Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dreams of a Jew and Goy

Observe the confluence of Valentine’s Day and Lunar New Year (Tiger).

So many expectations and yearnings.

The “Domains” column of this past Sunday’s (February 14th, 2010) New York Times Magazine revealed the Manhattan rental apartment of Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent.

It was heartwarming to discover that Amanpour does not know how to cook.

I have not seen my own kitchen stove in several years. Our relationship was basically dysfunctional. We simply could not tolerate each other.

Last summer, I merrily indulged myself by going to see the movie Julie & Julia twice in the same week. It was playing at The Pavilion, right here in the hood. I laughed, I cried—but I still refused to make amends.

I used to try to cook, but all my attempts at the culinary art proved humiliating, even more humiliating than the time I auditioned to be a touring Muppet.

I had actually aspired to impersonate a toy.

The trial at The Jim Henson Company took place while I was still living in Chelsea, on the island of Manhattan.

Caetano Veloso’s version of Rodgers & Hart’s “Manhattan” changes a few words; instead of “dreams of a boy and goil,” his rendition cites “dreams of a Jew and goy.”

That is just the type of thing my mother would have picked up on immediately. She was exasperated by Joan Baez’s alteration of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” The distinctive lyrics “For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind” were flattened to “ ’Cause she’s touched you, and she’s moved you, and she’s kind.”

I think my mother would have found Veloso’s change of the “Manhattan” line very amusing. We were crazy about a Lower East Side bialy bakery.

When I was working as a figure model, my mother was impressed by my range. Besides drawing and painting classes, I posed for sculpture classes. “You mean they’re putting up statues of you?” she asked.

The sculptors measured my flesh with calipers.

(I am remembering all this because of the current frigid temperatures. At art schools, I often posed in cold studios that employed inadequate space heaters.)

My mother predicted, “Someday, Hollywood will pay you a million dollars to take off your clothes!”

Way back at the celebrated House of Chan, on West 52nd Street in Manhattan, show business clientele befriended the young maitre d’, Kim, who offered them drinks on the house.

A famous white bandleader asked Kim to find him some attractive young Chinese ladies.

Kim’s father, Lem, developed a crush on a famous white chantoosie.

A famous and infamous white actress with an enormous appetite grabbed Kim between the legs and proclaimed, “I’ve got to have a Chinaman tonight!”

Life was work and work was life, because that was what immigrants knew.

Near The House of Chan stood movie houses. The fare was in English, still a mystery to Kim, but he surreptitiously devoured whatever was screened.

There came an evening when Lem demanded to know what his son had been doing for the past few hours. Out of Kim’s mouth spilled words catalytic as well as false: “I washed my socks.”

Lem’s response lacked empathy and compassion. He grabbed an umbrella belonging to one of the paying customers blissfully gorging on duck or lobster. Lem whacked. The umbrella broke.

But Kim did not. He went to work for some of the show business people that Lem considered trash.

Last year, some longtime pals discovered a DVD of one of Kim Chan’s early (April 17th, 1951) live television appearances.

In “The Juiceman,” a previously “lost” episode of the series Suspense, he was a thug who twisted the arm of a Chinese-American schoolteacher played by Cloris Leachman.

Lem Chan’s instructions: “If you have a talent, keep it to yourself.”

The site of The House of Chan is now a Rosie O’Grady’s.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


When he stepped out of clerical attire, Kim played crime bosses. Capo di tutti capi, as I enjoyed repeating.

Twice, he played a capo named Uncle Benny.

Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)

Uncle Benny Chan

Directed by Richard Donner

The Corruptor (1999)

Uncle Benny Wong

Directed by James Foley

Some APA kids continued to call him an Uncle Tom.

Hattie McDaniel:

“I’d rather play a maid and make seven thousand dollars a week than be one for seven dollars.”

After both of my parents had departed from the earth, I needed an old one. And The Old One stepped up to the plate. Kim told me, “Now we must take care of each other. Now we’ll be a family together. You’re not alone anymore.”

For over a decade, we were a twentieth-century Hansel and Gretel, wandering together through alleys and boulevards, opera houses and airports. We shared the highs and the lows.

Note to pedants: During famine, plague, and other crises (as during the waning of the Middle Ages), it was not uncommon for parents to abandon their children in the woods.

Kim observed, “The other people in our family are nice, but they’re a completely different species from us. It’s you and me, kid.”

I always wished we could star in a production of Peter Pan. To play the forever boy, I could get a cute androgynous haircut. I hankered after a harness so that I could fly the way Kim had so many times. And I thought he would make a swell Captain Hook.

“I’m offering you the rest of my life.”

The whirligig years with Kim were the equivalent of running away with the circus. Now here I am in the South Slope, in my bright pink-and-green abode, surrounded by a million boxes and bags. From my parents’ house. From my former studio apartment in Chelsea. From The Old One. My place looks like Barbie having a nervous breakdown.

A dharma wheel usually hangs from each of my earlobes. These everyday earrings serve a purpose. When I touch the points on the rims of the dharma wheels, it reminds me not to make bitchy remarks or fly off the handle.

My mother had a copy of Frankie Laine’s hit “Rose, Rose, I Love You” (1951). I recently discovered that the song was adapted from a Mandopop (Mandarin popular music) number. In other words, the original was in Chinese.

In Lethal Weapon 4, Kim was speaking Cantonese while Jet Li was speaking Mandarin. I guess the attitude was: Foreign devils will never be able to tell the difference.

I think my mother’s vinyl records are in my second bedroom. I know I kept them. I can never let go.


Uncle Kim earned his keep mostly by wearing a dress and being flown on wires.

Wearing a dress: Kim, a character actor, played a monk several times.

