Saturday, April 02, 2011


Not having eaten all day, at around six o'clock I realized that the headache was probably due to a lack of food. Whenever I'm at the office, I swill tea. There's no actual nutrition in tea.
You may already know this.
I keep discovering it.


I stopped at a restaurant in Chinatown that I had seen from the bus a while back. It looked interesting. Pink tablecloths - why would so small and obviously unpretentious an eatery have pink tablecloths?
It suggested a woman's touch.

One dish on the menu caught my eye. Nothing special, the Chinese name was just a listing of ingredients, like so many Chinese names on menus.

Suut choi yiuk si tong mai fan (雪菜肉絲湯米粉). Which means snow vegetable meat shreds soup vermicelli.

It's a very easy dish, being thin rice thread noodles in soup flavoured with preserved cabbage and slivered pork. All you need is a pot of hot water in which to heat the noodles, a pan in which to parch the rinsed cabbage and to sizzle the slivered pork with a few drops of oil. Drain the noodles and place them in a bowl. Pour stock into the pan to seethe, then decant the stock, preserved cabbage, and pork slivers onto the noodles. Garnish with chopped chives. So simple!

At the first mouthful, a memory came back that told me why it had appealed to me.


Even though Berkeley today is populated by rather unpleasant people with hard attitudes, it used to be a nice place. I lived there at that time, as did many of my friends. And also one of my customers, an engineer who arranged for drafting assignments from the company in San Francisco where he worked.
Whenever I came to the office, if it was late in the day he'd suggest that I catch a ride back to Berkeley with him.

We'd talk. Not just business, but also other things. Our lives, our families.
He had a daughter who was studying at Berkeley, a nice girl I had seen once or twice. She always looked serious, except for her eyes.
She had warm eyes, friendly eyes.
The charm of her eyes complimented the stubborn firmness that one read in her lips.

Occasionally he invited me in. If we smoked we would do it just outside the kitchen door, to keep Yun-Yun from being bothered by the smell. Since his wife died, he told me, he never smoked in the house anymore. One shouldn't indulge in tobacco around children, especially girls - one wants them to grow up to be proper ladies.
Boys, not so much.
Males very rarely become ladies. Proper or otherwise.

His wife had passed away when Yun-Yun was thirteen. Both father and daughter had known that it was going to happen, which of course didn't make it easier. The little girl had already started preparing the family meals a year previously, but after her mother died she really threw herself into taking care of the house and making sure that a warm meal awaited her dad when he came home from work. "I didn't understand it at the time, but she wanted to make sure that I would come back to her every day. She must've felt deserted after Ling died." For several years the girl prepared food for her father and bought the groceries, in addition to doing her homework and excelling at school.
It had not been easy.
"So much for one small person. I should've realized that she was growing up too fast."

He told me that during the final years of high school, Yun-Yun was always serious, grimly serious. She graduated with honours, but she didn't have many friends at school, and nobody asked her to the prom.
That summer he took a trip across the country with her, and somewhere east of Chicago she finally unwound.
He discovered that the little girl who always laughed when last he really saw her had become a young woman who could hardly even smile.
During the rest of the trip they talked. They didn't really communicate, but they talked. A lot.
Doing so was good for both of them.
Her eyes started smiling again, but not her mouth.
The mouth still reflected an iron will, but now at least there was softness in her eyes.

The relationship between father and daughter changed during that trip.
Things were better once they got back to Berkeley, the sadness of several years had healed.

In her first years of college she still insisted on doing all the cooking. "Really, she was doing too much, I tried to stop her, but she was so determined". Whenever he could he would suggest that instead they go out to eat, but it was very difficult to get her to give up the task that she had so fiercely taken upon herself. She was going to be the woman of the house to replace the wife he had lost, no matter what. She wanted more than anything else that he should always have a happy home.

The stubborn young lady who ruled his household made it a little difficult for him to have a social life. If he came home late, she'd be sitting at the table looking unhappy, waiting for him with the food that had grown cold.
She wouldn't pick up her own chopsticks till he started eating.

One day he asked her would she mind dreadfully if he went on a date with a woman he had met. Yun-Yun was flabbergasted - "but, but, you're not SUPPOSED to meet any women!" Then she realized what she said, and stuttered "no, of course, go, please go..... shall I leave something to eat for you on the kitchen counter?"
Thereafter, once or twice a week, he would tell Yun-Yun not to wait up for him, he'd be home late. In her third year of college it became three or four evenings a week.

Regularly he'd tell Yun-Yun that Sally sent her regards. Occasionally Sally would send along a book or something nice to eat for Yun-Yun.
Sally didn't want him to forget that he was a father who had a wonderful daughter.
He told Yun-Yun that Sally lived in San Jose, that's why they hadn't met yet. But maybe sometime, maybe soon.

"But you're not supposed to meet any women!"

In so far as his daughter and his girl-friend communicated, it was through him.
"Sally hopes you like that sweater she sent you." And Yun-Yun told him to please assure Sally it was a very nice sweater, and asked him to give her a box of chocolates that Yun-Yun had gotten for her in return.
At Christmas, Sally and Yun-Yun would exchange gifts that he would deliver to each of them, and send each other charming little thank you notes.

