Did You Go to Dragon Palace?
after D. Barthelme
We knew the building. We had watched it like astronomers trying to track a dying star. When our savings allowed, we made an offer. Then the mortgage was secured. Once within the thick old walls, we swept dust and dirt out. Gray mice vacated the premises. Several bolts of red cloth were required for decorating all of the new tables, and a Chinatown merchant supplied a long woven mural. After mopping the floors, we needed to open for business, but the renovations couldn’t be finished soon enough. Someone spoke up about staying open late, to brand our establishment with an appeal to nocturnal customers. We’ll see, I told my wife.
We created two menus. The first for Caucasian diners. The second for Cantonese like us. Our marketing efforts for the first often led to uproarious laughter. We purposefully conjured the most exotic names for as many dishes as possible to elicit appeal from Asiaphiles or those desiring “Oriental” experiences. Sampan Chicken. Drunken Master Squid. Shaolin Scallops. Wing Chung Beef Broccoli. Praying Mantis Steamed Flounder. That menu was a marquee, a document, a testament to immigrant fortitude filled with innumerable symbols.
The chefs were not always reliable. The old one drank, but could cook from recipes older than ancient scrolls that were kept safely in his memory. The younger one was jealous of the older cook’s knowledge, skills, and rough handsome features. One evening before the dinner hour, the young chef insulted the older one over the careful slow and meticulous preparation of an empress crab, so we had to restrain the older chef from hitting him, and then we needed to pay the older cook more to remain. From that point on, for a time, I felt like we were constantly falling behind; it was as if coins were falling from our pockets through one hole after another.
We employed two waiters. For busier evenings, a hostess, so my wife did not have to work each night. Our waiters cleared tables, washed dishes, took orders and served tables. They unloaded food deliveries. Waiters say they work for you, one day. They’ll be absent for their shift, another day. Once, a waiter told the older cook, who was preparing soup, A black person is eating it. I knew the waiter was suggesting to the cook to make the dish smaller. So the black customer wouldn’t think well of our restaurant. We serve everyone. Each portion is the same, I said. Or what? Or you are fired, I told the waiter. The Dragon Palace served all kinds of customers. Whites. Chinese. Blacks. Jews. The waiter stood on the lowest rung of the ladder, but the waiter’s role was of great importance. At the end of their shifts, on many an evening, we fed them. It was another expense, but if their tips were small, we knew they could not easily afford their own food.
He appeared one morning offering to sell us salt, black pepper, ginger root, and any other spices our two feuding cooks needed for their expanding elaborate menu of pandering or authentic dishes. The Spicene man was a salesman who drove a long black convertible, crisscrossing the city avenues. He plied customers with pocketknives, key chains, or money clips emblazoned with “Spicene,” his baritone voice sounding brash, a gold tooth flashing in the higher region of his mouth. He wore his shirts unbuttoned exposing his neck and upper chest. His compact muscular frame brought to mind the golden age Hollywood actor Gene Kelly. I thought my wife swooned a bit when the Spicene Man entered the Dragon Palace. I focused my attention on cutting the best deal possible, though, for the sake of our restaurant.
We implored our children to work for us to help us save capital and cover any losses, but three of them refused. We want, they said, our own lives. We can’t endure being on our feet for so many hours. How do you do it? How do you work so hard? You need, we said, to learn to trust in sunfun, in hard work. Number one son wanted to be an architect. Number two, a lawyer. Number three, a doctor. Number four, an engineer. Number five, a ballet dancer (those wishes surprised me). Stop talking back, I said to them all. Family comes first. Family means everything. Number one son and number four son listened. They started to wait tables and cook, respectively. Watch out for inspectors, the older cook warned us.
That night at 10:30 p.m. we were quite busy, due to an unexpected post theatre rush. The restaurant critic sat at his own table and ordered multiple dishes. He knew enough to ask for the second menu. A bastard, I’d heard him called. Cruel. Merciless. Pig. Rumors of payoffs for favorable reviews circulated. He dined late at night because we’d been staying open after midnight to attract extra business. Dragon Palace was lively, with a bustling air, a vibe of good fortune, and the two cooks happened to be in sync. We awoke to a rave review in the morning newspaper, hailing our cuisine for its authenticity. Fate, we perceived, had finally chosen to reward us. But that evening the line to get in stretched out the front door, extending around the block. Expectations were now higher than a skyscraper.
