Last week I read an article in my recent issue of Luck Peach magazine written by editor Chris Ying. There are parts of his article that still keep circling through my thoughts, something that touched my heart…
While he was growing up, Ying’s family owned Baskin-Robbins franchises and a restaurant, El Loco. He sums up his early childhood with a simple sentence: “My family owned a Mexican restaurant and an ice cream shop in the same parking lot.”
Ying wanted to learn more about El Loco and decided to ask his mother for more details. When she couldn’t provide any more information than what he already knew, he did some research. Although he didn’t find the chronological history and location of the restaurant he hoped to find, Ying discovered something else.
“I was pretty irritated that my mom couldn’t remember anything about El Loco. At first I was irritated that she couldn’t tell more about a story I’d been hearing about for years. Then I was irritated with myself for waiting so long to ask. I’d let my parents get old. It had only now become important enough to know and now it was too late. Like some ancient sculpture, the color and details are gone. All that’s left is the shape of the thing.”
Ying concluded his piece with, “The important thing is that it happened.”
When I finished reading Ying’s article, I thought about our rich Chinatown history. I composed a mental list of all I still need to know and felt sad that there are so few people of an older generation left to ask to fill in the details. I took a deep breath and was rewarded with a huge “aha” moment: how enormously lucky we are to have something more than just the shape of a place that once was; we have the old buildings still standing and being restored, the Alley itself that is still home to life and livelihoods, and many colorful details to make it all real and specific and now as well as then.
And we are so fortunate that they just keep coming.
Jerry F. Schimmel, author of “Chinese-American Tokens from the Pacific Coast,” contacted my mother earlier this year. His collection of Chinese American tokens includes what he considers “the handsomest of those Chinese tokens.” He defines it as a single copper piece from Hanford, California. The obverse reads Sue Chung Kee & Co./Chinese Merchandise/No. 20 China St./Hanford, Cal. The reverse shows Good for 25 (cent sign)/In Trade/moise s.f.” He was writing an article about this token and wanted to learn more about Sue Chung Kee & Co.
This was the first time we had ever heard of Chinese-American tokens, and that they existed in Hanford’s Chinatown. According to Schimmel, this particular token was struck around 1913. In the United States, 95 percent of the Chinese American tokens come from the West Coast, primarily California.
Apparently Sue Chung Kee’s token was the only token issued to any merchant located in Chinatown. But Mom and I needed to do some research — we knew what token is (a voucher, a keepsake, a symbolic piece), but we had no clue about the history of tokens in Chinatown. Through a little research, we learned that the Chinese American tokens created in the early decades of the 20th century were used to promote merchandise (like a coupon) or for exchange for services (such as gambling).
As I have mentioned in numerous columns, Sue Chung Kee was a prominent Chinatown businessman. Early Hanford newspapers often referred to China Alley as “Sue Chung Kee Alley.” It makes sense that he would create his own tokens to be used in his many business ventures.
Although the details are sparse, the knowledge of tokens in Hanford’s Chinatown adds another hue to its colorful history. With the pictures of the Sue Chung Kee’s token in hand, we know that this new information is true, now as it was then. It happened.
This week I’m sharing a colorful and fragrant fried rice recipe that’s perfect for the cooler weather. The aromatics are reminiscent of the scents that once floated up and down China Alley. Diced, cooked meat or tofu may be added with the peas for a complete, one pot meal.
Here are a couple of hints for making perfect fried rice:
1. When making fried rice, it's important to use rice that has cooled completely. It’s best to use rice that has been cooked the previous day. That’s why left over rice is perfect for creating any fried rice recipe. Using hot or steaming rice will result in soggy, heavy fried rice.
2. Before you begin cooking, separate the cold rice grains with a fork. This will make the stir-frying much easier.
Enjoy your Cinnamon Curry Fried Rice.