Authenticity & The Real Ching Chong

It’s no secret that I love Chinese food. I may be biased due to my heritage, but Chinese cooking and cuisines, backed by thousands of years of culture, has always held some kind of strange attraction for me. Combinations of fire, sharp implements, and displays of techniques and skill naturally appealed to me, and being raised largely in HK by my grandmother – a tough old bird who brought up four kids by herself off the back of a noodle cart after the death of her husband – only compounded the effect.

Or, you know, I watched a lot of Chuuka Ichiban as a child and saw cooking as this downright magical thing you could do, with aromas and light auras exploding from dishes. The first time I tasted one of the char siu bao from Tim Ho Wan, the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred eatery, I experienced something very close to the exaggerated reactions to food people had on that show.

Anyway, I’m here to talk about the polar opposite; cheap, dirty, greasy chop suey, scraped up from the leavings of whatever the chef had on hand in the kitchen and somehow the representative picture of Chinese cuisine in much of the western (read: white) world, ranking slightly below sweet and sour chicken and fortune cookies in terms of things people identify with Chinese food.

Above Kung Po Chicken, General Tso’s Chicken, and Moo Goo Gai Pan (also chicken), though, so I guess I’m grateful for small favors. What the hell is it with you people and chicken. Not being a food snob or anything – lord knows during my student years I’ve fed on things that only barely constitute food – what the hell is it with you people and chicken

I’m here to talk about authenticity.

I live in Hong Kong, quite correctly labelled “Asia’s world city”. I can tell where Iraq, Lebanon, Mozambique, and Papua New Guinea are on an unmarked world map. I speak two point seven languages (Cantonese, English, half mandarin and additional fragments of Fapanese [fan Japanese] and schoolboy Spanish), can mount comprehensive studies on the corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature, and can name relatives and friends on every single non-Antarctic continent. I have spent significant portions of my childhood bouncing all over the globe; I was diagnosed with chickenpox as a toddler and imprisoned in Dubai until I was well enough to travel, I have travelled with an international children’s choir from Edmonton to Rome, I’ve been in the worst of student dives and the best of high-end jockey clubs populated by the rich and bored. I’d like to think I’m more intelligent, more cultured, and more globally aware than all of you, although I’m pretty sure we all share that exact same thought so I guess our arrogance is a unifying trait.

I could be totally wrong, but my admittedly sparse life experience tells me the following: Authenticity is bullshit. I’m not just saying this because I’m a dirty yellowskin Commie bastard who wholeheartedly supports piracy and the bootleg market, either.

The very fact that people are concerned with authenticity in their entertainment confounds me. From a marketing and branding perspective it makes some kind of sense; nobody ever wants to be told that they’re not being given the Real McCoy. From the perspective of physical logistics (i.e. if you’re Gustav Krupp and you tell Hitler your authentic Krupp steel is rated to stand up under at least 200 rounds of .30-06 Springfield fired at velocity from the Allied BAR, you’d better be damn certain it carries the Krupp name otherwise Der Führer might have to cart you off to the camps for sedition and treason) it makes sense. You’d better be pretty damn sure your medicine is authentic! Even though medical science has made money off of selling non-authentic medicines for decades (we call those placebos).

Desire for authenticity is all over the place, even in areas it has absolutely no business being. Along the line somewhere it became one of those words that has ceased to have meaning, alongside “art”, “culture”, and “meekrob”, applied judiciously to whatever we deem worthy or non at the time. There is a concern that not being authentic makes us its opposite; a phony, a substitute, a fake, even as society shuns “authentic” behaviors it deems unpalatable at the same time.

I’m not advocating a culture of fake. Instead, I just want us to look at ourselves and realize that we’re already living in that damn culture. We’ve been doing it for a long, long time, and we’re going to keep doing it, and not admitting it is fucking dangerous, man.

Why dangerous? Surely the quest for authenticity is a good thing? It’s often the drive behind glorious quests, the reasoning behind many of our endeavors… but the sad truth of it is that we’re often looking for specific answers or responses, and when those aren’t supplied, we respond in extremely negative terms.

The Universal Theory of Pocky states that when one’s perception of reality (percept) does not match another’s, conflict usually occurs. This very discussion started from my own perception, and whether it either affirms or challenges your belief on authenticity. Luckily we can steer clear of the painful side of this conflict thanks to the relative distances afforded by the internet, but if you’ve spent your entire life in pursuit of what you believe authenticity is, this may be a tough pill to swallow. You’re invested in the idea, and therefore have something to lose. The inevitable result: you will either give up on finding something authentic, or find something to pass off as authentic. I believe the quest for authenticity to be dangerous because it asks that the world supply something to match their desires. It’s not content with the here and now, the is – it seeks the will be; people wishing desperately to impose their wills on the world out of their belief that if something is X or Y it will “be authentic”.

I’m pretty sure Mein Kampf is authentic.

Part of learning to deal with this is coming to the understanding that our percepts are inherently subjective. We view the world through subjective lenses. AUTHENTIC CHINESE FOOD may be emblazoned on the storefront in neon lights – and whether it’s authentic or not, there’s no way of knowing. Even if a top ranked Szechuan chef was served chop suey and fortune cookies at the place, declared it terrible, and stormed out in disgust, I highly doubt they’d ever take down the sign. Take it or leave it – the word authentic is just another meaningless marketing buzzword, about as useless as “new”, “innovative”, or “ideal”.

It absolutely amazes me that so many people who can spot these marketing buzzwords a mile off don’t apply the same logic to the word “authentic”.

