The barbequed meat glistens golden red in the overhanging heat lamps. The air is heavy with the aroma of salty roast duck and honey rubbed char siu, saturating the expanse of this underground siu mei (barbeque meat) parlour in Boston’s Chinatown, Great BBQ.
Ah Ming, the cleaver master, waits patiently in the doorway as customers trickle in throughout his 12-hour work shift. More often than not, his customers are Chinese. They come to Great BBQ as a final stop of their grocery shopping, or stop by for a quick take-away during their off-work hours.
Most customers come into the shop with their order in mind,
“Hey Ming! Grab me a soy sauce chicken and half a pound of siu yok (roasted meat) please.” one says in a thick Mandarin-accented Cantonese.
Others come in, indecisive. Hainanese chicken or char siu? Salted duck or Pi Pa duck? With or without rice? Noticing his customer’s distress, Ah Ming chirps in with his suggestion:
“How about a char siu cut that’s both fatty and lean. That way you can savor the best of both worlds.”
This year marks the seventh year Ah Ming has worked at this siu mei parlour, ten years since his arrival in the United States.
Thinking back, he never imagined himself becoming a meat master.
“…it is a filthy job. I would much prefer being a chef, not that it is any less filthy. At least the dishes I serve can give me more pride. What’s more, I can be creating something new with the dishes.”
Ah Ming focuses his gaze at the meat display case and his mind wanders off to his bygone years in Hong Kong as a teenager. His hard stare unwavering, he recounts that as a youngster, while studying in secondary school, he could not develop an interest in his studies and made a drash decision to drop out. He had wanted to become a mechanic or carpenter, but his father persuaded him to try working at the siu mei stalls, probably because it is a job cut out for the Chinese. That is where he has since stayed. Ah Ming had thought of quitting to work on something else. But the opportunities for people like himself— with only a primary school education and no other work experience —were limited, so he always ended up staying. In an offhanded manner, Ah Ming adds simply:
“This siu mei job is painstaking… but, in order to get by, I have no choice.”
It seems that Ah Ming drifted into his vocation and is trapped in it out of necessity, initially for his own survival, eventually to care for his wife. Now that his son and daughter are in college, he continues working.
Having stood on his feet for the entire morning, he pulls out the tattered faux leather chair from under the makeshift table. He lets out an audible sigh of as he sinks into it and shared some personal aspirations, thoughts of “what ifs” he kept unspoken to even to his closet loved ones.
“I had dreams of being the manager of my own billiard business. But that’s just wishful thinking. If only I had the ability.”
Hundreds of ducks, geese and chicken are plucked and gutted. Each cut of meat is individually submerged in one of several colossal pots of seasoned oil. Less than two hours later, the salted duck, roasted geese, Hainanese and soy sauce chicken are ready for Ah Ming.
Like autopsical specimens, the meats hang from snaking metal hooks. They watch with craned necks at Ah Ming and his six-inch wooden chopping board, in anticipation for their turn on the block.
As much as Ah Ming would like to escape from the mundanity of cleaving siu mei day in day out, it has been a steady constant in his life.
“Siu mei means nothing to me. I’ve been doing this for so long that I’m bored stiff.”
Without blinking, Ah Ming raises his cleaver before crashing it down on the glistening carcass repeatedly. His vacant visage conveys a sense of lackluster force. Then sliding his knife under the now bite-sized pieces, he transfers them into the gaping styrofoam container beside the board. He later scrapes the knife across the surface of the board to clean up the meat juices, signaling the end of this spectacle. Only moments later to be repeated again.
Customers enter into this barbeque parlour in search for a filling meal, or perhaps to bring home a quick dinner to entertain visiting relatives. No matter their purpose, they are all here to pick up pieces of something familiar; to regain an unfathomable sense of absence that was possibly left behind when they immigrated to America. Customers come here to breathe in the honeyed scent of char siu and to savor past moments when siu mei graced the dining tables back home. For them, siu mei harkens back to memories shared with their mother, their cousins, their grandparents and their distant relatives during Chinese New Year or even to ancestral offerings during Qing Ming Festival.
With each box of siu mei that Ah Ming prepares for his customers, he offers them a slice of nostalgia with it. And as much as Ah Ming seems to share his discontentment as a cleaver master, he conceals this from his customers.
“Is this all the siu mei you’re getting tonight?” he teases jokingly.
Colourful strips of labels compete with the hanging meats, each vying for attention. These menu labels bombard the glass display case like the flyers on a university notice board. Warm hues of red and yellow are interrupted by cooler palettes of blue and green, each announcing the endless multitude of possible combinations.
“Whole salted chicken for $19, $10 for half”
“Single choice of meat for $5 or double combination for an additional $1.50”
“additional $1 for side of rice”
The plastic clock on the wall reads 5:35pm, less than two hours left before closing time. The clock ticks its solemn tune. It echoes across this underground parlour, occasionally accompanied by the low sighs emitting from Ah Ming. Behind the kitchen doors, a steady hum of burning furnaces wade in to join the chorus.
Beneath the clock sits a framed plaque, enshrouded in a velvety red mass. The golden characters within it read:
“Wishing a thriving and prosperous business”
Business has slowed down in recent years. Over the past eight years since Great BBQ’s opening, the Chinatown area saw a rise in newer, larger siu mei parlors. Competition is fierce.
The late afternoon light seeps through the only window of the entire parlour, coating the front of the shop in fiery embers. Ah Ming puts down his cleaver and surveys the passer bys on the street above. Only a few pairs of legs sweep by in this far off corner of Chinatown. Loosing interest in the outside scenery, he gazes around the shop mindlessly.
“The best we can do is to continue on,” he says amid the stillness.
“We should always aim to strive for the top, always ascending.”
Annie Lye is a photographer based in Boston. More of her work can be viewed at her website.