Chiang Yee was a travel writer, born in China but a resident of London since 1933. In 1953 he came to the U. S. to research his book The Silent Traveller in Boston (1959). In 1955 he immigrated to the U.S. and taught at Columbia University for 16 years.
While in London he had published 21 books, many of them which he illustrated with paintings and drawings. Some were about travel but all of them interpreted aspects of Chinese culture for non-Chinese readers, reflecting upon similarities and differences with Western culture. In the travel books, for which he adopted the persona of Silent Traveller, he avoided political criticism and controversy while presenting himself as a serene, meditative man who walked slowly, looked closely, and enjoyed the simple pleasures of life.
Of course his visit to Boston involved quite a few restaurants, including a number of well-known places. He made influential friends — intellectuals and cultural elites — who took him to clubs and fine restaurants such as the Parker House, Locke-Ober, and the hidden-away 9 Knox Street, then run by two men in their antique-filled home at that address.
He went to popular spots such as Durgin-Park, Purcell’s, Jimmy’s Harborside, and Union Oyster House where he made a drawing of himself with a lobster and bib [shown above]. He was eager to sample local dishes such as cod, baked beans, and clam chowder. He never criticized the restaurants he patronized, though he admitted he was not fond of raw seafood.
A darker and far less serene Chiang Yee was revealed in 2010 with the publication of Chiang Yee: The Silent Traveller from the East – A Cultural Biography. Its author, Da Zheng, examined Chiang’s correspondence and interviewed friends and family, painting a complex portrait of his subject. In the Foreword, Arthur Danto reminded readers that “the Silent Traveller itself is a mask he wore that enabled him to survive under skies very different from those under which he was born.” Danto related that after visiting China in 1975, Chiang proclaimed to a group of friends, “Nobody knows who I am!! Nobody! I am a REVOLUTIONARY!!!!.”
Chiang had left his wife and four children behind when he went to London at age 30, confessing to his closest associates that his marriage was unhappy. Born into a wealthy family, he was trained in the classical arts as well as science which he studied in college. He had been a magistrate in China but in the West he built his career around Chinese art and high culture.
According to Da Zheng, when one of his sons immigrated to the U.S. in 1960, Chiang advised him to expect hardships and to be forbearing. His son observed that his father’s New York apartment was filled with signs saying “Forbearance,” suggesting that his father had much need of his own advice.
Chiang Yee told his son to stay away from Chinatown or he might end up running a restaurant there, advice he had earlier given his older son in London. Given the prejudice against Chinese in the U.S. and England – of which he was strongly critical — Chiang told them it was wise to cultivate relationships with non-Chinese.
In the light of revelations in his biography of Chiang’s strong feelings about politics, society, and the vicissitudes of his own life, I interpreted some of his words in a different light than on my first reading of The Silent Traveller in Boston. It is interesting how suggestive his stories of restaurants are in particular.
Although he admired Chinatown residents’ determination and drive, he did not share their language or cultural background. He showed some irritation that his non-Chinese friends and acquaintances in Boston expected him to be an expert on American Chinese restaurants. He wrote that a Frenchman would not “be asked to suggest which French restaurant in Boston is the best as I was asked to do in the case of Chinese restaurants almost as soon as I had arrived in the city.”
He also told of experiencing his first clam chowder in San Francisco but being greeted with silence when he told his Boston friends about this. At first he did not realize why, but later, when they asked if he thought food in Chinatown restaurants was genuine, he reminded them of their reaction to his story of eating Boston clam chowder in San Francisco. I now see this as a kind of mild dig at them, a subtle reminder that the food of American Chinatowns was as foreign to him as it was to them.
I also find it interesting that he tells of a dinner with the family of Harvard professor Yang Lien-sheng at the Old Wright Tavern. He was pleased that the waitress complimented the good behavior of the Yangs’ 5-year old son, but also wrote, “Neither the manageress nor the waitress bothered to tell us the history of the inn . . . Perhaps the people of the Wright Tavern had no time to spare from catering. Or they took for granted our knowledge of Concord history.” I suspect that he felt they had been slighted.
He must have experienced numerous “microaggressions.” Surely experiences such as the one he related about Durgin Park accounted for at least some of his Forbearance signs. Given a huge plate of food that he could not finish, a waitress addressing him as “young man” (he was 53), loudly commented, “Can’t you finish your plateful? If you can’t you should not have come here to waste your money; if you don’t like the food, we want to know why. We don’t like people who don’t like our food.” He said that when she laughed he realized she was joking, but admitted to feeling embarrassed. I’m certain that he knew that the “joke” contained a jibe about his being a foreigner.
It is a shame he had to travel silently and could not be as frank about his estimations of American culture as the Soviet authors of Little Golden America.
© Jan Whitaker, 2018