Events are conspiring to hurtle me into my distant past, to my childhood years in Oakland’s Chinatown, where my sisters, brothers and I served time at our restaurant, the New Eastern Café.
First, there was the closing of the Silver Dragon, an institution among restaurants in Chinatown; one of the first ones built for banquets and special events. Since 1974, when it settled in at Ninth and Webster Streets, it was a gathering place for the community, whether it was a young couple on a date or a family hosting a red egg and ginger party or a wedding banquet.
It’s being replaced by Asian Health Services, and that organization had a fundraising dinner gala the other night at the nearby Marriott, with 600 people in attendance. The featured entertainment was a tribute to the Chee family, the clan behind the Dragon.
Sherry Hu, the MC for the event, asked me to speak as part of the tribute, and, although I didn’t have the time, I made time.
You see, my family’s restaurant was sold, in 1954, to the Chees, who turned it into the first Silver Dragon. I was nine years old then, but my time at 710 Webster Street helped shape my life.
As I told the audience at the Marriott, the title of my memoirs, The Rice Room, is about a space in the back of that restaurant. “We were all in the rice room,” I said, “where rice, soy sauce and children were stored.
I continued, “This is where, while my parents were cooking and running a restaurant, I grew up. This is where I listened to the radio and fell in love with the medium, and began to dream that one day I’d be on the radio. It’s where I began to read, and thought that, one day, I might write, and that my efforts might be printed, the way I saw them published in the...
Clint Eastwood: A Ramblin’ Guy
by Ben Fong-Torres
All right, all together now, with Neil Diamond in mind:
"I am," I said, to no one there
And no one heard at all, not even the chair
"I am," I cried. "I am," said I
And I am lost, and I can't even say why
Leavin' me lonely still
Well, Clint Eastwood must’ve felt pretty lost and lonely after his debacle of a speech at the Republican convention. Here he’d turned his back on the Democratic Party by attacking President Obama – or at least his imagination of Obama, represented by the now infamous empty chair on stage, with which Eastwood conducted a one-to-none conversation. But he’d done Mitt Romney and the GOP no favors by screwing up the convention’s rigid time line, looking slightly disheveled and rambling for 12 minutes when he’d been given five, delaying Romney’s big moment. And, in line with previous convention speakers, Eastwood issued statements that either were inaccurate or did no service to the anointed candidate.
Among his missteps: He chastised Obama for his timeline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. But Romney himself has endorsed that strategy. Eastwood wondered whether it was a good idea to have attorneys (like Obama, a Harvard Law School grad) to be in the White House.
Backstage, Romney probably wasn’t wondering, since he also holds a degree from Harvard Law School.
That’s how it went. Eastwood threw off the schedule, then grabbed most of the headlines, for all the wrong reasons, after a night that was meant to spotlight Romney’s acceptance of his party’s nomination for the presidency.
It was a sad fall from grace for a classy, talented actor and director; an American icon. The media had a field day, or two, making fun and puns out of the affair (“The Old Man and the Seat,” a headline read on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show)....
The Olympics, Ryan Seacrest and Me
As the old song goes, “it’s been a long, long time.”
I apologize for not writing sooner. It’s not that I haven’t been writing. Just not for this space. For example, I just had a short piece published in The Hollywood Reporter, about the Olympics’ opening ceremonies, with a focus on music. It’s in the August 10 edition of “THR,” which is an interesting blend of trade magazine (for showbiz industry folks) and consumer mag (for people who like backstage peeps at the business known as show).
My piece—about the 60’s music that producer Danny Boyle featured during that wild, wacky event—was nothing special. But one thing about it really amused me. Just below my story was a Q&A with Ryan Seacrest, who was among the talent NBC shipped to London to work the Olympics.
A few months ago, when Dick Clark died, I wrote my first article for The Hollywood Reporter, recalling a sometimes contentious interview with him from ‘way back, for Rolling Stone. The editors chose a quote of Clark, something he said to me, for the headline: “YOU’RE A LIBERAL, AND I’M A F---ING WHORE’. This, right after a glowing tribute, “What I Learned from the Master,” by…Ryan Seacrest.
