandson of General Tso (as seen in photos 2 - 3). He and other historians who comment on camera confirm that the real General Tso served under the Qing Dynasty and was famous for helping to suppress the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864. A lover of chicken, he was celebrated for his triumphant trackrecord and feared for his brutal ways.

The quest to identify Tso gives way to a moving and often profoundly disturbing exploration of the Chinese experience in America -- and what led many to open restaurants from coast to coast. One of the many tough nuggets to digest is the history of discrimination that has challenged Chinese immigrants from the Gold Rush on. We also learn that story of Chinese food in America rises and falls in step with Sino-American relations.

If ever a fortune cookie could sum up this piquant and rewarding film, it's: "Every wise man started out by asking many questions." After a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, where the film premiered, it was's turn to query. Our search for Cheney yielded these answers:

thalo: What made you do a film about a chicken dish and its namesake?

Ian Cheney: Ten years ago I was driving to Iowa with my best friend, Curtis Ellis, to make a film called King Corn, and we pulled off the highway in the middle of the night to a little hotel called the Tallyho-Tel. Amid the ruins and despite the late hour, there was a Chinese restaurant open. We ordered the usual, General Tso's Chicken, and there was something about this lonely outpost with this very familiar, beloved chicken dish that made us wonder: who was General Tso and why in 50,000 Chinese restaurants across this land are we all eating his chicken? So that launched the journey to understand the larger story of Chinese food in America. But our film didn't get going till we met Jenny 8. Lee, who wrote this amazing book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, where she included an entire chapter on General Tso's chicken.

th: And then you teamed up with her...

IC: And then we teamed up and here we are. At Tribeca! It's as easy as that!

th: How long have you been at it?

IC: About four-and-a-half years.

th: And lord knows how many General Tso Chicken dishes -- or miles -- later. Did you always conceive of the film as a road trip?

IC: I'm partial to that way of making a film. Let's get out and see the world a little bit and see what we can find...

th: What were the challenges of structuring the dual threads of food and history?

IC: It quickly became clear as we started exploring the world of American Chinese food that there was a very important story to be told. It's a story that's still unfolding; it's not just a history. It's an everyday challenge for immigrants coming to this country and trying to find their way here. They have to find a job and find a home and make a living and be accepted in a community and make a community of their own. It's the story of the unbelievable struggles that Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans have faced, some of which are common across many immigrant groups and some of which are unique to the Chinese story.

th: You're referring to The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, as discussed in the film, correct?

IC: It was this singular act where a particular people was singled out and barred from entering. To my knowledge that had not happened before then and has not happened since. No Chinese labor was coming to this country. I didn't feel that this exclusion story and the decades of quieter but persistent racism that preceded and followed it has been enough of our national narrative. So it felt very important to try in our own little way to point people towards that story and talk about it to whatever extent we could through the story of food.

th: That would be General Tso's Chicken...

IC: Right, the other theme of the film is a plate of syrupy chicken nuggets usually served with bright green florets of broccoli, which is not a silly topic, but it's certainly a quirky and at times whimscial premise. So the challenge became: how can we tell the story of our fascination with dish and its origins while also necessarily telling this very important and still unfolding history of incredible racism and struggle that the Chinese community has faced in America?  

th: Where you worried about reconciling different tones?

IC: Definitely! It made me nervous up until yesterday's premiere. Until you have 500 people together in a room you don't quite know what you're going to get.

th: How did you use music to help mitigate the tonal contrasts?

IC: I love the marriage of music and image. Earlier cuts of the film had wall-to-wall music. I loved the way it drove the story. We were going for something that felt "exotic," which is one of the core ideas of what Chinese food has been. The very name "General Tso" seems exotic. So we wanted something that conveyed this. You can't quite place where the music is from. It's all original score by these wonderful musicians, Ben Fries and Simon Beins, who won Best Score at SXSW for our previous film, The City Dark. I also wanted the film to have a journeying feel -- the American Southwest. So there's a little bit of a Mexicali flavor in there. Also Simon lives in Hawaii, so occasionally a bit of surf rock would find its way into the score. And I didn't want it to sound like a bad rendering of Asian clichés: gongs!

th: Speaking of clichés, we typically hear about Chinese family pressure to succeed, as embodied by the Tiger Mom. Yet your film links the historical marginalization of Chinese Americans with a general view of Chinese food as declassé next to, say, French cuisine. What does upward mobility in the Chinese community bode for Chinese food business? 

