Before Anthony Bourdain, there was Cheuk Kwan. In 2000, the Hong Kong-born, Canadian filmmaker began his documentary series Chinese Restaurants about family-run Chinese restaurants in far-flung places around the world. The first episode centred on a small cafe in a tiny town in Canada’s Saskatchewan province operated by an immigrant who arrived using a fake identity. Kwan toured countries including Brazil, Israel, Mauritius, Norway and Cuba and unearthed some equally fascinating tales. Over 15 episodes, he explored the drama and heartache of braving a new world as an émigré through each restaurant’s (often mediocre) fried rice and chop suey. “Yeah, I started it a year before Bourdain did his first series [ A Cook’s Tour ]. I wasn’t that familiar with his shows but when I finally saw them, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity of how we tell the story, and the format,” Kwan says. Not that he thinks Bourdain copied him, but Kwan’s immersive, verité style was ahead of its time. There is a similar elegance to the way he examines the food and explores how Chinese settlements transcend their ethnic and cultural boundaries, while weaving together the personal and political. “I made the original film series not only to show the spread of the Chinese diaspora around the world, but also to tell the Chinese [and the world] that Chinese people are not monolithic,” Kwan says. “And I think presenting these stories now in book form helps with delving into these issues in a deeper way.” Squid Game star Lee Jung-jae on his film directing debut Hunt at Cannes The result is Have You Eaten Yet? Stories From Chinese Restaurants Around The World, which continues the heartfelt tales with more insight, context and storytelling depth. “I thought a book would allow me a little bit more immersive look at the issues I was trying to cover. I started writing at random. I spent about a year on the first chapter, to be published in a scholastic anthology. But all along, I thought I would self-publish the book until a literary agent came along and found me a publisher. “One piece of advice he gave me was that ‘people don’t really care what country you went to. They want to know more about you. You’re an interesting guy.’ So it became more, sort of, cathartic, almost like a retrospective of my life and what I learned.” “It was a very interesting process. Writing has less restrictions than film. You can allow yourself more curiosity, examine more things and do more monologues. In that sense, the book is a totally different take.” Mostly it’s entertaining and astute, with terrific anecdotes about how Chinese cuisine is adapted and adopted across the globe, and elaborates the big little stories of everyday people running Chinese restaurants in faraway lands. Who knew wonton soup is a de facto national dish in Madagascar, southern Africa? How sad that pizza is served as often as noodles in Havana’s oldest Chinese restaurant, which doubles as a charity home for even sadder single old Chinese people lured there by the promise of Fidel Castro’s revolution. Then there’s all the fusion Chinese dishes, with regional ingredients colliding sometimes as awkwardly as immigrant parents and their kids. “I’ve always maintained that what is dealt with in the film is just as relevant today as it was 20 years ago.” Kwan says. Ironically, Chinese Restaurants is the kind of travel and food show that would have been perfectly suited for Netflix, had it existed then, or Discovery Channel. Sadly, discrimination prevented Kwan’s original TV project from reaching the kind of mass audience it should have. And he has no interest in filming a sequel now. “I remember trying to sell the series and the first thing the VP of a TV channel said was, Have you tried the Chinese channel?’ I wanted to tell her to f*** off. She didn’t think these would be universal stories and we were just typecast.” “I enjoyed doing the series the first time, but I don’t want to do an update. It was an adventure. I feel if I were to try to go around the world again, I wouldn’t have the same creative drive. Second time around is never as good as the first. “I didn’t become a filmmaker just to make films. I became a filmmaker to tell stories. And I’m not writing this book just to be a writer. I’m writing to tell more stories.” Have You Eaten Yet? Stories From Chinese Restaurants Around The World by Cheuk Kwan can be bought through amazon.ca Chinese Restaurants will be available on YouTube from June 1.