Saturday, August 9, 2008

Noodle Shop Owner Finding His Way

Last Thursday, after slurping apple sauce noodles at Beijing’s trendy Noodle Loft, one of the owners, American Johnny Hsu, whose wife and child still live in San Francisco, gave me a tour of his two-story establishment on the edge of the city’s Central Business District.

“We have eight kinds of noodles,” boasted Hsu as one of his chefs sliced noodles with a chopstick. “We even have green spinach noodles that are 25 feet long."

Foreign media personalities, including chef and television host Anthony Bourdain, have profiled the restaurant. The chefs at the Beijing Ritz-Carlton are also showing up for noodle-making lessons.

But beyond the “glitzy eatery in modern China” news angle, there also exists a broader story behind Hsu’s culinary entrepreneurship. How, I wondered, does Hsu’s own story fit into the greater pattern of the Chinese migration narrative in the Pacific Rim?

A naturalized American citizen, Hsu was born in Taiwan but moved to California with his family when he was 14-years-old, largely for educational reasons but also because his family wanted him to avoid Taiwan’s compulsory military service. He grew up in the Bay Area, attended school in Petrero Hills, worked as a computer engineer for and the Pacific Stock Exchange, and also owned a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco’s Marina District.

But a little over a year ago, he jet westward for Beijing, and with the exception of his being without his family, he told me that he does not miss San Francisco very much.

“This is the place to be,” Hsu told me as one of his chefs demonstrated how to make a noodle shaped like a cat’s ear. “There’s great growth.”

Hsu’s sentiments reverberate throughout much of the history of Chinese migration. The outward-looking, merchant-minded, ambitious, and economically sophisticated have rarely been hesitant to journey toward places where opportunities abound.

Even before the world rushed into California for gold in 1849, a number of Chinese entrepreneurs were already thinking about business prospects on North America’s western frontier. In 1846, as words spread that war was likely to break out between the United States and Mexico, some Chinese with ambition and ability saw the opportunities.

If and when fighting began there would be a need for supplies. American soldiers quartered on the frontier would need food to eat, shoes and clothes to wear and alcohol to drink. “Armies always travel on their stomachs,” writes historian Loren Fessler. So it was understood that restaurants would be in great demand. The merchants in China, as Fessler details, immediately considered what troop movements in North America meant for business.

Because of the social and cultural connections between the United States and China, successful Chinese sojourners in the past have been eager to, in the words of historian Philip Kuhn, “leverage their marginalities.” To successfully leverage one’s marginality means to build a good reputation in one country in order to “climb up ladders” in another.

Those sojourners understood the comparative advantages of being Chinese in their adopted country, and also appreciated how their statuses as Chinese in America benefited their dealings with China. The history of San Francisco’s Chinatown is filled with such stories.

Hsu is a case of history continuing on its course. His American college degree and citizenship allow him to be seen in China as one who had risen up the ranks in the United States. Back in the United States, he is seen as practical and shrewd because his cultural knowledge of China allowed him to run a successful business in Beijing. As political and economic relationships deepen between the two countries, Hsu has positioned himself as an attractive commodity on both sides of the Pacific.

Obviously, for people like Hsu, today’s China offers a different sort of “gold rush” possibility. After decades of civil war, socialist experiments, and disastrous political revolutions, China only began the economic reforms 30 years ago, relatively recently in the grand scheme of things. As a result, it is inevitable, and perhaps not so surprising, that the country’s economy is growing at such a rapid speed.

The growth has brought more people—both domestic and foreign—into major Chinese urban centers in search of opportunities. But most of Beijing’s domestic migrant workers from China’s rural areas are still very poor and would never even think of entering Hsu’s restaurant. But there is also a growing niche of foreign workers, curious tourists, and Beijing’s expanding middle class who are eager to consume, a niche that has become Hsu’s target diners.

Hsu’s wife and child have no plans to join him in Beijing, so I asked how long he intends to stay in China.

“As long as things are good,” Hsu answered quickly, pointing out that he and his partners have plans to open four more restaurants in Beijing in the next two to three years, eventually turning Noodle Loft into a chain. “In northern China, one will start itching very quickly if there are no noodles.”

And so like so many sojourners before him, Hsu will live his life along the fortunes of the international economic cycle, trusting good luck and his own adaptive skills. Should China’s economy slow in the years ahead, which it will, or should China’s economy faces more serious trouble, which it might, Hsu will just adjust accordingly. Until then, though, he is quite content to leverage his marginality.

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