Eddie Huang Has Come Down from the Mountain

In 2009, Eddie Huang opened his first restaurant, Baohaus, which served Taiwanese street favorites in…

In 2009, Eddie Huang opened his first restaurant, Baohaus, which served Taiwanese street favorites in a tiny storefront on New York’s Lower East Side. By then, the twenty-seven-year-old had already cycled through a few vocations: attorney, standup comedian, T-shirt designer, minor-league weed dealer. In the twenty-tens, he quickly established himself as an outspoken presence in conversations about food and identity, more interested in name-dropping Howard Zinn or Cam’ron than in ingratiating himself with celebrity chefs. He was a thoughtful showman. Even a zero-star review of Huang’s short-lived restaurant Xiao Ye, in the Times, doubled as a fawning profile of his swaggering creativity.

It soon became clear that food was just part of Huang’s vision for penetrating the culture. Whether he was explaining the origins of a Taiwanese gua bao or a sneaker he’d designed, he was, at root, a storyteller. In 2013, he published his memoir “Fresh Off the Boat,” which discusses his family’s journey from Taiwan to the United States, and his own identity struggles growing up in Orlando, Florida. In the book, he writes about how hip-hop offered him a sense of stability and purpose, a spirit of underdog hustle. He parlayed Baohaus and “Fresh Off the Boat” into a variety of TV jobs, hosting shows on the Cooking Channel and MTV, as well as a short stint co-hosting a daily talk show alongside Meghan McCain. In 2015, “Fresh Off the Boat” became an ABC sitcom—a landmark for Asian-American representation on network television. But Huang left the series shortly after it began, owing to conflicts over creative control. The following year, he published “Double Cup Love,” a book about exploring his roots in China. He also began hosting “Huang’s World,” a Viceland travel show, which was driven by his curiosity about people different from him, whether they were porn stars or white nationalists.

Throughout this eclectic, unpredictable series of passions, gigs, and side projects, Huang, who is now thirty-nine, somehow retained the devil-may-care essence that was his calling card over a decade ago. (He has also somehow remained a fan of the New York Knicks.) A few years ago, he began spending more time in Los Angeles, channelling his energies into filmmaking and screenwriting. He wrote and directed “Boogie,” a scrappy, artful take on the coming-of-age sports movie. The film, which is currently in theatres and streaming, follows Alfred “Boogie” Chin, a Taiwanese-American high-school-basketball prodigy trying to navigate the expectations of others, from his tough, occasionally abusive family to the belittling world beyond his native Queens.

The past year was a tumultuous one for Huang. Last March, as Americans began to take the pandemic seriously, he relocated from Los Angeles to Taipei, Taiwan. In October, his restaurant, Baohaus, closed its New York location. Our talks, which have been edited and condensed, took place over the past few months: the first in November, while he was still in Taipei, and the second the day after “Boogie” débuted, in March, after he had returned to L.A.

So where are you right now?

I’m in the mountains of Taipei. It’s actually right near 101 [Taipei 101, a skyscraper that anchors a bustling shopping district]. There’s a hike that everybody takes called Elephant Mountain. I’m to the right of it, up here on Thumb Mountain. It’s pretty nice.

That area was so quiet before 101 was built.

My first week here, late at night, I would just wear my mask and go out and hike with my iPhone light. I had some mushroom chocolates, so I started eating those and hiking, wandering for, like, five hours. One time, I went from Elephant Mountain all the way to the back of Thumb Mountain, and I found a coal mine. I’m, like, “What the fuck is a coal mine doing fifteen minutes from 101?” I came back in the daytime and there’s all sorts of routes, off-the-path routes. I found this magical old man who was just, like, “Come up with me.” He showed me a different plateau. I ended up meeting the last guy from this coal mine—like, a ninety-year-old miner. I wrote a script about the last family on a coal-mining mountain watching 101 being built. That’s what I did for the first month I was here.

