Ian Cheney ‘98 Sets Out to Meet the General
by The Milton Measure on Friday, February 6th, 2015
Once it reaches your mouth, dangling from your wobbly chopsticks, it overwhelms you with a medley of tastes. Is it sweet? Sour? Crispy? Spicy? A combination? You devour the meal, wanting desperately to taste more. But wait, the dish greets you, front page, on all the Chinese menus you see. General Tso’s Chicken is everywhere.
Around 2004, Ian Cheney ‘98 and his best friend were on a road trip when they stopped at a Chinese restaurant to order their usual—General Tso’s Chicken. From this trip stemmed the inspiration behind their film, The Search for General Tso, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014.
The film begins with a series of customers guessing the identity of the true “General Tso.” In order to solve the mystery, Ian and his team travel to Shanghai, where they show pictures of the Chinese-American dish to locals and ask them if they’re familiar with it. Everyone is confused by the picture, and one woman even comments that “it doesn’t look like chicken…. it looks like frog.” This scene is followed by the team’s journey to the Hunan province to investigate the real-life General Tso, where they meet up with Liang Xiao Jin, a Qing Dynasty researcher and fifth-generation grandson of General Tso.
Other than discovering the roots of General Tso, the film also imposes the bigger question of where all this Chinese food has even come from. By traveling all the way back to 1849, during the California Gold Rush, the film uncovers how Chinese food planted its seed in America and how it revolutionized the food enterprise.
According to Ian, the biggest challenge for him as a filmmaker was achieving the best tone for the film. He started with a somewhat whimsical premise: “Who the heck was this guy General Tso, and why are we all eating his chicken?” But quickly he and his team learned that the story of Chinese American food is rooted in the very real struggles endured by Chinese immigrants in America. Another challenge was balancing the humorous elements of the film with the important tales of repression and discrimination. In the end, the animation and music in the film played powerful roles in helping him find the right mood for the piece.
Ian currently runs Wicked Delicate Films, a documentary film production company based in Brooklyn, NY and western Massachusetts. He is also the co-founder and former member of the board of directors of Foodcorps, a non-profit organization. For a limited time, The Search for General Tso will be playing on VOD through outlets such as iTunes and Amazon Instant Video. The film will also be showing in The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge starting this coming March.
Short URL: http://miltonmeasure.org/?p=6771