Music theatre project based on family archive.
Welcome to the room where our lives intersect for an hour’s time.
Let’s take a moment shall we.
Let’s take a moment to look back at how we got here.
This is a story about that, like all stories, really.
Centuries of legends, songs, epics in verse and so on.
Very powerful material.
Some folk realized that, because stories are about how we became us,
people would fight for them.
That works with families, with tribes, and even kingdoms.
But why stop there? they thought.
We are us because we are not them.
Let’s organize us and them into one big story and we’ll be the main protagonists.
The entire world will be one well-constructed and well-told story that we tell.
Such stories we call empires.
There have been many, the Romans, the Chinese, the Aztecs, the Mali, the Dutch…
Huge empires, unified by flourishing trade and military,
and to allow growth, cheap resources not exchanged but confiscated,
and cheap labor called slavery, because they should serve for us to thrive.
Such is the tale. Empire is Latin for supremacy.
Thankfully, some people understood that those stories only existed
because they willfully ignored that there are contradictory facts in the air.
There are individual lives and stories that don’t fit the larger narrative of empires.
Those who wrote chronicles, despite their best efforts,
could not force all events and versions into one simple thread.
In China and in Greece appeared the first investigators, called historians.
Empires like to hire historians, but that usually doesn’t go too well,
because historians are not there to bend the facts to suit agendas,
they are there to remind us that facts are stronger than empires.
Unfortunately, historians usually break before empires do.
The emperor was not pleased with Sima Qian,
the first Chinese person to create a complete history, and had him castrated.
Empires have come and gone and here we are,
our stories bended and tossed around by them for the past thousands of years,
and kept in the shadows of the bigger stories.
Many oceans have been crossed to take us here tonight,
and the stories we will tell started in a small peninsula called Korea,
squeezed between powerful empires,
the stories of two families intertwined with many others in the shadows.
Let’s try to unwind this.
You maybe wish I slowed down and talked of one thing only, for the sake of clarity,
but pardon my French,
the world is an intricate mess and I did not make it that way.
Not one thing can be singled out and separated from the rest,
that would be like separating both Koreas all over again.
Because of this, Sima Qian, and after him another historian, Plutarch,
liked to compare stories, tell them side by side,
to make us understand better, what is a pattern, and what is unique.
The name Plutarch gave to his greatest work was Parallel Lives.
These are our parallel lives.
Parallels don’t intersect, only at the horizon, that invisible ever shifting line of the future
we call the present, the guarded border on which we stand, here and now.
This is the story of Eiki Tsien. He was a man who came from the northern part of Korea, and he went by his Japanese name, given to him during the Occupation. His actual, Korean name was Yeonghee Jun, but this we didn’t even know at the time: he wanted the French to call him Monsieur Tsien. He never referred to Korea at all, for that matter.
The Barrière family came to know Monsieur Tsien in the 50s in Paris, where he had immigrated in circumstances unknown to us. Like Jean-Baptiste’s grandmother Gilberte, he was a housekeeper and a cook. Is this how they met? The family recollections are fragmentary and fuzzy. The only person we can ask now is Jean, Gilberte’s son and Jean-Baptiste’s father. By the time Monsieur Tsien and Gilberte got together, Jean was already in his late twenties and had his own life. And at the time he was drafted to Algeria, where the fight against France and for independence had begun.
So Jean didn’t ask, and Monsieur Tsien never talked.
“He had this very formal and distant behavior with strangers, and we couldn’t tell whether it was a matter of culture, of class, or personality. He didn’t have many Korean friends, either, in all those years I maybe met two or three only. It seemed like he only talked with people he could consider his equals. You can’t judge someone over that. Someone who through immense hardships puts efforts in staying himself deserves respect.”
Monsieur Tsien was uprooted, but he was intent on creating a place that was his own, and rather than clean white people’s houses, be a master in his own house again.
His employers kept on complimenting him on his cooking, and so he convinced one of them, an American journalist who worked for The International Herald Tribune in Paris, to fund his venture of opening an East Asian restaurant. This was a novelty: there were restaurants catering to the Asian community, but that was not the crowd Monsieur Tsien was interested in. He rented a spot next to the Champs-Élysées, amongst luxury shops, fancy townhouses and hotels for wealthy tourists. He branded what his identity in France was, and sold Asian, mostly Chinese food, to white people, adapted to their taste. The restaurant was called Chinatown.