Let’s go back to March, 2020, when you actually left your home in Los Angeles for Taiwan. In the early days of the pandemic, I knew a lot of people who toyed with the idea of going somewhere else, but not many who actually did it. What was the thought process like? When did you decide, and how soon after did you hop on a plane?

Everyone was so confident it was just the flu. And I was, like, “I don’t know, man.” I started to get nervous. My parents live in China, and they were already locked down in mid-February. I’m hearing what they were doing in China. Let me see what they’re doing in America. They ain’t doing shit over here! [My parents] were, like, “Oh, your officials aren’t even wearing masks. . . . You gotta get out.”

I was playing ball with my friends, we got a Wednesday-night run, and that’s when we saw Tom Hanks got it. Then the N.B.A. season got cancelled, and I was, like, “Shit, man, I gotta get a flight out of here.” Tom Hanks, No. 1 white man in the world, is sick. The N.B.A. is cancelled. It was that one night. I took a shit, I was on the Delta app, I just bought a ticket.

So when you got to Taiwan, did you think you were going to stay in the mountains and pursue these vision quests?

I’ve had a few different routines. The first routine was just wake up, swim at the hotel, destroy the breakfast buffet, go hike. Then I met a few people that had basketball runs. Slowly, I started to go out. I met one guy that was cool, this guy Bobby, from New York, he loved going to the clubs, so he brought me out. First night I was at the club with him, this kid jumped out of line. He had a Dior scarf, a New York Yankee hat, he was all New Yorked out. And he’s, like, “Yo, New York, bro!” and I was, like, “You from New York?” “No. But you from New York!” Then he says, “My name is ‘Chicken Leg Rice.’ ” I was, like, “That’s a solid, solid alias.”

So, we walked in. [Chicken Leg Rice] is there with his bandanna on a bottle of Henny, dancing around. His whole crew had Atlanta Braves hats on, and they were all wearing streetwear, like Bed-Stuy kids. Amiri jeans, bandannas, anything Gucci. I don’t know if it’s real or fake, but it looked good. I could tell they were working. People were coming up to them, they were going to the bathroom. We became very fast friends. And then everything flipped because, for the first time in my life in Taiwan, I got into the local scene and culture. I’ve written five hundred pages here. I wrote three features and two television shows. Chicken Leg Rice comes over, we chill. I wrote the mountain script where I wanted him to be the main character. I started to work with him, teaching him what I know about acting. He’s a rapper, and eventually we started to make music.

You’re making music?

I was bored, you know? Homie showed me his music, and it banged. I was randomly online one day, and my friend [the Grammy-nominated producer] Benny Blanco told me, “My best friend from high school, Dave, is out there, you gotta meet up.” He showed me some of his beats, and we got into the studio, and we just started recording.

I had no intention of getting involved in this, because there’s nothing that the big Asian labels are trying to propel across the ocean that I found inspiring or interesting, besides “It G Ma.” I like K-pop, I like Wonder Girls. I love Wu Bai, Teresa Teng, old Andy Lau or Jacky Cheung. When you listen to shit the locals listen to, it’s amazing. Chicken Leg Rice, his [rap] name is Bad Boy Raco G . . . he’s talented, he’s really living the life.

We made a drill song: “Plug Speak Taiwanese.” Our intention was, No. 1, we want to make Taiwanese drill. No. 2, we don’t want this to be like those corny A.B.C. [American-born Chinese] rap songs where it’s, like, you’re trying to speak English, but you don’t speak English. I was, like, “Yo, our language is good enough.” I love Taiwanese. It’s a language that lends itself to this. It’s a patois, you know. It sounds like your parents beating the shit out of you. But I had to convince Chicken Leg Rice. Their thing in Taiwan is, they always think they need to be more American. I was, like, “Son, you’re good. Just be you.”

How has your perspective on America changed?

I’m dying to come home. I love Taiwan, but I always knew that what I loved was living in a diverse society. An entire new district in another city is just one block in New York. I never took it for granted, but I’ve never missed it more than I have the nine months here, living in a country with only one race of people with very, I would say, homogenous ways of thinking.