A minor tangent; my master’s course in creative writing actually had a focus on Asian writing. As the first distance-mentored course of its kind in Asia, it had to sell itself somehow, and hired a plethora of interesting authors to come talk to us about Asian writers composing in English today. Everyone who signed on the course agreed that the idea of “authentic Asian writing” was absolute horseshit within about a week. It may have changed during the time I’ve spent away from academia, but no amount of discourse on local Singlish (what’s the blanket term for Englishes – Chinkbonics?), florid descriptions of exotic locations, Tiger beer and haremesque whorehouses with women skinned every color of the rainbow would have changed our minds; it was just too big. Also, we were all writers who wanted to make livings out of lying to people much the same way Edgar Rice Burroughs managed to get rich out of exoticizing Mars. Not one of us was willing to openly identify as an “Asian writer”; we preferred to merely be called writers, and even some of our teachers openly admitted they’d rather enjoy that moniker or their works would end up on the lonely Asian Literature rack on the bookstore bookended by volumes of Amy Tan.

We celebrate authenticity much like we celebrate originality or creativity; not one person has asked why. T-shirt slogans (made in China, greenlit in boardrooms) encourage us to be real, politicians (bought and paid for by the corporations behind them) claim they’re authentic members of their constituency and accurately represent the millions of people behind them (usually just the millions, not the people).

It’s a bit of a sore spot for me, because I can’t for the life of me figure out what people mean when they say authentic any more. Maybe if we decided once and for all in concrete terms exactly what it meant I wouldn’t have such trouble with people who are obsessed with the idea. I brought up the Leigh Alexander piece in my third article on damned audience – I could not for the life of me begin to understand why she was obsessed with being authentic, and obsessed with games being about authentic things to a level where she felt overcome with emotion. I guess it bears repeating that Leigh Alexander is not a moron, and the sheer fact that someone clearly very well-read and spoken had been spending her life in search of a mutable, pliable marketing term nobody can agree upon struck me as irrepressibly sad.

When you have permission to be truthful, to make things that represent yourself, you have the sudden vertigo of possibility. What will you say now that you can speak? What would you make in a world where you could make honest things and have people care?
Leigh Alexander

I’m sorry, Leigh. All of the above has been true forever. Whatever you’ve made always represents yourself. You’ve always had that possibility. You’ve always been able to speak – and don’t give me that bullshit about how thinking that makes me entitled. I’m pretty sure actually having a voice doesn’t make me entitled, unless you want me to tear out my vocal chords before I can weigh in on the issue. We’ve always been allowed to make honest things, and have been doing so for years.

And no, people have never cared. What you say is nearly never as important as whether or not what you’re saying means something to them on a personal level. Then they start caring.

I’m pretty sure the desire for authenticity is behind the whole “real”/”fake” nerd thing, and the “casual”/”gamer” divide – luckily for people who want medals for liking food, there isn’t quite a schism between “foodies” and “gourmets” because even the most uptight gourmand understands that his position is both inherently untenable, relies on the money foodies pour into the culinary world, and occasionally gets a craving for a cheeseburger. We live in this wholly unoriginal culture that shares information at the actual goddamn speed of light. We tell the same stories and retell them a thousand times until we don’t even remember that we’re telling the same stories. We wear brand name clothes made by children with names but no brands, we listen to music sampled from all over the place and we deep fry even the ice cream. We can’t agree if fries are French or represent freedom, we just know we hate the French or hate Freedom if we say one or the other.

Imagine, for the sake of argument, if someone in power was obsessed with authenticity to the point where he’d put to death and/or set on fire everyone and everything he deemed inauthentic. Suddenly the perspective of the argument shifts. On what criteria is he or she judging? Do all copies of Terminator 2 have to be destroyed because James Cameron didn’t actually see a vision of the future when he had that nightmare about metal skeletons? Are all processed foods to be destroyed because they fail at encapsulating the authentic flavors of the processed ingredients? Is not dropping my pants and fucking whatever I feel like on the spur of the moment inauthentic behavior?

Hyperbole it may be, but it’s amazing how fast priorities shift when there’s fire involved. One of my proposals for world peace involves a mandate that every political leader be administered with a slow-acting poison at the beginning of every meeting, with the antidote to be given only upon successful conclusion. A hell of a lot more would get done if people thought each meeting was going to be their last – and let’s face it, our leaders would have to have massive cojones to keep a post like that for more than a term.

I suppose it’s to be expected that a writer (someone who lies) tells people that authenticity is bullshit. It’s in our best interests, after all.

I don’t like chop suey very much – the literal translation is chopped pieces. I’m all okay with fortune cookies, though, even if The Mandarin turns out to be a disappointingly hammy Guy Pearce.

Do I feel real?

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One thought on “Authenticity & The Real Ching Chong

  1. Delectable text, as ever.

    The odd idea, as they occur:

    The only problem with the delightful scenario involving our beloved leading sociopaths is that YOU would be the one dictatorially predefining a successful conclusion, so why bother administering an antidote at all?

    Also, they tried that experiment already: I think they called it the Cold War.

    Second round of uni, I went to a whole series of Art History seminars on the sly. Mention “Authenticity”, or even an author or orginator of a work, and you’ll be met with rib-cracking hysterical laughter. The idea of authenticity in art, and even signing work, is particularly novel. There was a course on how to identify which 16th Century Dutch scribbler was responsible for their respective work based entirely on how they put curls in ears.

    In the meantime, check out Walter Benjamin’s idea of the auratic. I don’t know if this linked article is any good but it gives you an idea of exactly how badly people like Andy Warhol kerb-stomped that philosophy. Practically, too, not just in theory.

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