We are fated to be together!
This is to say that stuff happens.
Just the other day, I was on Castro Street here in San Francisco, and a guy asks, “Aren’t you Ben Fong-Torres?” I admit that I am.
“Well, that’s reassuring,” he says.
I didn’t know what to make of that—although I think I knew what he meant, about old-timers still being around—so I just asked for his name and shook his hand. I hope he found my gesture…reassuring.
A few weeks before, at a wine tasting party, a friend asked if I’d seen the banners around town carrying my name and a quote. I had not, but went out in search of one of the signs a few days later. Sure enough, there...
It’s been a while since I’ve written, but I’ve got excuses. For one thing, I was engrossed in The Voice, the singing competition on NBC, because I’m related to one of the singers who made the Elite 8. For another, I’ve been out in public, at the L.A. Times’ Festival of Books at USC, emceeing a sendoff for the president of San Francisco State University (a couple of my jokes even made the local press), and keynoting an Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce dinner, on the eve of Asian Pacific American Heritage month. B.D. Wong, now being seen on the NBC series, Awake, was a late (and great) addition to the program.
I also cranked out an article for The Hollywood Reporter about Dick Clark, based on a sometimes contentious Rolling Stone interview I did with him in 1973, followed by a fun run, a couple years later, through Las Vegas. And I conducted some interviews for my Little Feat book, with Jimmy Buffett, John Sebastian and others.
But forget all that. I had a family tie to The Voice?
Yep. Lindsey Pavao, the most indie of the final bunch of singers, is, if I got it right, a second cousin of my niece Tina’s husband, Matt Pavao. He told me this over brunch at the Foreign Cinema just as the show was whittling the original 48 contestants (a dozen each for celeb “coaches” Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, Blake Shelton and Cee-Lo Green) to eight.
I’d been watching the show (I prefer it over American Idol), and had noted Lindsey’s name, but never thought there might be a family tie. And I liked her soft, unique voice (others sounded like Adele, or an opera singer, or a generic Rob Thomas or R. Kelly type).
But Lindsey, who was on Christina’s team, didn’t survive “America’s” vote, which determined the final four. She lost to the operatic guy, who lost to the R. Kelly guy, who probably just edged Juliet Simms, a knockout rocker whose fiery version of “Freebird” coulda, shoulda made her “The...
February 26, 2012 -
Ben wrote a song about Linsanity and performed it at a jam session in San Francisco which was streamed live online coast to coast.
A country tune for Jeremy Lin
What a difference a year makes. Last February, I wrote this little item in this space:
On the Court: Jeremy Lin, the first Asian American in the NBA, is back with the big team: The Golden State Warriors. After starting the season with the Oakland-based basketballers, he was sent to the NBA’s Development League. Now, thanks to an injury to a fellow Warrior, he’s back. While with the Reno Bighorns, Lin, a guard who starred at Harvard, played in 16 games, averaged 17.9 points, 4.7 assists and 5.6 rebounds in 32 minutes a game. He won’t get that much playing time with the Warriors, but at least he’s back. For now.
We all know what happened this February. And while the media – including Asian Connections – ran story after story about Linsanity, I wrote a song about it. A country song, at that. If you know the Hank Williams classic, “You Win Again,” which was a hit for Jerry Lee Lewis and Charley Pride, you know the tune.
I also took a shot with it at El Rio, with the jam band, Los Train Wreck. Here’s a sample.
After doing the song, I realized that, for all the attention he’s received for being the first Asian American NBA star, I make no mention of his ethnicity. It’s all about perseverance and skills.
And now, my lyrics: (the full audio version is coming soon)
The news is out
The Knicks are hot
And all because the Kid got his shot
By now you know New York can win …
Long as they play Jeremy Lin
He rode the bench at Golden State
In Houston, too, he had to wait
Two Knicks went down, and Lin was in