Since Steve and I purchased the building that once housed my family’s Chinese Pagoda and Imperial Dynasty restaurants, I have made frequent solo visits to the five buildings that encompassed the structure. I feel exuberant, joyful, and excited. I am the Pure Fool, wandering, firing up my dreams.
Recently, I stood in what was once Great-grandfather’s noodle house. I spent a great deal of time up there, listening to the sounds of building’s spirits, hoping for a sign from Great-grandfather.
Decades ago, it was in this very room where my own sense of deep roots began to awaken and I glimpsed of my true roadmap for life from China Alley. Something special happened that day, something shifted. I went home and wrote about it in my journal. The other day, as I poked around the room, memories of that day came back. When I returned home, I shuffled through boxes until I found my old journal. I had written:
“The heavy scent of dust, mildew, and old China permeated the air. Dried up wallpaper, its pattern indistinguishable, curls itself from the paint chipped walls. A pile of splinter wood flecked with cobwebs. This room has been waiting, gathering filth, undisturbed for decades.
“I was drawn here today, something commanded it. Located on a Chinatown alley street, my great-grandfather housed his business, a simple noodle house, in this room.
Grainy sunshine poked through the dirt encrusted windows; I took silent inventory. A collection of battered and stained tables and chairs were pushed against the wall. Wooden crates and cardboard boxed filled to the top with papers – timeworn and musty. Books written in Chinese and English piled haphazardly on the floor. Wooden mah jong tiles, a rusted Prince Albert tobacco can. Chinese teapots and crockery.
“A cracked wooden sign is on the center of the floor I knelt next to the sigh, brushed away a tangle of dusty spider webs. Although the paint had weathered, I could still make out the fading letters.
MEE JAN LOW
BEAUTIFUL AND PRECIOUS RESTAURANT
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ALL KINDS CHINESE DISH COOK TO ORDER
“To the right of the sign is a crate packed with dishes. After shaking off the filth, I carefully examined one of the plates. Delicate porcelain, a creamy soft white, trimmed with gold leaf. Dainty garlands of pink roses embellish the centers. Intrigued, I studied more of the pieces.
“Plate in hand, I caught whiffs of camphor, and sandalwood. The room’s quite thrumming turned into a myriad of sounds – voices, murmurs, whispers. Noises became gliding clouds, wrapping around me.
“I stood. My steps, slow and dreamlike, came to a stop at the doorway. Bracing against the frame I surveyed the room. Images of those who came before me floated through my mind in a sepia toned haze. Sounds and images grow stronger. I not only heard their words, but saw them, felt them – and then I became a part of them. They were of me, of my past. I was of them.”
Today, the wooden sign from Great-grandfather’s noodle house hangs on the wall of the Tea Room. The porcelain plate is stored away safely. Today, my obsession for restoring, preserving, and maintaining China Alley holds me steady to my own roadmap.
In addition to all of the excitement in my China Alley life, and in the steps we have been able to take in satisfying my guiding obsession, I have recently become obsessed, as well, with making dumplings. I’ve been experimenting with different types of dough and fillings. While I have generally found ways to use up my leftovers in fried rice or noodle dishes, now I’m stuffing them into dumpling wrappers. I’m also playing with and practicing different ways to fold the wrappers. At home, I’m a folding fool.
This week I’m sharing a recipe for Sichuan wontons in chili oil sauce. Sichuan peppers aren’t black pepper, they are dried berries from the Chinese prickly ash bush. The aroma is floral and citrusy with tingly spiciness. In Mandarin, Sichuan wontons are called “chao shou,” which translates as “folded arms.” The square dumpling wrappers are folded with two corners crossed over the other then pinched together. Beware the danger of obsession!