‘When my grandfather was 13, his mother sent him to a restaurant as an apprentice. He began the long way of learning to be a chef who specializes in making dumplings, noodles, buns and things from flour. The rolling pin came into his life.”
Weijun Song, a freshman at Cal Poly, interviewed his maternal grandfather in Beijing, Bai Yunxiu, via Skype and learned the story of how “Grandpa” became a skilled master of making dumplings for the Chinese New Year.
“My grandpa told me that it usually took three years as an apprentice under a master. Then you had to pass a test, which your master gave. Finally, you could cook by yourself.
“The everyday routine for a little boy was harsh. My grandpa woke up at five. Then he made the tea and breakfast, woke his master up with a basin of water and helped him wash. He helped his master prepare all the flour needed for that day, usually about 110 pounds. He slowly mixed it with water into dough. Then he organized all the tables and chairs in the restaurant. At night, he made his own bed with a wood board and two chairs.
“When the business opened, grandpa had to serve each table, wiping the tables and sweeping the floor. When business hours were over, he had to clean and organize everything in the kitchen for their use another day.
“ ‘I only had five hours left for sleep,’ he said, as I listened in silence. He was still a child. At the end of the month, his pay was just a bag of flour. He took this bag of flour to his mom on his only day off that month.
“Although grandpa didn’t have any education, he was smart. The master did not wish to give away all of his secrets to the apprentice. In order to learn the skills, my grandpa observed his master carefully when he cooked and memorized it. Each kind of noodle, bun or dumpling has different proportion of baking soda, flour and water. Grandpa practiced at night and wrote in symbols and drawings in a small notebook because he hadn’t learned how to write.
“He came to realize the way his master used the Chinese rolling pin to made dumplings. One by one, grandpa would collect the little bits of dough left during the day. He kneaded them back together at night in order to make a good dumpling skin. ‘Practice makes perfect,’ he said to me.
“Unnoticed and unsuspected by his master, grandpa obtained all the skills required for being a chef within two years. Then he could earn money which equaled two bags of flour per month.
“After the People’s Republic of China formed, grandpa cooked at a government factory employing more than 5,000 workers. He was the main chef specializing in pao, dumpling and noodles, etc.
“After work, he went to an evening school and gained an education equal to that of a graduate from primary school.
“He gave almost all his savings to his younger siblings for their education. Two of his sisters graduated from the Women’s Teachers College and his brother later on became a soldier. With his help, his siblings obtain a good life.
“Countless students wanted to learn how to cook from him. He knew the hard time he had under his master, so he did not hold back in sharing his experiences and skills. These were passed down to future generations.
“In grandpa, the word hero becomes alive. Because of him, I have a warm family and his experience is an inspiration to each of us.
“My mom helped me gather so many stories about him for my paper since I’m overseas. This article expresses our love to grandpa!”
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.