"America is a country of immigrants."
I was standing in the crowded restaurant dining room of Burma Love on Valencia Street in San Francisco when a woman came up to me and started talking. She introduced herself as Helen and relayed the story about how she had come to the United States when she was in her early 20s. Helen had left Yangon (then called Rangoon) for San Francisco for a better life. Once she became a citizen, the rest of her family who were still in Yangon joined her.
We were there celebrating the release of the Burma Superstar cookbook, which I wrote with Helen's nephew Desmond Tan. Until that moment, I hadn't met Helen. Yet she is the reason that my co-author had come to San Francisco in the first place.
Desmond's mom, Eileen, is Helen's sister. In the late 1970s, with Helen's help, Desmond's immediate family relocated to San Francisco. Even though the Tans lived in a comfortable middle-class neighborhood in Yangon, they had little reason to think that their kids could make a better life for themselves if they stayed put.
The 20th century political profile of Burma (the country's military government only changed its name to Myanmar in the late 1980s) is not pretty. The country controlled the press, deported some minority groups as illegal immigrants (even though many families had lived there for multiple generations), and exhibited other small-minded, xenophobic tendencies. In the 1990s, a democratic party led by Aung San Suu Kyi won an election only to have the results thrown out by the party in power.
Prior to the World War II, though, the country drew in opportunists from all over the world. Its famous Strand Hotel was started by the Sarkies brothers, the Armenian hoteliers who also ran the Raffles hotel in Singapore. Even today, British colonial architecture still stands in downtown Yangon, though it started to wilt under the tropical heat years ago. In the 1960s, however, the military took over the government, cutting the country off from the rest of the world. (An excellent read on Burmese history is The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma, written by Thant Myint-U, the grandson of U Thant, former secretary-general of the United Nations.)
In 1970s Burma, Desmond's family didn't have a phone, which was fine because no one they knew had a phone, either. The first time they saw a television, they were in an airport waiting to fly to America. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as anti-Chinese sentiment grew in Yangon, other Burmese-Chinese families left the country and settled in the Bay Area. A few started restaurants, including the Wu family, the original owners of Burma Superstar, and Philip Chu, who ran Nan Yang in Oakland--which was in all likelihood the first Burmese restaurant in the Bay Area.
While the details of how Burma Superstar came to be--a family took over a Chinese restaurant in the Inner Richmond, added Burmese dishes, changed the name, and later sold it to Desmond--is unique to the restaurant, the larger story is not. Like a lot of restaurants in diverse cities, it's a place that introduced new dishes and flavors to people outside of the community. It's part of the story of how immigration has made San Francisco a much more dynamic place to eat.
Burma Superstar is a cookbook like many others. It has recipes; it can spark ideas for using tamarind in new ways or teach how easy it is to make coconut rice. But it's also, in a small way, about immigration, and America, and the importance of opportunity.
After retiring last year, Helen visited Yangon for the first time since moving away. While there, she looked up old friends.
"Was it weird to be back?" I asked.
"We all look so old now, but they are all still thin because everyone in Burma is thin," Helen said, chuckling. "Not like me."