IC: We certainly talked to a number of restauranteurs who said they didn't want their kids to go into the restaurant business. The idea was: this is how they got their start, and they wanted their kids to be doctors and lawyers. And there was of course the history of racism and of bombs blowing up the doors of the restaurant and all the other untold horror stories that Chinese restauranteurs have faced over the years. On the other hand, a lot of these businesses were family businesses, and there was an experience that the sons and daughters had growing up that was very positive. That's the experience of: we're a place where our community comes together and we know everyone in this town through this Chinese restaurant, and that's something I want to pass on to my kids; and it feels good to feed people. There's a pride in being a chef or restauranteur and a pride in being an ambassador of Chinese culture that some of the restauranteurs would talk about. At the same time they also told us that the food that they were serving was not exactly the food they grew up eating in their own homes or would even be the food that they would eat now in their own homes (as seen in photo 4). So it cuts both ways in terms of passing the torch to the next generation.

th: The film also talks about San Francisco's elegant Mandarin Restaurant and New York's Shun Lee Palace. Talk about some of the newer trends in high-end Chinese cuisine.

IC: As private wealth has been growing in China, that has also changed tastes. There's a phenomenon of high-end Chinese chefs leaving China and going to Dubai or London and opening very expensive, fancy Chinese restaurants. It's like what the Mandarin must have been in the 60s. (Owner) Cecilia Chiang talks about countless movie stars coming in to the restaurant.

th: Was it with the repeal of the Exclusion Act that the Chinese were allowed to work in this country?

IC: No. Sadly, there's so much nuance that gets dropped in a film. It was really not until 1965, with the Immigration Act, that the quotas were really changed and Chinese immigrants were in any appreciable way finally able to come into the country. So that's from 1882 to 1965, an unbelievable span of time. Loopholes kept cropping up and law after law passed to try to prohibit Chinese people in particular from getting jobs. It was after the Immigration Act when chefs who had originated in Hunan Province or Szechuan Province began coming in. As much as Nixon's visit to China was a watershed moment, that change in the immigration laws seven years earlier was as much if not more responsible for the wave of new, spicier Chinese foods that popped up in the early 1970s.

th: You make a point that many Chinese Americans went into the laundry and restaurant business because weren't allowed to get jobs. Why those sectors? And what were some of the obstacles barring them from other sectors?

IC: In this remarkable book called Chinese America, co-author Peter Kwong talks about how the American labor movement forced Chinese workers out of organized labor. This was following the completion of (The First Transcontinental Railroad, in 1869). People felt that Chinese immigrants would never be good union members; that they were just too alien; that they would undercut the unions. Kwong points out that, very much to the contrary, they would have been extremely strong members of labor unions if the race issues could have been surmounted. Part of this was also the fact that the immigration laws made it difficult for women to come into the United States. The Exclusion Act allowed scholars and merchants, but made some stipulations against the wives that Chinese men had married in China. In many ways the work that many people in the Chinese community found was a result of being pushed out of organized labor, but it was also about there being a place for men to do what had traditionally been perceived as women's work. Laundry and food service would be seen as less of a threat to white males. So that was part of the sauce.

th: "Sauce" begs the question: what guided your aesthetic?

IC: General Tso's chicken is red: the sauce; the red peppers; the Chinese flag. So the color red kept popping up. People would often show up with a red blouse or just a hint of red. As we were polishing the film in the color grading, we were working to make sure those reds felt saturated and fun and that reddish chicken nuggets popped everywhere.

th: And how about the camera design?

IC: Initally we were using video cameras, and then we switched to digital SLRs (single-lens reflex cameras). We wanted to convey this idea of a search, so we would often use hand-held camerawork with pretty shallow depths of field. Sometimes things fall out of focus a little bit -- this idea of wandering the streets of China and then also of hitting the road in America, trying to unravel this larger story of General Tso's chicken and the march of Chinese food across the country.

th: Were the animations a riff on Asian puppetry?

IC: In my second-grade class we put on a shadow puppet play as part of our year of studying China. A few years ago, when I was talking with animator/filmmaker Sharon Shattuck and editor Freddie Shanahan about the animations for this film, we were thinking that the animations should be fun and fairly versatile. We were probably going to be doing some recreations and also representing things that happened in the 19th century as well as people's imaginings of what General Tso looked like. So the animations had to be fairly flexible. I was very insistent on wanting them to feel like they're part of the fabric of the film, that they're related to the subject matter. We kicked around using nuggets of chicken in stop-motion, or syrup -- and that obviously didn't get us anywhere. The shadow puppets were Sharon's idea. But I went: "Of course! Shadow puppets!"

Photo credits:

Photo 1: Photo of General Tso's Chicken by Ian Cheney.

Photo 2: Photo of director Ian Cheney by Amanda Murray.

Photo 3: Liang Xiao Jin, great-great-great-great grandson of General Tso. Photo by Ian Cheney.

Photo 4: Photo of General Tso's Chicken by Ian Cheney.