Friday, Eau Claire.

For $39.30 we get to stay a night in the Maple Manor Motel’s Apple theme room. The top border of the wallpaper is all apples, there’s an apple clock, apple lamp, basket of plastic apples on an apple tray, apple pictures on the walls. Right by the door is a picture of a teddy bear with a flag and basket of apples, saying God Bless America.

This is the beginning of the 6-day tour of Wisconsin’s Chinese restaurants. Irene Chan is riding shotgun, playing translator, navigatrix and moral support all rolled into some kind of superhero ubersidekick. We are on a mission to investigate Chinese restaurants in the heartland, one finger of my many-tentacled Chinese Restaurant Project.

We drove east out of the Twin Cities this afternoon, all stocked up with organic snacks from the co-op, maps and hilighters in hand. Among the malls of Hudson we spotted Happy China Garden and pulled into the huge parking lot in front of a Christian bookstore called Heaven Bound.



Inside the restaurant I shot the fake ivy, the American flags, and the Vietnamese art, and then we interviewed Rich, the owner’s son. He told us that everybody working in the restaurant is family or close family friends, and they are all Vietnamese except for one guy who is half Chinese. We asked if they serve any Vietnamese dishes. He said they had tried a few but the customers didn’t go for them, so they gave up on it. We asked if he likes restaurant work; he answered, “I hate it with a passion!” Oh. But he is a good son doing his family duty; Irene and I were suitably impressed.



Across the highway at Kingdom Buffet, the woman at the front asked, “Are you Chinese? Do you speak Chinese?” I whipped out Irene, my secret Cantonese weapon; the woman spoke some of that, so they started talking. As I walked away toward the buffet, she gestured toward me and told Irene, “She looks like an artist.” Reporting this to me later, Irene insisted that it’s my new glasses; I think it has more to do with my unkempt hair and wrinkled cargo shorts.

next day >>