Congratulations! You have been invited to Happy Garden Bakery. You’ve slipped into my good graces because you were generous enough to share your sour cream and onion Pringles during lunchtime, or perhaps you’ve had a promising performance at the spelling bee, and I’m fascinated with your mastery of the English language. No matter the means, I have deemed you worthy enough to escape the biting cold and grant you access through our steamy glass door into Chicago’s first and finest Chinese bakery. As you survey the room, notice the stately, white marble that tiles the floors and lower half of the walls, and the discolored, worn wooden door that leads to a bathroom that always smells like mops. Notice the warm trays of meaty, gooey chasiu bao[i] baked into delicate golden domes, and the endless rows of crinkled, golden medallion almond cookies.[ii] [Take a look at the appendix when you see numbers like these. I assure you, it will not disappoint!] Notice the glossed mooncakes[iii] lining the bottom shelves, with their undulating crusts and sweet, thick red bean centers. This is a palace, this is my palace, so please treat it as such, or else Si-Fu, the cook, will burst out from the kitchen and scold me again.
Again, you ask? Well, yesterday I dragged that little table over there to the entrance and tried to give customers handfuls of my Halloween candy for free. However, Si-Fu claimed I wasn’t offering portions of Smarties as much as I was shoving clenched fistfuls into customers’ faces, and so my paupau and gongong[iv] went and told my mama that their firstborn grandchild was acting up again. That makes no sense, though! Who doesn’t like free candy?
But please, come sit with me at the corner table next to the lady separating spring roll skins. Si-Fu will fetch us drinks and a plate of steamed custard bao,[v] and we can try to finish our Lego house by the time your parents come.
Ah! Thank you, Si-Fu!
Grape soda? Yum! Did you know that wine is made of grape soda? My daddy says he drinks a glass of wine every night because of me. What’s funny, though, is that I’ve never seen either of my grandparents even touch the stuff. They’re always in the back of the bakery, wrists and forearms dusted with white flour, their foreheads lined with little beads of sweat from the infernal glow of the ovens. What they spend their days doing is a mystery to the masses. Only the most trusted adults are granted entry into that isolated little room, a womb where bread—a beautiful, simple, delicate, and essential lifeform—is created.
If you were to creep by one of the waitresses and slip through the splintery double doors into the kitchen, you’d see an enormous, warm, wooden table coated with an eternal layer of flour, and a line of aluminum mixers standing taller than I am, their hooked, twisted claws rhythmically digging deep into the sweet, sticky dough. My gongong takes some of this dough, wraps it in cellophane, and tenderly carries it into the walk-in refrigerator that I’m always too terrified to venture towards for fear that I may get locked inside. All the way in the back of this possible death trap is a freezer, a massive coffin of a thing, and here is where the dough will be laid to rest until the next morning. By the time the sun’s fingers wander over the horizon, he and my paupau have already braided, folded, and twisted little armies of pastries. My grandmother’s shoulder aches, and she raises a hand to massage it, leaving a flour handprint on the blouse she bought from the Dollar Tree. It is a ghost, a remnant from her days as a farmer, my mama tells me. I have no clue whether her past still haunts her, lingering in her dreams and the corners of her mind. But it certainly haunts me. My curiosity, my hunger for a past that is so engrained in my identity and yet so far removed from my experience, is consuming, and it is overwhelming. And so I fill the gaps in my understanding with warm, tender billows of sponge cakes, creeping my grubby fingers into freshly opened cans of dense, nutty, lotus seed paste, hoping to somehow find enlightenment in the very next bite.
My grandmother’s name is Yuk Ping Chan, though, to be honest, I have to ask my mom every time I need to remember it. To me and my little siblings, she has always been Paupau, which is Cantonese for “Grandma on the mother’s side.” To me and my little siblings, she has always been brown paper bags of spastic, gurgling blue crabs; black, cold, murky herbal teas that taste like longan honey;[vi] the scent of raw, minced garlic clinging to the fibers of my hair hours after stepping into her kitchen. She is smooth, bony hands straining to hold onto my elbow as we shuffle across an icy street together after dinner at Triple Crown Chinese Restaurant.
My paupau has known and provided for me my whole life, steaming sweet red bean bao as after-school snacks for me and my little sister, and taking us on extravagant shopping sprees to the Dollar Tree on weekends, never once limiting her generosity. She has been a steadfast companion in my childhood, and yet, I only recently realized I knew almost nothing about her. I was fourteen when I learned from my mother how paupau had left China, spending five long days on a rowboat with ten others, with nothing to eat and only rainwater to gingerly sip. What must it have been like to feel such exhausting, crippling relief when she breathed in the heavy, sticky Hong Kong air? How, as a girl, did she feel when the village matchmaker informed her she’d be marrying my gongong? What were her first thoughts when she learned her daughter was going to marry a white man, an outsider from an entirely different world?
