Christmas in Los Angeles is a contradiction in terms. The plastic icicles taped to the roof. The electrified snowman set among the cacti. But Christmas Chinese-American style takes weirdness to a whole new level.
Not that my family was strange. We were like others at Christmas, Chinese-American or not. For Christmas Eve, we invited all the relatives, no matter how sketchy their understanding of A Christmas Carol might be. My mother prepared enough food to feed an armored division. We sat on folding chairs and tried to eat dinner from a gradually disintegrating paper plate.
Ours was not a huge family. Some members were dead or still in China or scattered elsewhere around the world. But my two grandmothers both lived in LA. My maternal grandmother liked to knock back her liquor then slam her glass on the table. My paternal grandmother liked to frown. Usually, my two brothers and me were the only kids at dinner.
I’ll wager (and we Chinese do love to bet) that our Chinese-American Christmas dinner wasn’t anything like yours. We had:
Tea-smoked duck and barbecued pork purchased straight from the best purveyor in Chinatown (Cantonese, of course); a ham studded with cloves and a secret sauce that must have included soy sauce and ketchup; fried rice with a melange of canned vegetables (corn, green beans, carrots) and scrambled eggs; canned yams cooked in orange juice until they were too soft even to play with; and a towering dessert made of green jello, maraschino cherries and marshmallows.
This might make my mother sound like a terrible cook but she wasn’t. Remember the 1960’s, the golden age of canned foods? Check out The Cleaver Quarterly article on The Gourmet’s Encyclopedia of Chinese-Hawaiian Cooking. The recipes were based almost exclusively on canned goods. As the author Kiki Aranita noted, this wasn’t Chinese-Hawaiian food but rather
“dishes cooked by a Chinese family that happened to live in Hawaii”.
We happened to live in Los Angeles. By US standards, LA was Mecca for Chinese-American food. For real Chinese like my parents, it was a vast wasteland. So my mother mangled American food to make it palatable to her Asian taste buds. Why eat turkey – dry, stringy and bland – when you could have a succulent duck instead? Or cranberries (so sour!) when you could have sweet yams? The Chinese have an age-old aversion to fresh green vegetables and so salads were nixed. The ham was my mother’s only concession and only us ABC kids, the American Born Chinese, ate it.
As the adults sucked their duck bones clean, we kids stared longingly at the presents arrayed under the Christmas tree. Chinese lanterns wound round the tree, blinking on and out. Stockings dangled over the gas-fired fireplace that no one ever lit. Bing Crosby crooned on the stereo about sleigh bells and mistletoe and something called a White Christmas.
After dinner, we opened presents. We kids dived for the ones under the tree but the real stuff came out of Auntie May‘s elegant purse or the pocket of my Uncle David’s letterman jacket.
We got red envelopes for Christmas, New Year (Chinese and American) and birthdays. It was always money to be spent (by the adults) or saved (for us). Mom tucked the envelopes into her purse for safekeeping. We built racecourses for our Hot Wheels cars while Dad set up the mahjong tables.
Four players to a table, each table aligned north/south, east/west. TV trays held cigarettes, tea cups and plates of salted watermelon seeds.
My brothers and I fell asleep to the clacking of mahong tiles. In the morning while my parents still slept, we played on. We didn’t know the rules for mahjong, just the noises you were supposed to make.
We cried pong for every three of a kind or I’m going out if it looked like a win. Frank Sinatra sang Have yourself a merry little Christmas while we ate the last of the duck.
A note to my faithful readers:
I’ll be taking a break (just two weeks) to refresh and re-energize for the new year. There will be more news on the launch of The Dancing Girl and the Turtle and the festive occasions associated therewith. Stay tuned!