China in Nixon

February 5, 2011

Since the Metropolitan Opera premiere this week of Nixon in China, everybody (and by everybody I mean hundreds and hundreds of people) is talking about the great events of the seventies in which the eponymous President went to the eponymous country. My memories of that historic moment are, however, dominated by thoughts of impeccable Chinese food provided by a glamorous woman.

Sheila Chang, born in Shanghai of a Chinese father and a Scottish mother, and educated by aristocratic French nuns, ran an extraordinary restaurant on Third Avenue a few blocks north of Bloomingdales. I was a young musician who had just come to the city and had fallen in with a major Handel series (for which I wrote the program notes and did some continuo playing). But, much more importantly, the late lamented Albert Fuller (or, as he liked to alter that expression, “The Late Demented”) was involved and was a pal of Sheila Chang. So off a hungry band of us would go after rehearsals or performances to Sheila Chang’s Shanghai East. Placed around a large table, we would be visited by the proprietress, who would offer to go see what was best in the kitchen that evening. She would send out to us generous portions of whatever she chose. This was not an inexpensive establishment, and I was a student. But — no fear — when we had eaten our fill of sometimes quite rare delicacies, she would rub her hands together, survey the damage at our places, and demand five or six dollars from each of us.

Presumably she was asking more of Miss Alice Tully, for whom this was also a much-frequented restaurant.

But my reason for bringing this up in an operatic context is not just for the China part but for the Nixon part as well. It may be hard for kids now to imagine, but Americans didn’t just go online and make plane reservations for China in those days. Nixon’s trip is spoken of as having “opened up” that huge country. So, all of a sudden, lots of important people wanted to know all about Chinese food — and not at the level of the ordinary fare of New York takeout and delivery (though I’m the last to despise that variety when I’m hungry for a little hot and sour soup and chicken with garlic sauce). Suddenly we humble minstrels and Miss Tully found ourselves joined by major politicians and media figures who wanted to acquire the savoir faire to dine creditably in China. One night it was Harry Reasoner at the next table, and another brought Senator Kennedy. I was also there on the night when the entire Chinese kitchen staff refused to cook for a delegation of diplomats from what was then ordinarily spoken of as Red China.

It was a sad day for my little musical posse when Sheila Chang decided that the bloom was off the rose for Chinese restaurants in Manhattan, and the torch was passed to Tel Aviv, where I trust she found other appreciative musicians to feed. But I like to think that our great Republic suffered less embarrassment — lost less face — when members of Mr. Nixon’s entourage manipulated their chopsticks with aplomb and didn’t send back their thousand-year-old eggs with the complaint that they were spoiled.

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