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by Charlie Chin. Posted April 7, 2023.
“You chinks and gooks come over her to America, you can’t even speak the language properly, you don’t follow the rules. Aren’t you ashamed of taking jobs away from White people? The health inspector used his ball point pen to date the form, June 18, 2022, signed his name, Chester A. Coalfield, then ripped off the sheet from his form pad and slapped on the mirror behind the cash register.
Ming Zi Liu, the owner of the new “Shanxi Palace” restaurant, was mystified, why would an American man want to open a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco?
Mr. Coalfield the food inspector was in a bad mood, he had his own problems, the day before his landlord had informed that his building was going condo, and his bookie was pressing him for the money that Mr. Coalfield owed. Over breakfast that morning he complained to his wife about the expensive bill that came from the fitness gym she went to. He cruelly pointed out that she didn’t look like she had lost any weight. Then he noticed the publicity photo of the handsome aerobics instructor on the bill and accused his wife of cheating with the gym owner. She responded by throwing her plate of scrambled eggs at him, and then ran crying to the bathroom. She locked the door and screamed that she wanted a divorce. Indeed, Mr. Coalfield was not very happy when he left the house.
When a food inspector needs some cash, finding it is not difficult. It was an open secret that because of a clause in the food safety law, a Health Inspector can close a restaurant on the spot if, in his opinion, it’s a menace to public health. Most professional chiefs know that a folded hundred-dollar bill, discreetly placed on the clip board of the inspector or manila envelope of cash with a wish for a pleasant weekend, was enough to prevent a non-compliance violation from being posted. Mr. Coalfield was miffed that Ming Zi didn’t seem to be willing to play along with the accepted game. So, he came down hard on the little Asian man.
“The rat droppings in the basement, the flies, the faulty plumbing, bad news Mr. Liu, I’m going to have to shut your restaurant down for time being.” The man that Mr. Coalfield was speaking to was on the verge of crying. The man pleaded desperately,
“Please Sir, I will call the pest control people myself, right now. It will be super clean like a hospital by tomorrow, you’ll see. Please, I beg you don’t close me down. Isn’t there anything I can do?”
“Get an exterminator in here and clean up the place. Until then, you’re closed.” Ming Zi Liu envisioned the news reaching his home village in Shanxi, China, he heard the loud laughter of his cousins who predicted that he would fail. It made him cringe.
Nobody wants to see the restaurant inspector, even if they’re in compliance. People argue, even get physical, if they think they’re going to be fined or closed. This made the situation rather trying for both parties. And it also made it ripe for extortion and bribes. It was all very confusing. Ming Zi Liu was just an inexperienced Asian immigrant who didn’t know he was expected to offer an envelope of cash to avoid being shut down. It didn’t matter, he didn’t have the money anyway.
Ming Zi Liu was devastated. He had a dream and had planned to be an acknowledged master chef and to have a restaurant that would be the envy of the arrogant “foodies,” of the local culinary world. It would be the pride of San Francisco’s food service industry. Now all that was going down the drain.
When Ming Zi was a boy and his family came over from China to live in Fremont, California, his father had planned for Ming Zi to become a doctor. He pointed out to his son that this was the United States, and a boy could be anything he wanted to be when he grew up.
“You can become an oncologist, cardiologist, pediatrician, anything you want Ming Zi.” But the boy fell in love with the idea of running his own restaurant. Ming Zi stubbornly insisted that was his dream. In high school, he rushed home after class to watch Julia Child, Jacque Pepin, and his favorite, Martin Yan on TV. His father had scoffed at the idea,
“You don’t know anything about running a restaurant, we have been butchers back in our village for six generations. We came here so you could have a better life. Become a doctor, it pays well. Don’t you know that ninety percent of restaurants close in the first year? You are a silly boy, you want to follow a dream, but you’ll end up homeless and living on the street. What are you thinking?”
Most of his family agreed. His cousin, Yang, the pharmacist, quietly suggested psychotherapy. Ming Zi’s wife was angry because they were maxed out on credit cards. She dreaded going to her niece’s upcoming second wedding wearing the same jewels she had worn at the first one. Already in debt, and being closed by the health department, it looked like this was the end for the Shanxi Palace restaurant.
Mr. Coalfield, the inspector, was still fishing for a bribe and gave it one more attempt. He made a show of folding up his papers.
“I’m going downstairs to get my test kit. You think about all this. I’ll be back up in a minute.” He walked slowly to the top of the basement stairs. He dragged his feet and took his time, still hoping that Ming Zi would offer a payoff. But Ming’s head was swimming in panic. There was a voice inside his head that only he could hear. It was shouting, “closed down?” No, he couldn’t be closed. As Mr. Coalfield started down the first step, an exposed nail on the landing of the old building caught his pant cuff and his forward walking motion caused him to trip headfirst down the flight of rickety stairs.