Within a month, two white restaurateurs opened Lucky Wong’s directly across the street from us. Using an Asian name although they weren’t Asian. Co-owner Alicia Anderson proclaimed their establishment catered to people desiring ‘clean’ Chinese food. Their meals, she explained, were gluten-free, organic, non GMO, non MSG, without any refined sugar or food coloring. She soon asserted in a television interview that Lucky Wong’s was for people who didn’t want to feel ‘bloated’ or ‘icky’ the next day—not to mention that her dishes were for people with ‘specific dietary requirements.’ In this manner, she diverted customers. Until one of our loyal customers, a prominent reporter, called Anderson out for ‘dragging the Dragon,’ noting that Lucky Wong’s was promoting their Chinese cuisine by labeling it as superior to food being cooked by actual Asians. We felt somewhat vindicated. Then a contingent of food critics visited Wong’s; they opined that the rice was bad, undercooked, the dumplings grossly inedible, tough and dry as cardboard. Lucky Wong’s stayed open for two more months, and even after its closing, we hadn’t talked back or explained how we didn’t cook with GMO ingredients, MSG, or food coloring. Our food had never been dirty to begin with.
The Shark Defenders arrived next, picketing out front one day, carrying signs, occupying sidewalks, blocking customers from entering the restaurant. What do you want? we asked. We demand that you stop serving sharks fin soup! Really? Yes, really, they said. We considered the matter. Sharks fin soup had been sold for decades for weddings and other banquets. A luxury item. A symbol of prosperity. Fin meat was used for texture. But now, we learned, the shark finning trade had put 70% of the fourteen most common shark species at a high risk of extinction. China, we heard, had reduced its shark fin consumption by 80%. We pledged to stop serving the soup. The Shark Defenders cheered. In the following months, researchers claimed that what was needed was not a ban of killing sharks for their fins alone, but more conservationist minded fishing practices. To properly sustain all shark species, so consumption of the soup, as well as fishing, could continue.
The negative press diminished the fact that our original aim was to create jobs and help revive the community. We wanted to spread a sense of good will. Our renewed efforts began with a local Shaolin Kung Fu studio; they appeared in the dining room like a flash mob, and impressed many with their prowess of physical movement. A feminist performance artist costumed as a butterfly elicited favorable responses. Then we brought a troupe of renowned Chinese acrobats who performed out front for hundreds. But it was the appearance of the boy band that drew thousands, favoring us with their sense of refined androgyny and high fashion. It didn’t matter that they weren’t Chinese. They stopped by just to eat, but brought excitement, putting us back in the spotlight, making Dragon Palace hot again.
The riffraff walked in, immediately demanding an audience. He told us that the local family association required $500 per week to insure the security of our restaurant. This payment, he said, was for the benefit of the neighborhood. I requested we speak in the kitchen, where the cooks and waiters heard our talk. You, I told the man, are a worthless thief. Without my saying anything more, the younger cook snuck up from behind. He swung and caught the hoodlum in the right temple with a forged steel Stanley hammer that was used to break up wooden delivery crates. The waiters pitched in by hefting the body into the walk-in freezer. Later they threw the stiff corpse in the dumpster. It went out unnoticed with that night’s trash pick up. We never spoke about the man, as if he’d never interrupted our lives, as if we’d never seen him in our restaurant.
We believed the Dragon Palace could outlast any obstacle. Do you know what really happens behind the scenes, though? Fate finally struck one weekend, when the Spicene Man arrived in his huge automobile. My wife revealed they had been having an affair. I’m going with him, she said. I’m leaving you. Weeks afterward, although in mourning, I thought I could still run the restaurant. But a developer initiated an onslaught of letters, threatening to have building codes enforced. He insisted I sell to him, proposing to build a high-rise condo on the property. When I refused, child welfare showed up, citing me for allowing my two sons to work. The final blow was harassment from health inspectors who fined us for numerous violations. Padlocks were soon placed on the doors. We had been duped, I realized, defeated by gentrification. That was why we closed. That was why I moved away. And that was why those who somehow still live in the neighborhood, barely holding on, ask innocently, or longingly, Did you go to Dragon Palace?
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