Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Banquet ("Where's the Duck?")

The largest (contemporary) annual human migration on earth is now: when Chinese go home for the New Year. This weekend I joined the migration; journeying off the island and to Seattle for my family's annual dinner. The dinner has been on the Sunday closest to the new year for ages -- always on a Sunday because our dads worked in restaurants and had Sunday off. (Or so I presume -- Sunday is also a slow-in-the-evening restaurant day, good time to take over for a family banquet.)

We tried having the dinner President's Day weekend a couple of times, but that was no good. We're a couple of generations in now and President's Day weekend is a skiing weekend for a lot of folks.

When I was a kid, there were at least twelve courses, often more; we'd start eating at 3:00 and end around 9:00. Many of the "courses" were mere bites, nibbles, something to go with the alcohol. There was a lot of toasting. Every table had a centerpiece of bottles of mixers (7-Up, Club Soda) and a bottle of Four Roses. My parents would bring a bottle of Seagram's VO or Seagram's 7, often both. My godfather favored Crown Royal. No one drank beer or wine, and someone always had a bottle of Ng Ga Pay.

A toast, a nibble, another toast, another nibble. A fair number of rather racy jokes. Stories about life in China. All in Chinese, I understood about every tenth word. I got to drink soda, which was a treat.

When I was very young, usually after we had duck -- not Peking duck, Cantonese duck -- I'd be sent up to our room in the Milwaukee Hotel to sleep. The old folks who lived in the building would check on me every hour (I remember them quietly opening the door). Some would leave sesame candies on the table for me.

The halls of the Milwaukee smelled like gas, the old elevator was simultaneously scary and cool. My godfather's rooms were just behind the flashing hotel sign. My godfather's restaurant, the Little Three Grand, was right next door. (Hmmm, a quick Google of the restaurant's name revealed a teacup from the restaurant that just sold. Drat.)

My folks would party until the wee hours, come in giggling in the wee hours. They went over to the Wah Mee Club after the banquet for a nightcap and a little gambling. The Wah Mee closed in 1983 after fourteen people were killed in the club. But when it was open, it was one of the few places where Chinese could go with white friends; where mixed-race couples could order a drink. (My godfather was Chinese, my godmother white.)

This year dinner was pared down to eight courses; and most of the traditional foods were there, at least in spirit. Sharkfin soup was replaced with fish maw soup, crispy chicken instead of duck. But there were straw mushrooms, black mushrooms, prawns, a whole steamed fish. No toasts, just firecrackers, and a raffle. We always have a raffle: for years the top prize was a TV.

We don't ask all the guys who immigrated to stand up. There are just a couple left, but each table used to be proudly filled with so-and-so and his family, so-and-so and his family. Fifty guys, maybe more; a toast for each. But we still introduce ourselves by saying who our father was and where we lived; for the younger generations it's grandfather, father and where you live.

Signing off, Terri Locke, daughter of Hank Locke, Aberdeen.

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