Showtime in Chinatown

For chef Joseph Poon cooking is a performance art

 By Quingyi Gong

It was a chilly Friday afternoon in November, six days before Thanksgiving. The leaves of trees on the other side of Vine Street Expressway had already turned into a bright red color. The winds were blowing vehemently and

Joseph Poon

Joseph Poon

three trucks rushed out from the firehouse located at North10th and Cherry Streets, their sirens ringing piercingly before the trucks disappeared at the corner of Market East Station.

The sky was bleak and gray. It might not be an ideal day in Chinatown for tourists, except some adventurous foodies, who might be lurking somewhere in restaurants, searching for authentic Asian food.

It was almost three o’clock. Chef Joseph Poon, 67, was waiting impatiently in an upstairs room at 1010 Cherry Street, a few steps away from the firehouse. The building lay in a quiet alley, facing Jiyuan Produce Market across the street. Outside the building, the signage read: Joseph Poon Chef Kitchen.

Walk past a glass door on the first floor, and a narrow, steeping staircase with plastic covers will lead visitors to the second floor, where Poon was pacing around. The room was cluttered with tables, chairs and shelves. Near the staircase, two metal tables were put together to form a long one. On the table were some cutting boards and knives. Further inside was a kitchen. Plates and cans were closely packed and a sink was churning hot foams up to the surface.

Poon wore a white shirt and a dark green sweater, which appeared even darker due to the dim light. He wore a pair of off-white pants and black work shoes. A pair of old-fashioned, shaded eyeglasses with round frames perched on his nose. Poon looked tough and had a weather-beaten face. A little bald, deep wrinkles spread on his forehead when he talked. Now he was talking with his assistant in Hong Kong dialect, in a thundering voice that made their conversations sound like a quarrel.

Suddenly, Poon paused and turned his head towards the staircase. “You are late. I’m gonna to punish that. You can go home, because you are late.” Poon’s voice was hoarse and uncompromising.

A group of young students had just come in the room. They were from Penn. Some were juniors and some were sophomores. They were going to hold a small party at Poon’s kitchen on the night to learn cooking Chinese dishes.

Music was turned on. Here were nine diners, along with Poon and the assistant. Poon stood at one end of the table and made a short greeting speech: “Thanksgiving is almost here. Number one, I didn’t know English. And now I teach students in English. So, if you didn’t know, you can learn it, right?”

Poon spoke English with heavy accent. But he was exuberant.

“And I teach, work and learn English. I didn’t know English. I graduated from college 35 years ago. And now I lead restaurant tours, international restaurant tours. And also I volunteer——300 to 500 hours of community


Poon talked about how different American and Asian cultures are. “The funny guys in China, when they make jokes in New Jersey, no one laughing. When Americans make jokes in China, nobody laugh in China. Different cultures.”

“Good morning, America!” he yelled suddenly.

The group burst into laughter.

“See, you guys know. But Chinese don’t know what I mean by “Good morning, America”. Completely different cultures. If I say “Good morning, America” in China or Hong Kong TV, nobody laughing, because they don’t see the movie ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’.” Continue reading