What he never told Yun-Yun was that Sally didn't exist.

His "dating" was merely a stratagem to keep Yun-Yun from spending so much time fixing dinner, and then waiting for him to come home before having anything to eat herself. On the weekends he would do housework, just to keep her from doing it. "I had to vacuum really well, and dust all the surfaces thoroughly - if I missed a spot, she'd find it and do it all over just to make sure the place was clean". It gave him time to spend with her. He didn't understand his daughter, and he worried at her lack of a social life. Surely there were other people, students, that she could be friends with? She shouldn't be alone all the time.
But she seemed sort of happy, more so when he was around.

She graduated, and went straight into the masters program. Didn't make a big deal of it, didn't even take a break, didn't attend the ceremony with all the other graduates. He had wanted to attend her graduation, unfortunately she hadn't even mentioned when it was, and he hadn't thought to find out on his own.
He was disappointed that it had come to this, but in himself, not her.
He was very proud of her.

Over the next year he broke off his relationship with the fictitious Sally.
Yun-Yun now allowed him to do the cooking on occasion, she thought it took his mind off his failed love life. And she was very happy that he was coming home early more often. It was good for him to be home.

You can probably see where this is going, can't you?

He fell in love with a curvaceous blonde woman in her thirties who worked at the same company. She lived in Oakland, and he started offering her rides back in the evening. Occasionally they'd go out and have a drink together, or sometimes a steak dinner. He would call Yun-Yun early in the day to tell her he had to work a few hours extra that evening, please don't worry.
There would always be food waiting for him when he got home, but Yun-Yun herself would have already eaten.
She ate a little bit with him to keep him company, while he manfully tackled his second dinner of the day.
It was good, it was very good.
Little Ah-Yun had become a damn fine cook.

He told me all this while crossing the Bay Bridge, over a period of months.

On a day when I dropped off finished work, and his girlfriend needed to leave early, he and I arrived in Berkeley well before six o'clock. Yun-Yun wasn't expecting him back so soon. She hadn't started cooking yet, and was startled when we walked in. A bit flustered, too. She blamed herself for not having anything prepared, and would have rushed out to buy something, but he calmed her down, said he had eaten a late lunch, don't fuss, well maybe just something simple - honestly - just noodles would be fine!
I too wasn't hungry, and please, she shouldn't worry.

She gave in, but insisted that I have a bite also.
Ten minutes later her dad and I were slurping down rice-threads with pork and parched snow-vegetable in hot soup.
She had gone back upstairs and was studying again.

Whenever I visited, which wasn't very often because I also had other projects in other cities, she'd make me stay and have noodles with him.
I think I had the salted vegetable and pork combo maybe five or six times - it was one of the quickest and easiest things to prepare, and really, she was being too kind, we didn't want her to go to any trouble - "noodles will be just fine".

Later, things changed. CAD ('Computer Aided Drafting') took-off, and within months many draftsmen were out of work. A computer yielded cleaner work, faster, more accurately, and instead of needing an entire department, one man could do it all on screen as per instruction, with multiple copies and corrections as required.
There wasn't enough work to go around, and I stopped drafting altogether.
I still saw both of them occasionally, but after I moved to San Francisco it was less and less.

When she got the Master's Degree her dad was there. It was the happiest day of his life.
He married the blonde after Yun-Yun moved to the East Coast to get her PHD.
I think they live in San Diego now.
We've been out of touch for a very long time.


It's a small place - one round table for parties, and half a dozen tables that seat four. The people who run it speak Toishanese, but also understand Cantonese. The waitress was a bit startled that I knew the Chinese characters on the menu, she made me repeat my order just to be sure.

They do a number of typical Cantonese-American restaurant items, including noodle soups and won ton.
They also make various claypot rice dishes, which are probably too much for one person to eat - it might be best to also order a vegetable for balance and contrast.
But they're proud of their claypot rice dishes, so those are probably very good.

779 Clay Street
San Francisco, CA 94108

I believe they opened in 1996 - there's an article from the 金山時報 heralding their business framed on the wall, but all I could make out from across the room was the headline.

The pork shreds snow vegetable soup with vermicelli was good, satisfying.
Just like the last time I had it in Berkeley, I burned my lips.
It had been so long I had forgotten that.

Ordering a claypot rice dish will have to wait till I find a person with warm eyes, friendly eyes.
Till then, soup. Mostly soup.

Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.



e-kvetcher said...

Both my parents were draftsmen when I was a little boy. I spent a great deal of time playing with French curves, drawing on tracing paper, checking out the koh-i-noor pencils and the India ink...

It's a lost art now...

It's funny that as a computer programmer, I spend most of my days sitting down in a chair. My father has spent most of his life standing in front of a drafting table. He doesn't really like to sit - standing is much more natural.

Anonymous said...

Sae here. In his later years, my father would work winters as a draftsman rather than doing highway construction during the near Arctic Winters Upstate. Like At the Back of the Hill, many of the guys drafting were dedicated pipe smokers (as well as cigar and even cigarette smokers). A thick blue haze hovered about four feet over the drafting tables.

Search This Blog


There is a new sign at the front desk at my eye-doctor's office begging people to not abuse the staff there. Subtext: if you're goin...