At George Chen’s China Live: There is No Them or Us

Join us this Sunday 6/25 for a complimentary screening of Lucky Chow at China Live! (Dumplings and cultural proficiency included)

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For George Chen, a serial entrepreneur of 35 years and the creator, co-founder and executive chef of China Live, serving up the most innovative and progressive Chinese cuisine in San Francisco’s Chinatown is only half the battle. China Live is no restaurant, “it’s a platform. We change the menu depending on the season and what’s interesting. We must’ve added or changed the menu 60 or 70 times since we’ve opened and it’s an effort,” mused George. His ultimate goal is to change our current perception of what Chinese food currently is and in turn, our perception of what Chinese culture really is, for the two go hand in hand. Food is perhaps the easiest and most accessible cultural avenue out there, not to mention it’s a necessity. Put in George’s words, “I don’t know if you know people, if we can’t understand their food.”

Yet Chinese immigrants or even worse, the general public can’t help but to pose the question, is this just gentrification getting its hands dirty again? With a 20 million dollar kitchen and three stories of immaculate design, who is China Live for and why?

George started working in the restaurant industry during his high school years to support himself. A first generation American told to never “stir the pot”, he graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with degrees in neurobiology and psychology, worked on Wall Street as a senior executive for more than 10 years and has created, owns and operates 16 restaurants internationally, all of which are held in high regard. The rest could’ve been history but after spending over 25 years in the industry, there were cultural perversions towards his people, culture and cuisine he couldn’t ignore. “The Chinese are the most misunderstood. No one really looks at sushi as even Japanese anymore. Vietnamese are just as accepted and Thai is very popular but you look at Chinese cuisine and it’s still like we eat rats and stuff,” said George.  

His biggest critics aren’t food bloggers, influencers or journalists, they’re Chinese immigrants, his own people, who think the culture is being bastardized or made out to be inauthentic. “That’s really one thing dealing with China Live that surprised and bothered me more than anything else. When people say we’re not authentic, deep down we’re more true to our roots than most people. If people don’t realize the effort we go through, I could easily after 25 years in this business make things simpler not harder but when you’re trying to change perceptions, you have to do it from the roots so hopefully people will understand and appreciate that,” said George who still imports his Chinese spices straight from the source every month.

For George, his ethnic background has always been the source of his ambition, “I’m not trying to prove a point, I’m trying to show what we can be,” he said. Being in Chinatown has reconnected him to the community of people that China Live’s mission serves most. George has established connections with everyone, from the families who dine in, to the merchants who work at and represent their respective, small farms, to the Chinatown old ladies who seek out the best produce and elbow him in the process, Chinatown’s locals call China Live by another name, “Ming Dian”, which translates to famous merchant. “We buy directly from local merchants and they deliver to us. They feel very much that China Live is not some gentrified project that wants to show Chinese food. They know because we buy from them and use their products,  they know we’re buying the freshest and best stuff. Now a lot of the vendors from around the corner bring stuff to us and say, ‘hey, what do you think about this? Can you use this?’” The creation of this community allows Chinatown to modernize and its vibrancy to shine in a way that continues to further its legacy as a cultural center and destination.