The past year has been an incredibly difficult one for restaurants and food businesses, and particularly so for East and South East Asian-owned establishments.
The majority of the work within the East and South East Asian (ESEA) Community to investigate, lead, celebrate and rally against anti-Asian sentiment surfaced by the pandemic has been led by the voices of women. From the powerful words of Sambal Shiok’s Mandy Yin calling for support and leadership, to the solidarity and celebratory movement of the hashtag #ESEAEATS, with plenty of investigative journalism and essays in between, it has been a year that Asian women have done much of the heavy lifting.
A food and culture writer by trade, journalist Angela Hui has been an important voice in raising awareness and providing in-depth reporting into everything from Covid’s disproportionate impact on Chinatown, anti-Asian hate crimes and the post-Atlanta shooting’s effects on Asian women in the U.K. Here, she shares her upbringing as a takeaway kid in a small Welsh town, of writers holding themselves accountable, and her Chinese Takeaways project, which celebrates the labour of an unsung – but important – part of Britain.
Growing up as a child of a family-run food business, I imagine that you saw your mother in a working environment?
According to my mum as a baby, I slept in a cardboard chip box in the pantry storage under the stairs by the kitchen while she worked and occasionally checked in on me during service – how I didn’t wake up from the loud extractor fans and jet-engine woks I’ll never know. When we got a bit older, my brothers and I all chipped in to help my parents. From the age of 8, I stood on a plastic stool served customers at the front counter, answered phones, packed orders, fried chips and chicken balls. I have so many great memories of ‘sik fan’ (食飯) our family meal before service – which was traditional Cantonese dishes, far removed from what we served at the shop.
I had to grow up quickly to learn all these skills and had a lot of responsibilities to help run a business and translate everything for my parents because they don’t speak English. At the time I felt I was robbed of my childhood because I rarely got a chance to hang out with my friends. I was constantly embarrassed and ashamed of my working-class takeaway background, but I wear my takeaway badge of honour with pride now.
How did that affect your relationship with food?
For so long, being surrounded by food day in day out was a blessing and a curse. You end up hating the very thing that brought in income, put a roof over your head and what other people from the outside looking in loved. We all had to chip in with the daily repetitive prep work such as peeling prawns, dicing mushrooms, frying poppadoms, chopping cha siu, bagging prawn crackers and whisking giant vats of eggs. These are never-ending tasks, but you do it for the love of the family. With both parents being exceptional chefs – Mum even more so – I was incredibly lucky being able to learn cooking techniques and recipes, and of course, to eat well.
There is an enormous amount of creativity in the translation that happens with migrant families – bringing Chinese food to a palate not familiar with it – how did you see that manifest?
Chinese and Indian takeaways in rural areas [ed note: Angela grew up in South Wales] were people’s introduction to ‘exotic’ foods, so of course people had to be eased into the food, via Anglicised fare, rather than be thrown in the deep end. Fuchsia Dunlops’ excellent piece about Chinese takeaways and not having access to fresh Chinese produce was also a huge factor, too. We didn’t have a Chinatown – it was more of a ‘China street’ in Cardiff, with only a small smattering of Asian ingredients. My parents often smuggled back ingredients in their suitcase from their trips to Hong Kong or made regular monthly trips to Wing Yip in Birmingham, which was our closest big Asian supermarket at the time.
“For so long, my identity and roots were something that I was ashamed of and tried to hide – now, it feels a bit like an outpouring.”
Customers grew accustomed to fried rice, chow mein, sweet and sour and chicken curry and Mum introduced new items on the menu. It was advertised in the window or on the menu board such as sesame chicken, salt pepper chicken or prawns, prawn toast, and mini spring rolls with wood ear mushrooms inside.
How did she balance family life and work life?
Honestly, I have no idea how she did it. She worked 12-hour long days for seven days a week and looked after three children. From prepping the food to running the shop and deep cleaning the kitchen every night, just writing all that down has me exhausted. Mum only finished primary school and Dad dropped out of high school – immigrant parents sacrifice a lot so that the next generation can have a better, safe and healthy life.
Your job is creative, and a form of translation – do you think your upbringing impacted your career?
I started my journalism career in fashion and music, but eventually fell out of love with it and fell into food writing, not realising that that was a viable option. So, it’s come full circle for me. One of the first pieces of food writing I wrote was in 2015 about the decline of dim sum trolleys in the UK. I’ve used a lot of my culture, heritage and upbringing to distinguish myself and to carve out my career. For so long, my identity and roots were something that I was ashamed of and tried to hide – now, it feels a bit like an outpouring. But I’m trying my hardest not to be pigeonholed into a category as a person that only writes about Chinese things.
Writing about these personal topics can be a painful experience. Are there ways that others can take up that responsibility?
I think it’s crucial for writers to take accountability on how they talk to their audience, to write about things respectfully, to research properly or if you’re not an expert on something, you should approach it with curiosity and an openness to the fact that you may only know a small sliver and seek expert knowledge.
“Since starting this, I’ve created a like-minded community of Chinese takeaway kids I never knew existed. It’s like an invisible thread that runs through each one of us that links us back to the motherland.”
I fear of giving away too much of myself to the public domain, which is terrifying and painful because there’s always going to be someone that scrutinises your work or doesn’t agree. There’s also that age-old question whether journalists covering stories should they allow their own emotions to become part of the story? I guess I don’t have the answer to that yet, but I’m working on it.
I always try to interview a diverse range of voices from different backgrounds, ethnicities and ages. Not only does it make for a more interesting read, but it makes it more personal and adds a different perspective. I’m trying my best not to contribute to the sea of, more or less, the same perspectives. I’m always wary of the use of images and clickbait headlines on articles. Normally, I don’t have final say over headlines, but when I’m sourcing images I use BIPOC for the right reasons to represent, amplify and tell the right story – the headline and image are the first two things that people see. I’ve fought hard to not use ESEA imagery for Covid stories and relayed that to the rest of my newsroom because I know how incredibly damaging that can be.
Your Instagram project celebrating British Chinese takeaways celebrates an often hidden history – which is also your history.
I didn’t think anyone would care or want to read, but I guess it’s struck a chord with people because everyone has their favourite local Chinese takeaway, and everyone has a go-to order. I’ve received so many wonderful messages from loads of people from different backgrounds, not just the British Chinese community.
Chinese takeaway families tend to move to or settle in different locations to avoid competition – nearly every British town has at least one Chinese takeaway. This meant that growing up in a takeaway was a lonely and isolated experience because my brothers and I were the only Chinese kids in the village and in school. Since starting this, I’ve created a like-minded community of Chinese takeaway kids I never knew existed or knew how many there were out there. It’s like an invisible thread that runs through each one of us that links us back to the motherland.
Hopefully, this project will be able to tell these unheard stories of the people behind one of the nation’s favourite cuisines; the hardships they’ve had to overcome in order to set up a business in a foreign country; the daily microaggressions and sometimes overt racism they faced; what food they ate, what their day to day was like, and what community they created.
Anna Sulan Masing is a London-based writer and academic, and a co-founder of Sourced Journeys and Cheese Magazine. She is of South East Asian heritage and has written extensively about race, gender, and cultural appropriation in food. The women interviewed are people in her network and those who she has encountered through her work over the years. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.