Ghost Men Like Dumplings, Too

By Timothy Lem-Smith

Gold Stone Noodle Restaurant on Spadina has been the source of my weekly Chinese food fix since before I can remember. When I started going there, it was a homely Chinatown hub that served up a cheap abundance of Southern Chinese delights. These days, it’s the same homely hub with the same delights, for only slightly more money. Over the years, I’ve developed that sought-after server-customer relationship: I say “the usual,” she brings me a steaming bowl of noodle soup with succulent Sui Kau dumplings stuffed with shrimp, pork and black fungus, alongside a light green bulb of bok choy and thick slices of barbecued pork and duck.

These last two ingredients are on display in Gold Stone’s front windows in the form of hanging cooked duck carcasses and reddish-brown pork loins. They attract a considerable amount of fanfare from the non-Chinese pedestrians whose morbid fascination is betrayed by their smiles of disbelief or frowns of disgust. Some think it’s a Kodak moment, others express their displeasure with an acute “ew!” and a pointed finger. I usually ignore them.

I’ve always pre-judged the quality of a Chinese restaurant by how many white people are eating in it (not standing outside). The algorithm is pretty basic: the number of white faces in a restaurant is inversely proportional to the level of authenticity I assume that restaurant has. In other words, the more gweilo (Cantonese for “ghost men”) I see forking chicken fried rice into their mouths at a Chinese eatery, the less likely I am to be one of its eaters. This policy is an inheritance from my mother, from whom I also obtained my Chinese DNA. From my gweilo father I inherited my 6’3” stature, my off-white complexion, my inability to speak more than a few words of Cantonese, and my love of General Tao’s chicken (which, like me, is more North American than Chinese). Luckily for me, the Gold Stone gweilo mostly stick to the periphery, rarely brave enough to enter.

Recently, I was forced to consider the ghost men for more than a moment. I was at Gold Stone with a white friend of mine who has never developed chopstick dexterity. She asked the server for a fork. When she returned, two forks were dropped onto the off-white tabletop—one of them clearly intended for my use. I was indignant. There, lying before me, was a four-pronged assault on all of my Asian pretensions.

I thought back to one of my first Chinatown experiences. I was enjoying a dish of noodles, chopsticking mouthfuls into my chubby half-Chinese cheeks when a passing waiter looked at me and burst out laughing. He grabbed my hand and abruptly plucked the chopsticks from my incompetent fingers. Neither of us had a firm grasp of the English language—I was only three. As he manipulated my hand with his, trying to teach my inadequate hands the correct technique, he spoke emphatic nonsense. Hopeless and helpless, I burst into tears. He let go of my hand and laughed again before hurriedly walking away. To this day, I’ve never learned how to use chopsticks properly.

At the root of my outrage at being offered a fork is a latent anxiety that I might not be as dissimilar to the Chinatown tourist as I’d like. That other folks, more Chinese than I, may be avoiding Gold Stone because of my gweilo presence, just like the gweilo avoid Gold Stone because of dead birds. I worry that my identity as a Chinese-Canadian is so tenuous it rests on the physical properties of cutlery. Just as I’m awe-struck by the Lord of the Flies pig carcass being carried through the aisles by two chefs, other eaters might be looking up from their plates of chicken feet to gawk at me, a racially ambiguous giant whose chopsticks open too wide because I use a fork six days of the week.