Cantonese food is what came to mind when growing up in the Philippines we went out for Chinese with my father. Cantonese was also what Americans had until the last ten to fifteen years when more mainland Chinese have been liberated to come to America and offer us the wider variety of Chinese viands.Peter Cheung started the House of Cheung in 1989. His grandfather came to America in 1907 and worked at various jobs until he came to the Midwest in the late 1940s and started working in various restaurants. Peter followed in the 1970s, his father arriving later on with his mother. Peter told me that when he first arrived in Indianapolis there were seven Chinese restaurants. Now there are over a hundred. But his Cantonese-American style of Chinese restaurant is quickly disappearing. Sprouting like shiitake mushrooms after the rain, the newer restaurants are smaller with minimal decor to tell customers they sold Chinese food. Peter’s restaurant, on the other hand, is a museum of artwork overseas Chinese and Chinese who fled the mainland were homesick for. Reverse glass paintings, scrolls, ornate imperial-style dragons, and the golden lanterns with Mandarin-red faux silk tassels. My rather confused take – his machine-gun speech left me in the dust – on Peter’s family history in America gave me the impression that the seven Chinese restaurants in the city were incestuous enterprises. Owners and chefs came from a small group of Chinese who knew each other and who traded places as necessity occasioned. They maintained a consistent blueprint for what constitutes a Chinese restaurant and its menu. Peter’s House of Cheung is one of the last examples.
The story of Peter’s family and their associates starting from the late 1800s fascinates me. So much has been written about the Jewish diaspora, largely in the Europe and the Americas, but the Chinese too dispersed from mainland China and their story has been told only in a few books. They came to California in the 1800s and built the railroads that spanned the West. Many ended up finding new ways of making money by starting Chinese laundries and restaurants. These were the equivalents of European explorers fanning out into America and Asia. The Chinese began to leave Manchu China after Europe and the U.S. made contact with the deteriorating Middle Kingdom to seek their own fortune. Theirs is a story begging to be told.