Where Dinner Table Meets Big Screen

Movies come into my collection haphazardly. I hear about it from colleagues, or a friend talks about it, or a trailer teases my eye in the cinema. Whatever it is, I carry on life oblivious to the hype and pizzazz of blockbusters and curious must-sees. And instead, I’d just quietly stow a wisp of a movie’s name and essence into memory. Along the way, I’d somehow acquire that movie on a whim and then forget that I have it. It is only months to years later that I find the movie, sitting in my collection unwatched. And I would finally watch it.

So last night’s unsung treasure was “The Home Song Stories” – by Tony Ayres (2007). I was hooked. The movie was autobiographical. It showed the director’s childhood as seen from the young boy’s eyes. It spoke a lot of the life of his tempestuous mother (Rose). It was the story of an Asian-immigrant mother doing what it takes to raise her second generation children (May and Tony) in 70’s Australia. 

First Western meal

So why do I speak about a movie inside a food blog? I had my reasons. I thought that food played a big part in propelling the movie’s narrative. The movie is set in Melbourne. It is about immigrants coping in a new place and finding their niche in an unfamiliar culture. Early on, I watched Rose and her kids have their first meal in Australia, cooked by her caucasian husband’s austere mum. There was tension round the table. Disapproving mother-in-law on one end, Rose and children at the other end clearly not enjoying unfamiliar food. Rose politely forced her children to tell her mother-in-law how delicious the food was.

Rose visits the local Chinese eatery’s kitchen.

In this movie, I noticed how meals and eating practices played a big part in setting the mood of the story and pushing the plot forward. After that inedible meal, Rose set forth into town and found a chinese joint. She strode directly into the kitchen and made friends with the cooks and kitchen-hands. She promptly brought back to her nest, tidy little tubs of chinese takeaway. The kids attacked it in a flurry of chopsticks. 

This food was like a tie that made the children feel the comfort of the life in Hong Kong that they departed from. It was food that made me hungry too. It reminded me of my first hours living in London. Paying £6 for takeaway roast duck on rice. It wasn’t authentic duck, but I attacked it with the same gusto.

Joe, food hand at the local Chinese. Rose falls for him and leaves the Aussie Sailor.

A common thread in the story is Rose’s restless nature. Her husband, a sailor in the Australian Navy, goes for duty and leaves the migrant family in his home with his hostile mother. Rose quickly falls for Joe, a cook in the local Chinese restaurant. The mother-in-law discovers the affair and kicks the Chinese family out. The dislocated family rents a hovel. After awhile, Joe grew unhappy in that home with 4 mouths to feed. The dining table is filled with tension. Arguing lovers, silent kids.

I found the way the boy eats very cute. Little Tony, or ‘Dede’ as Rose would affectionately call him, has the innocent gaze of a boy quietly taking in adult events around him. While he eats, he listens to his mother catch the entire table’s attention. He sees with a 5-year old’s eyes, but listens with an adult mind.

And there are times when tension is tight in the household. Here, Dede tries to make himself as small as possible, tries to eat as quietly as possible, while his mother starts another big fight with her lover, Uncle Joe.

This was about the only scene where I see Dede eating without the external stress and pressure of an unhappy family event unfolding around the table. A simple breakfast, half-boiled egg on toast. He bites into the slice with a boyish will. It is a meal that reminds me of Singapore. As a kid and young adult, I enjoyed having half-boiled eggs and kaya toast at the hawker centre, customarily with kopi.

A scene that struck me deeply in the movie was when Rose came home from the hospital after a suicide attempt. The scene once again revolved around food. Rose had returned in a taxi, pale and sickly from recovery. At the door, stood handsome Joe (played by Qi Yuwu), smiling and ready to make everything better. For a very brief moment, the ‘family’ came together in a shaky equilibrium of healing & love.

Joe cooks a homemade meal for the fractured family. This is his specialty: ginger fish. Seeing this dish brought out my own memories of home-cooked food. There is nothing like the marriage between spring onion and ginger in a fish dish.. it’s just perfect.

I see it as a gesture of warmth and love. Joe serves plates of thoughtfully prepared food in an effort to heal the pain in the family’s hearts.

I think Joan Chen is an amazing actress. Eating rice with chopsticks and a bowl is in my blood. And unlike Westerners, we eat rice with the bowl to our lips. I love hearing the clink of chopsticks as we shovel tiny grains of steaming white rice into our mouths. Here, Joan skilfully eats a bowl of rice with silent gratitude, almost as if she’s thankful for being alive, she practically kisses the bowl.

Dede tries to cheer his mum up by showing how he got top marks in class for his story.

May offers mum her favourite part of the dish.

It is such tiny acts of love at the dinner table that caught me in this movie. I remember in my own family, how grandma would insistently pass me what she thought were my favourite bits of a dish, despite my continued protests. Outwardly, I would look annoyed, but inwardly I was smiling. I think these little gestures and shows of kindness seen at the dining table are an integral part of an Asian family meal.

I really enjoyed this movie. When I was a kid, I was like Dede, the typical quiet Chinese kid eating obediently. Half understanding what the adults were talking about, half thinking about homework and the games I’d want to play with my neighbours. The only difference is I come from a loving family.

I do not understand why I have this fascination with witnessing Asian-style meals. Onscreen and in real life. I love yum cha. Not just because of the cuisine, but also the social aspect of it, the sit-togetherness. I miss being at a round table with dishes on a lazy susan, bowls of steaming rice, good conversation and clinking chopsticks. I feel a twinge of regret that I do not own a dining table in my current home, my diners sit in a contemporary row, on barstools. It just isn’t the same. But such is our modern age. The age of emigration, apartment living, small family units and private lives.

Thankfully, outside of home, there is much scope to have a round-table meal in this city. Melbournites love dining out. I look forward to my next one. And when I next hold a set of rice bowl and chopsticks, I’ll think of this movie.