The Art of Rock - and of Chinese Restaurant Take-Out Menus

Posted by Ben Fong-Torres on Sunday, 23 November 2003.

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Art is on my mind these days.

Art is on my mind these days. I dropped in on an exhibit of paintings and drawings by Grace Slick at the Hotel Monaco in downtown San Francisco the other evening. Yes, that Grace Slick -- the so-called "acid queen" of the Sixties rock scene, who soared with Jefferson Airplane with such hits as "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit." Nowadays, she paints white rabbits -- and many other subjects, including fellow icons like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. The work ranges from amusing to amazing, and Grace draws and paints in numerous styles. "I get bored easy," she told me. "I can't imagine being stuck in one style." She isn't, and her work is stunning, funny, and true. Check out her paintings of Jerry Garcia and of herself, back in the day. Caustic as she could be, she was -- and is -- a true beauty.

Grace isn't the only rocker who's gone from the stage to the canvas. At the San Francisco Art Exchange downtown, I saw several excellent paintings by Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones ?mainly of fellow Stones. His work is a reminder that many rockers started out with pens and brushes before picking up guitars and drumsticks. When I first met Joni Mitchell in the late Sixties, she'd done not only a new album (Ladies of the Canyon), but had painted the album cover herself. Jerry Garcia was also an accomplished visual artist, and his work is being seen, today, in everything from paintings to neckties.

Art is also on my mind because of Indigo Som, a Berkeley, Calif.-based artist who's made it one of her missions in life to collect every Chinese take-out menu in the country. Wacky? Not really. As she says, Chinese restaurants "are the most pervasively visible manifestation of Chinese American presence in this country," and she is exploring this visibility.

The 37 year-old Ms. Som isn't sure what she'll do with her growing stack of menus, but I'll be writing more about her soon. Meantime, she's got a Web site,, where she explains her mission, blogs regularly, and accepts both your thoughts and your menus. I met her not long ago and showed her the menus of my own family's past, from Ming's Cafe in Reno (which my father operated in the mid-Fifties) to the Bamboo Hut in Hayward, Calif., where I worked, and not happily, through high school and college years.

They're not take-out menus, and she's not looking to be historical. Just to make a quiet -- and oddly artistic and sociological -- statement.

P.S. After I signed the guest book on Indigo's Web site, I got a note from Matt Yuen, who says he identified the Bamboo Hut "as one of my earliest Chinese restaurant experiences. We used to go there in the mid-60s, and my Dad remembers you sitting at the back table glued to the transistor radio."

It was a table radio, but, yep, that was me. And, while we're on what-a-small-world bits: I replied to a letter I got from Tom Donald in 1994, in which Tom, who used to play with local bands, praised my autobio, The Rice Room . So, only nine years later, I'm getting back to him. And he writes right back. It doesn't take HIM nine years! And Tom, who now runs his own creative services agency, says he'd just been looking at my book, and that one of his best friends is Michael Ching, son of Larry Ching. He, of course, was the Forbidden City crooner whose debut CD I produced earlier this year. Ah, the rewards of answering your mail?

And while we're on that subject, my little sister, Shirley, had a birthday lunch at the Yank Sing that was so grand that big sister Sarah dubbed it the "dim summit." It really wasn't that big, but within her table of eleven, ages spanned from month-old granddaughter Maggie Pavao (daughter of Shirley's daughter Tina & her hubby Matt) to 88 year-old Stanley Toy, who danced at the Forbidden City nightclub back in the Forties. He's dancing again, along with partner Ivy Tam (a young whippersnapper in her sixties) at Lincoln Center in New York City on December 1. They're part of the annual Concert of Excellence, which this year pays tribute to Jadin Wong, such a big star as an exotic dancer at Forbidden City that she got a full page in Life magazine in 1940. She became a talent agent in New York and just retired -- at age 88. Says Wong, who was born in Stockton and trained with the San Francisco Opera Ballet before switching to the Forbidden City stage: "I don't have time to grow old."

And speaking of New York: In my quick rundown of Dianne and my romp through Manhattan, last time out, I mentioned hitting a brand-new restaurant, the Biltmore Room, right after checking into the Carlyle. It was the only one of the five restaurants we visited where reservations weren't harder to get than one of Dennis Miller's jokes.

The Biltmore, as we'd tell friends, turned out to be one of our best experiences in town. A few weeks later, the New York Times seconded our emotion, lavishing three stars on the restaurant and chef Gary Robins. As food critic William Grimes noted, Robins first crafted his Asian fusion cuisine at three other New York restaurants before disappearing to Boston for a few years. Now, says Grimes, "the general drift is still Asian, with dishes that jet-hop from Japan to India to Thailand, but Mr. Robins shows himself a citizen of the world, easily slipping into a Moroccan or Italian idiom, or slyly reworking a Maryland crab cake. The results, in almost every case, are dazzling."

Meantime, having been published in Gourmet magazine with that piece in the October issue about rockin' chefs, I'm looking forward to a book, Food That Rocks , by Margie Lapanja, who connected musicians and cooks by way of stories and recipes. She asked me to chip in, and, if memory serves, I gave her my recipe for Bul Kogi, the Korean dish of stir-fried, marinated flank steak, which I learned from my favorite cooking teacher, Connie McCole. In fact, it should pop up right here on AsianConnections anytime now. Check it out. It's simple, but it rocks.

Random Notes

The new issue of Rolling Stone features one of those impossible lists, ala "the 100 greatest guitarists of all time." This one offers the 500 greatest albums of all time, and I'm in there somewhere, putting in my two or five cents.

Congrats to old buddy Dale Minami, who was honored by the Asian Pacific Fund at its 7th annual Giving Back gala dinner at the Four Seasons in SF. Along with Dale, a pioneer civil rights lawyer, honorees included John Chen, CEO of Sybase; Talat Hasan, CEO of Sensys Instruments and chair of the India Community Center, and Hua Ngo, founder and president of H&N Foods International. Their stories, all compelling and inspiring, were told, through words and photographs, by the peerless Emerald Yeh of KRON-TV.

And, finally, December 6th sees -- or saw, depending on when you're peeping this -- a tribute to Janice Sakamoto and James Yee, two early leaders of NAATA, the National Asian American Telecommunications Association. Both were friends, both worked tirelessly on behalf of Asian American video and filmmakers, both died way too young, and both will long be remembered. Memorial artwork by Arnold Igor and Paul Kwan, and a video installation, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, by Glenda Eggers and Valerie Soe at the Ninth Street Independent Film Center in SF will honor Janice and Jim's legacies.