(Kim opined that the difference between Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism lay in the colors of the robes.)

Flown on wires: Flying by Foy, wire fu.

Kim and my mother were related in some way, maybe distant cousins. Nosey Parkers insist that it was wrong for me to call him my uncle and for him to call me his niece.

Sometimes, influenced by Johan Huizinga’s famous book of cultural history The Waning of the Middle Ages, I refer to Kim as The Old One.

Long ago, I declared myself to be a pacifist. But I often find stage combat fascinating, even thrilling.

It was good to see Kim beating up villains.

And when people made fun of him, I wanted to kill them.

No one can say that Kim skipped paying his dues. He sweated in laundries and restaurants just like other immigrants. Just not all his life.

In 1992’s One of the All-Time Greats, he played an opinionated waiter. A group of people involved in a floundering Broadway play huddle at a Chinese restaurant, trying to figure out how to fix their show. Their waiter suggests that Asians be included in the cast.

The character of the waiter had no name.

After appearing in that Off-Broadway production (at the Vineyard Theatre), Kim landed a steady job on television.

He originally auditioned for the minor role of a shopkeeper. But the casting people, as well as the star, David Carradine, took one look at those box-cutter cheekbones (catching the light!) and knew that this old guy was destined to be their old guy.

The steady job actually consisted of two roles: Lo Si (also called The Ancient), an apothecary; and Ping Hai, a monk from another time.

Kim was already past what many would consider retirement age, but he could never be sure by how many years. He had no birth certificate.

Kung Fu: The Legend Continues (1993–1997) was a spin-off of the series Kung Fu, and it continued the debate over whether viewers could or would tolerate a Caucasian (Carradine) playing a biracial person.

Some Asian-Americans, mostly young and college educated, insisted that Kim should have turned down that decent-paying job. They felt that Carradine had cheated Bruce Lee, and that The Old One was an accomplice.

Two non-Asians who I thought were friends shared their particular take on Kim’s newfound glory. “So what? Even if your uncle becomes really famous, it’s not going to do him any good, because he’s old, and he’s just going to die before he even gets to enjoy it.”

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Beyond the F Line

Destination: Murnau am Staffelsee, Bavaria, Germany

If you feasted your eyes on the recent Guggenheim (New York) retrospective of the work of Russian painter Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944) and now crave a little backstory (not to mention sausages and beer), a week in the countryside of Bavaria is sure to satisfy.

Between Munich and the Bavarian Alps, you’ll find Munter House, also known as Russian House. From 1909 to 1914, this was the summer residence of Kandinsky and his partner at the time, Gabriele Munter (also an accomplished painter). Munter House was the birthplace of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a movement considered a precursor to Expressionism.

If you’re starting out from the United States, you’ll probably be taking a plane. It’s up to you, but there’s something appropriate about choosing Lufthansa for this trip. First class provides an oversize deep blue sweater that you can pull over your black leggings.

When you arrive in Munich, get hold of as many color postcards of Mad King Ludwig as you can. This royal guy had plenty of dark curly hair and fancy outfits. Come December, Ludwig’s image can substitute for that of Santa Claus. As a matter of fact, I find these postcards appropriate for most festive occasions.

Just so you know: One of the Mad King’s castles, Neuschwanstein, was the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty Castles at Disneyland sites worldwide.

From Munich, take the train approximately 70 kilometers south, to Murnau am Staffelsee, a market town in the district of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Don’t worry about lugging your luggage up and down the stairs at the train station. As if by magic, strong citizens, generally of the distaff persuasion, will appear and assist. This seems to be some point of honor. Remember to say “Danke schon.” [Thank you.]

If you’re not familiar with the area, don’t drive yourself crazy looking for a place to stay. The centrally located Griesbrau zu Murnau consists of two restaurants (the informal one serves a daily lunch special), a hotel, and a movie house. Its staff can help you find a car service and anything else. Don’t forget to say “Bitte.” [Please.]

This town isn’t as kitschy-glitzy as neighboring Oberammergau, but in Murnau you can exchange your euros for lederhosen, dirndls, and cuckoo clocks. A dollar is worth less than a euro, so be careful when you say “Stimmt so.” [Keep the change.]

Don’t be surprised if you happen upon a herd of cows.

Before you leave this fairy-tale setting, pick up a CD or two by Hubert von Goisern. You haven’t lived till you’ve heard this Alpenrocker’s version of Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” (on his live Wia Die Zeit Vergeht), on which he addresses “Herr Gott.” [Mr. God]

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


When I arrived at XYZ Umpteenth Street in 1998, I studied the house rules very carefully.

I noted that it was verboten to change anything on the exterior of my unit without permission from the other building residents.

I had the interior of my apartment painted three shades of orchid pink and two shades of apple green.

This elicited sneers and jeers from various people in the building. Besides being mocked during coop meetings, I was actually shrieked at when I stood on the second-floor landing. (To be fair, most of the shrieking was uttered by an opera singer—a genuine prima donkey.)

I was repeatedly informed that my home was simply too feminine.

(Please note that the family who previously occupied apartment 2Q chose bright orange for their walls.)

Several months ago, during one of the meetings, the coop voted to refurbish the common areas of the building. This enterprise would include fresh paint in the hallways.

The online bulletin board of the $%& Unhinged Avenue Owners Corporation provided a ballot. (The front of the building, where Bobo’s Salon has its entrance, bears the address $%& Unhinged Avenue.) Not having a particularly strong opinion regarding new colors for the branches and leaves outside my private nest, I ceded this vote to one of my neighbors.

The work is in progress. Now people in this building anticipate that the combination of blood-red walls and tinkling chandeliers will render an appearance and effect reminiscent of a bordello.