Unfortunately, I’ve never had a conversation with either of my grandparents. They only speak Cantonese, and for the most part, I only speak English. I’ve never asked them how their days went, and they’ve never told me that the price of bubblegum is too gosh darn expensive nowadays—or whatever grandparents are supposed to yarn on about. Ah! But even though I may not know my grandmother’s language, I do know her cooking. Steam from a bright red lobster sitting atop a bed of delicate, glassy vermicelli noodles dances at our nostrils, filling the room with a warm “congratulations!” Metal tubs brimming with bitter broths steeped with chewy white fungus, soft carrots, plump honey dates, and chicken simmer together, murmuring “get well soon!” And plates of sliced, pungent bittermelon stir-fried with black beans and flaky fish filets promise me, “I know you, darling. I know this dish is your favorite, and I’ve made it for you, and I love you more than you know.”
Though Paupau cooks for me and my family at least once a week, she hasn’t so much as touched an oven since she and my grandpa sold the bakery. My mother says she and Gongong had been waking up at 4 am and going to sleep at 11 pm for thirty years too long, and they were craving the ability to finally, finally rest. Happy Garden Bakery is now Hing Kee Pan-Asian Restaurant. My grandparents insisted the new owners keep the marble walls, but the glass displays have been replaced with a noodle-making station, and the simple white-top tables have been upgraded to faux granite. Though the action of the main floor has been transformed, all the activity there unfamiliar, we still own the attic above all the chaos, and it has remained untouched throughout the years. Sometimes, I venture upstairs when I’m home from college and peruse all the dusty, retired relics of my grandparents’ work sitting on metal, grated shelves.
One of these relics is a spool of off-white string shaped like a worn cone. Though quite stiff and unyielding when new, the string’s fibers have softened with use and age. My mother would use spools like these to tie up thin, easy-fold boxes when they were bulging with bao or dantat,[vii] and, when it was time to tie up and boil a fresh batch of zhong,[viii] a whole bunch of these spools would be brought out for service, lined up like a mini-mountain range. These zhong have always been one of my favorite foods, with their delectable fillings of salted chicken fat that melts on your tongue, bouncy black mushrooms, stringy dried scallops, and warm, bitter peanuts all encased in savory, sticky rice and finished up with a wrapping of earthy, green, lotus leaves. Whenever I think of them, I think of my paupau, sitting on a wooden stool next to her kitchen table, tying zhong after delicious zhong into perfect pyramids.
Legend has it that zhong came into being over 2,000 years ago, after the adored and famous poet Qu Yuan saw his beloved city burning to the ground at the hands of an enemy kingdom, and threw himself into the raging depths of the Miluo River in despair. To help his spirit survive in the afterlife, villagers tossed rice and other foods into the river, as somewhere under its effulgent waves was Qu Yuan’s final resting place. However, on one suffocatingly still night, Qu Yuan’s spirit visited the villagers’ dreams. He was starving, he told them; he was exhausted. All the food they had offered him had been snatched up and devoured by an enormous, slithering River Dragon that lurked at the bottom of the Miluo. In order to keep his spirit alive, to honor his memory, they would have to take their rice, pork, and mushrooms, and wrap them all in bamboo leaves before dropping them in the river. Thus, the sustenance that Qu Yuan so desperately needed could only be unwrapped by one with dexterous fingers, and the greedy River Dragon would get none.
I remember my mother telling this story to me as Paupau was securing lotus leaves over the zhong with spools of her white string. With one hand, she would scoop out some glutinous rice and place a small ball of salted egg yolk, or meat, or mung bean within it, and with the pinky and ring finger of her other hand, she’d begin to fold these packages of sustenance and survival. When I was twenty, I watched her do this with the same awe in which I’d been suspended since my days as a little girl, but this time, the experience was accompanied by unwelcome panic. Who would continue these recipes, sustain these foods that smelled and tasted like home, after her? In this panic, I requested that my mom ask Paupau if she would be willing to teach me how to make zhong. I was desperate to do something, anything, to keep this delicious recipe, this symbol, this spirit of my grandmother, alive. My mother said something to her, to which Paupau nodded her head and, with a nonchalant wave of her hand, responded.
“She says she’ll come over tomorrow morning at 8 AM to teach you,” my mother said. I eagerly looked at my grandmother and smiled. “Thanks, Paupau! Um, dojeh…or uh…mmgoi…” There are two different ways to say “thank you” in Cantonese. Dojeh is what you say when you’ve received a gift, while you say mmgoi when someone does a service for you, and I wasn’t sure which one to use. But no matter! My offer to maintain the life of the zhong recipe, to make what my grandmother could, had been accepted, and I was brimming with anticipation.
Paupau showed up the following morning with forty tied-up and ready-to-eat zhong. She had apparently woken at 5:00 that morning, gotten bored, and decided to spend the following three hours making them all by herself.