Coalfield’s body rolled down the staircase and there was a dull thud as his head hit the concrete floor of the basement. Ming Zi stood stunned for a second, then came to his senses, and hurried down the steps to Mr. Coalfield’s prone body. He felt the man’s pulse. There was none. He grabbed the body by the jacket collar and shook it.
‘Wake up, wake up Mr. Inspector Sir. Can you hear me? Wake up.” But there was no response. In the darkness of the basement he muttered,
“Oh heavens, what is to become of me? When people find out about this, Now I will surely be closed.” Then as in a dream, he heard another voice in his head whispering,
“Why does anybody have to find out?” Ming Zi sat down on a packing crate next to the body and thought it through.
What he knew from the Health Inspectors he had previously talked to was that they were understaffed. There just weren’t enough of them. Maybe 6 inspectors for a city with close to million people and over 4,415 restaurants, not the counting food trucks. Of course, Inspectors tended to visit the food preparations facilities that offered a bribe more frequently. Even when things were working smoothly, they could only get around to a specific restaurant on their list about once every six months to a year. Since inspectors were usually assigned to inspect food facilities by using a computer program that randomly chose sites, it meant that many times a restaurant opened, ran for several years, and closed, without ever having an official visit from an inspector.
It was an accepted practice that since they worked in the field, Monday through Friday, dealing with food preparation areas all over San Francisco, Inspectors generally just used their phones to email their reports at the end of a week. The job was a low paying one, and many of the inspectors were just waiting for something better to come along. Frequently they just quit between inspections. It might be months, perhaps even years, before anybody realized that Mr. Coalfield was missing. And even then, they weren’t going to look for him, they might just assign another inspector to replace him.
But for now, Ming Zi knew something had to be done. It took a bit of heavy lifting, but Ming Zi dragged the limp body into the walk-in refrigerator in the basement and securely locked the door from the outside just to make sure that a member of the wait staff didn’t wander in by mistake when he wasn’t there. He went back up to the kitchen and found his heirloom butcher knives and a whet stone. The kitchen electric jig saw was turned on. He filled a huge industrial caldron with water and lit the gas flame under it to get a stock pot boiling. There was a lot to do before he opened the next morning.
When Mr. Coalfield didn’t report back to the health department, he was listed as a drop-out and the office became even more understaffed. True to her word, Mr. Coalfield’s wife left without even bothering to say good-bye and moved in with her fitness instructor. They opened a Yoga studio in the town of Petaluma, California and did very well. His bookie had hired a mob guy who was supposed to call on Mr. Coalfield, but when they couldn’t find him, they assumed he got scared and had run away. The apartment building became a condo, and nobody cared about what had happened to Mr. Coalfield.
The next spring the famous food critic, Mary Schulman, while incognito, sat at a table in the Shanxi Palace and tried the special of the day, Rou Jia Mo, or “The Shanxi Hamburger.” In her column the next day, she raved about the delicate texture and flavor. Her glowing report caused a tsunami of customers to arrive. The following week, the place had become so popular, reservations were difficult to get, and it was rumored that even the Governor had had a dinner party in the private room in the back. Ming Zi was interviewed on PBS television shows like the popular “What’s on the Menu,” and “Around the World on a Stove.” Important people like sports figures and rock stars came by and had their photos taken shaking hands with Ming Zi. That year, in the Bay Area’s New Kitchen Review, The Shanxi Palace restaurant came in second after ‘Moshe’s Gluten Free Burritos.”
Ming Zi’s father became quite impressed. He was thankful that Ming Zi’s future seemed to be assured. Ming Zi’s wife began an expensive gold jewelry collection, which she flaunted in front of her jealous cousins. Some of Ming Zi’s relatives came by and started hinting that their sons needed a job. Across the sea, generous yearly donations to Ming Zi’s home village in Shanxi provided a new cinder block elementary school and electric lights for the little main street of the town. There, on festival days, the poor were given free bags of rice. At the family temple in the center of the village, wandering beggars and Taoist holy men were given alms and encouraged to pray for the Liu family’s continued success in America.
Ming Zi’s restaurant became famous for two things. It was always spotless clean. Ming Zi seemed to be really obsessed with this point. And about once a year, the house featured a special, the very spicy but much in demand, “Goat meat Rou Jia Mo.” When asked how he could make the meat so tender, Ming Zi explained it was a combination of chilis and Sichuan brown peppercorns, ageing the meat in cold storage to tenderize it, and the traditional manner of mincing the meat very fine, a recipe which his family had been using Shanxi province for six generations.
Author’s Bio: Charlie Chin is an author, singer/songwriter, and master storyteller. He served as the Community Education Director at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City and as Artist-in-Residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. He is the author of several children’s books, including China’s Bravest Girl (1992) and Clever Bird (1996).