Steve and I spent a good part of last week walking through the five buildings that comprised my family’s Chinese Pagoda and Imperial Dynasty restaurants. We spoke of our plans, hopes, and dreams for the buildings’ future. As we meandered through these rooms so precious to me, my gaze fell on individual remaining pieces of furnishings, artwork, and knickknacks — items that I have seen my entire life but, for the greater number of years, in a busy restaurant. Now I was looking at them is a quiet, still room.
At some point I became nearly transfixed by the individual black rectangles of paper attached to the very top of the teak walls next to the ceiling in two of the dining rooms. The rectangles are placed next to each other creating a “wallpaper” border all the way around each room. The black papers are covered with sketches of people and Chinese calligraphy, both in white ink. Because Uncle Richard hung them, I had always assumed the papers related a teaching in Taoist philosophy. But I didn’t know what the lesson said. It seemed that it was time to learn more about these papers.
Without Dad or Uncle Richard here to help translate for me, I turned to my dear friend, American Chinese historian, Sonia Ng. I took a couple of pictures and quickly sent them to her.
From her prompt reply, I learned that the “wallpaper” depicts famous historical figures and literati. Historically, large Chinese families as well as merchants hung images of such figures in hopes that younger generations would learn from these great models. Their names, titles, and dynasty are noted in the calligraphy above the figures and their stories are adjacent.
In the first photo I sent to Sonia depicts two figures.
Yan Zi Yan, a past scholar of the Zhou Dynasty (256 BC – 1100BC) is shown on the right. One of the seventy-two students of Confucius, he became a great, learned scholar in literature and knew and respected ritual music. When he returned to the southern part of China, he brought the teachings of Confucius to that region.
To the left, Ren Gong Yan is pictured. A court officer of the Kuai Ji, Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), Officer Ren rewarded skilled men who served him with his loyalty, and other skilled men came to him like water flowing into the ravines.
Ji Zi Zha is portrayed on the right of the second photo. He was a literati, politician and magistrate of Yan Ling County of the Zhou Dynasty. A prince of the Wu Kingdom, he refused the throne that was his due, yielding his royal position to remain in Yan Ling County as the magistrate. He declined high royal treatment, and his name is remembered forever.
Next to the image of Ji Zi Zha, is that of Wu Gon Yuan, described as a military strategist of the Wu Kingdom in the Zhou Dynasty, the great Master Wu had left the Chu Kingdom and helped the Wu Kingdom to rise. After his death, he became the God of the Tides and showed his supernatural power around the world.
Because the wallpaper encompasses two dining rooms, and I’m not sure, yet, when the repetition begins, it will take me some time to study all of the Chinese historical figures depicted and defined. I wish I had asked Uncle Richard about the wallpaper years ago. It would be nice to know all the “wallpaper” stories and history, where he obtained them and what they meant to him.
I also wish I had asked Dad a few more questions and watched a little more carefully when he prepared true home style Chinese dishes. Sometimes it’s hard to recreate recipes when they aren’t written down or ingredients carefully measured. But the exact taste lives on in the mind. So I was especially delighted to find a certain recipe on The Woks of Life blog. I have been attempting to make one of Dad’s chicken dishes, and the blog’s recipe reminded me of it. The literal translation for this Cantonese dish is “steamed slippery chicken.” After it is marinated and steamed, the chicken has a silky texture, flavored with savory mushrooms and lily buds
When I first made it, precisely following their measurements, it was very close to the dish I wanted. With a few tweaks, the next time I prepared it, it was the dish that had been living in my memory, and now I would like to share it with you, as I will share in due course what I learn in the future regarding Uncle Richard’s “wallpaper.”
Arianne Wing is the co-author of “Noodles Through Escargots,” and co-owner of the L.T. Sue Co. Tea Room and Emporium, benefiting the restoration and preservation of China Alley. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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