Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for June 3 through 9 is “Hong Kong,” the fifth episode of the 11th season of CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.
A couple of weeks ago, I was having lunch with a friend shortly after seeing Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the very charming new biodoc about Fred Rogers and the wonders of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. As a longtime fan of Rogers’s work, I was lamenting that there wasn’t really anything else like his show on TV, that there wasn’t such a kind and generous personality in such a position of popularity and authority in modern pop culture.
“Sure there is,” my friend said. “It’s Anthony Bourdain.”
On its surface, this might seem odd. Rogers was quiet and gentle, and he used his show to teach kids how to embrace their best, most emotionally healthy selves. Bourdain, who died Friday, was brasher, louder, readier to call an asshole an asshole. But then I thought about it and realized that Bourdain, too, was interested in helping people — in this case adults — embrace their best, most curious, most emotionally healthy selves. (And my friend and I weren’t the only people to have this thought, if this tweet from GQ’s Joshua Rivera is any indication.)
Or, put another way, there are few people in television history who were just as compelling interviewing a random person off the street as a head of state. But Rogers and Bourdain were two of them.
The last episode of Bourdain’s CNN series to air before his death shows his mastery of talking to people from all walks of life
Ostensibly, Bourdain’s CNN series Parts Unknown is a food travelogue, in the vein of his earlier Travel Channel series No Reservations. He goes somewhere on the face of the planet, be it a massive city or a rural region or the very ends of the Earth. He samples the food. He learns about local cuisine. He loves what he eats. The next week, he’s somewhere else.
And on a very basic level, that is true of every episode of Parts Unknown. But Bourdain’s secret was how he saw food as the great leveler, the one thing every culture has in common. We all need to eat, and we all want that eating to be tasty and pleasurable on some level. You get to know food, and you get to know the people who made it. And if you find that food tasty and pleasurable, well, no matter your other differences, you both like to eat.
Thus, Parts Unknown is more about people than it is about travel or about food — but it argues that travel and food are a great way to get to know people, and maybe even yourself. The series is brilliant at finding fascinating people lurking on the sidelines of the cities it visits, the folks who wouldn’t show up in most travel shows.
In “Hong Kong,” the last episode to air before Bourdain’s death, that takes the form of an umbrella repairman who waxes philosophical about the importance of umbrellas to people in a city where it rains a lot, or the members of a rock band worried about limits on free expression, or a young chef doing what he can to put his spin on traditional Hong Kong cuisine.
But it also takes the form of Christopher Doyle, one of the all-time great cinematographers, whose work with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai has produced some of the finest images ever seen on screen. (When Doyle lines up a shot of Bourdain, you can tell how thrilled the host is, even as he’s subjected to Doyle’s exacting process.)
Whether high or low, well-known or not known at all, Bourdain was interested in these people, in the stories they could tell or the food they made and enjoyed. And he had a unique gift for just hanging back and letting those he interviewed simply tell their stories.
He didn’t try to foist his own narrative onto Hong Kong, a city rich with history and constantly caught between a long era when it was a colonial property of the United Kingdom and now, when it is a part of China and rapidly turning into a gleaming, modernized version of itself that’s, nevertheless, paving over a whole city’s past.
What was key to Bourdain’s approach was how rarely he inserted his own explanation of what was happening. He, instead, let those he interviewed speak about what they thought. The structure of the episode, which gradually pushes its way toward a discussion of Hong Kong’s future and how it might preserve the parts of its past it considered vital, makes clear what Bourdain and the show’s producers most value about their visit to the city, but never presses the point.
This, too, is what Rogers knew: Sit back. Let people talk. Listen with an open heart. You’ll find the world anew. And just like Rogers, Bourdain knew the power of television to open the hearts of viewers, if they were ready and willing, and if a gregarious host gave them the tiniest of nudges.
“Hong Kong,” melancholy as it is, makes an appropriate tribute to its host
I watched “Hong Kong” a few hours after Bourdain’s death became public knowledge. I’d always enjoyed Parts Unknown but hadn’t made a point of watching it regularly in a couple of years — Bourdain had never had to sell me on the virtues of traveling the world and eating delicious food.
But what I saw could have fit beautifully in any season of the show. Bourdain was never interested in progress for the sake of progress, because he was always curious about what might be lost. A city could become a gleaming edifice, but it might bury what had truly been valuable beneath those giant buildings. To Bourdain, the city builds from the ground up — the food nourishes the people, who build the city. When the reverse happens, when a powerful few eradicate the spaces those people lived and ate in, in order to build ever-taller, ever more valuable real estate, there’s a tragedy inherent to that, in the eyes of Bourdain and his show.
In “Hong Kong,” this takes the form of concern about small business owners, whose shops or dining establishments have been in the same family for decades but are increasingly being edged out of business by ever bigger, ever more global competition.
In episodes about my city, Los Angeles, Bourdain would visit areas of the city with large immigrant communities (Koreatown once, and various neighborhoods dominated by Mexican Americans) and examine how their food became American food. A 2017 episode set here quietly but forcefully made the argument that Mexican-American culture is, simply, American culture — that we are a nation as much of mole as we are a nation of ketchup (itself immigrant food once upon a time).
Bourdain was not incredibly anti-capitalist or anything so radical as that, but his big-hearted humanism suggested that an obsession with economic progress has stamped out a necessary focus on human progress. Whether dealing with the economic transformation of an ancient city or situations in which he saw bad things happening around him, Bourdain didn’t hesitate to point out inherent injustices. He didn’t stay silent, didn’t simply accept the status quo, on a medium obsessed with propping up that status quo.
Needless to say, watching an episode so interested in loss, in how change can be necessary but also painful, so soon after Bourdain’s death was an even more melancholy experience than it would have been normally. So I asked myself what has been lost since we’ve lost Anthony Bourdain.
And what we’ve lost in losing Bourdain isn’t just a good TV show, a giving and fascinating screen presence, or even a necessary argument in favor of our essential humanity. No, it’s something deeper and more fundamental than that — the loss of one of the few people who believed that television could make the world not sleeker and more modern but more human, less cold.
Television doesn’t have to be a window into other lives. It can be a door, too, held open and inviting. One of the few who knew how to open that door is gone now, and the medium is lesser for it.