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Paul Simon's 'Mother & Child Reunion' Was Born in Chinatown: Book Excerpt

Frank Mastropolo

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Where did Elvis record “Hound Dog” and Bill Haley record “Rock Around the Clock”? Where did Dylan play his first major gig? Or the Beatles make their US debut? Where was Hendrix discovered? New York City, where rock history has been made on the street corners of Harlem, the coffee houses of Greenwich Village, and the city’s clubs, theaters, studios, and arenas.

New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock tells more than 200 stories of the artists, writers, DJs, and impresarios who came together in Manhattan to make rock history from the 1950s to today.

In this excerpt, New York City native Paul Simon reveals that one of his best-loved songs took its title from a Chinese restaurant favorite.

Chef Shorty Tang opened Say Eng Lok in Chinatown in the late 1960s. Say Eng Lok translates as 4–5–6, a mahjong hand. Like many Chinese restaurants of the era, its menu items were given poetic names. Tang served a Sichuan chicken and egg dish named “Mother and Child Reunion.” It may have been a reference to the Chinese Exclusion Act, a discriminatory immigration practice from 1882–1943. When Chinese immigration was restored by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, family members were able to reunite.

The lead single of Paul Simon’s self-titled 1972 album was “Mother and Child Reunion.” Simon spotted the dish on the menu while he and his first wife, Peggy Harper, dined at Say Eng Lok. “Know where the words came from on that? You would never have guessed,” Simon revealed in Rolling Stone in 1972. “I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown. There was a dish called ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ It’s chicken and eggs. And I said, ‘Oh, I love that title. I gotta use that one.’

"Mother and Child Reunion" (live) by Paul Simon

“Last summer we had a dog that was run over and killed, and we loved this dog. It was the first death I had ever experienced personally. Nobody in my family died that I felt that. But I felt this loss — one minute there, next minute gone, and then my first thought was, ‘Oh, man, what if that was Peggy? What if somebody like that died? Death, what is it, I can’t get it.’

“And there were lyrics straight out forward like that. ‘I can’t for the life of me remember a sadder day. I just can’t believe it’s so.’ Those are the lyrics. The chorus for ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ — well, that’s out of the title. Somehow there was a connection between this death and Peggy, and it was like heaven, I don’t know what the connection was. Some emotional connection. It didn’t matter to me what it was. I just knew it was there.”

Chef Tang moved Say Eng Lok to 5 East Broadway around 1982. The restaurant closed in 1996.

Mastropolo is the author of New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock and Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever.

New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock

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Frank Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever, one of Best Classic Bands' Best Music Books of 2021; New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock; the What's Your Rock IQ? Trivia Quiz Book series; Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past, winner of the 2021 Independent Publishers Book Award; and Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York's Past. Mastropolo is a journalist, photographer, and former ABC News 20/20 producer, winner of the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University silver baton. His photography is featured in the Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition.

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