“It’s a pain in the ass to make these,” she told my mother. “Just let her eat them!”
Paupau handed me two Aldi bags so weighty with zhong that the tips from the ones on the bottom were beginning to poke through the plastic. She hadn’t understood. The zhong recipe—heck, any Chinese recipe of hers–was never going to get passed down to me, and thus, when my paupau passed away, the zhong recipe–my connection to my grandmother, my Chinese spirit—was going to die with her. My Chinese identity, along with my grandparents, was going to disappear one day, wasn’t it?
I looked down at all those little parcels of sustenance that had kept the spirit of Qu Yuan alive for thousands of years. Paupau was probably exhausted from packing, and tying, and boiling a modest mound of zhong before the sun had even risen. But she had done it all because she believed that was what I wanted; she had sat alone in a dark kitchen toiling away because she thought that was what would make me happy. I wanted so desperately to tell her that I loved and cherished all the lobster, salted chicken, and the Chinese spirit that she had given me. I wanted to tell her of the shame I felt for not being able to speak Chinese, for not being able to communicate with her, and that this shame was only rivaled by the pride I felt knowing that she loved me so much. I wanted to tell her I knew she loved me, and that I loved her terribly. But of course, I had no clue how to say any of that. So, I made do with what I had.
“Dojie, Paupau. Dojie sai,” I said. Thank you, Paupau. Thank you so much.
My grandmother patted my shoulder and smiled at me before walking inside.
“Mo mun tai,” she said. No problem.
Welcome! I have either enticed you with my rich description to come seek more background and detail here, or I have referenced so many alien objects that you need to flip back here in a desperate attempt to orient yourself. Perhaps it’s a mix of both. Regardless, I hope you enjoy this visual feast, and if you finish this piece still dissatisfied, I suggest you take a trip to your nearest Chinatown (or perhaps even China!), where I assure you all of your hungry curiosities and wonderings will be satiated.
[i] Chasiu bao, or BBQ Pork Bun
This is a Chinese bakery staple, with a filling made from Chinese barbecued pork and sugar neatly tucked into a sweet and tender (but not crumbly!) baked or steamed bread. While in the oven, the meat and sugar slowly caramelize, rendering a gooey, sweet and savory pocket of heaven.
[ii] Almond Cookies
These golden cookies are crunchy, crumbly butter cookies flavored with almond extract. The mellow almond is not too sweet, and instead slowly extends from the tongue to the rest of the mouth with a gentle amaretto flavor.
Mooncakes are a sweet, and sometimes salty, treat eaten to celebrate the Autumn Moon Festival. According to folklore, the Chinese would send each other scrawled messages hidden in mooncakes that allowed them to overthrow the Mongols in the 13th century. These cakes are often strong, eggy crusts filled with rich, sweet red bean paste, thick, nutty lotus seed paste, or date paste. There is sometimes a salted chicken or duck egg yolk in the center, used to symbolize the moon.
[iv] Paupau and Gongong in Happy Garden Bakery
These are my grandparents. They moved here with my mother in the 1970’s and opened Chicago’s first Chinese bakery: Happy Garden. My grandfather, Gongong, is a man of few words, while my grandmother, Paupau, is very talkative and excitable. They used to be farmers in Guangzhou, China before my grandma became pregnant with my mother at around age 19 (we don’t really know either of their official birthdays, as they were recorded following the lunar calendar). Upon learning of her pregnancy, my grandparents decided to leave for Hong Kong, where my grandfather became a baker’s apprentice and my grandmother sewed doll clothing for almost a decade. They are now happily retired in Chicago’s Chinatown, and spend much of their time bickering, watching CCTV, shuffling about, and gossiping with other elderly Chinese folks.
[v] Custard Bao
This is a thing of God. Either steamed or baked (though steamed is SO much better, in my humble opinion), a thin, tender bread encases a molten hot, sweet, milky filling with a salted egg yolk. Though I often eat these when they are so hot I scald my mouth, the perfect richness of this pastry is always worth it.
[vi] Longan Honey
This is my favorite Chinese fruit. Longan translates from Chinese to mean Dragon’s Eye. Cool, right? I’ve had friends describe this to me as a Chinese grape, which is not completely wrong, considering that it’s very sweet and juicy. Sometimes, honey made from the flower of the longan is used in soups or tapioca.
[vii] Dantat, or Egg Tart
My grandfather’s dantat were the best in the city. These tarts consist of silky, smooth egg custard nestled in a thin, delicate crust (the crust can be flaky or crumbly). A good dantat has a large custard-to-crust ratio and isn’t too sweet or eggy tasting. My gongong would put a whole egg in each pastry!
These delicious packets of savory goodness consist of sticky rice enveloping meats, fats, eggs, beans, nuts, mushrooms, and pastes. The juices from this conglomeration of foods seep into the sticky rice, making a luscious bite that is as rich as it is flavorful.