This past January nine students from the Public Humanities program left their perspective winter break destination and headed to Hong Kong, to work on two projects under the guidance of Professors Susan Smulyan and Robert Lee. Through the course of a week the students worked in two groups, in collaboration with faculty and students from Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). One group focused on a cultural interpretation project with CUHK Professor Oscar Ho (look out for their work at the “Along The Edge Arts Festival” in April). The other group, worked on a project exploring food in Hong Kong (and that’s us).
A Public Humanities Dilemma
Team Food, as we called ourselves, was originally tasked with working with noted Hong Kong food scholar and CUHK professor Sidney Cheung to produce a memo in support of naming Hong Kong a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. From a cursory dive into Sidney Cheung’s work, we were aware of Hong Kong’s longstanding, dynamic culinary history. Excited to learn more, we arrived to Hong Kong eager and hungry, only to discover that the project to cite Hong Kong as a City of Gastronomy was on pause. Like many things related to the Public Humanities, and with cultural heritage work in general, we were forced to think on our feet and ultimately pivot. What would we do now? We thought through potential new projects, ran through the ethics of working on such a large topic--food--for such a short period of time, and we came to the conclusion that we knew very little about both Hong Kong and its cuisines. Recognizing this, we decided to be transparent in our position as visitors, not experts. While we would never be able to know nearly as much about food in Hong Kong as its citizens and Professor Cheung, we would be able to learn more about the area as outsiders engaging with its culinary scene. Thus, through our new project we sought to learn about Hong Kong from our own perspective, through its food (read: we ate a lot). Below we will take you through some of our meals and introduce you to the people we met along the way.
Tai Po Wet Market
On our first full day in Hong Kong, Professor Cheung (Sidney) took our group on a tour of Tai Po Wet Market. Hong Kong has over 100 wet markets, retail space where vendors sell raw seafood, meat, and produce. We spent a few hours exploring Tai Po, one of the largest markets in the area. We began on the floor comprised of mainly produce stalls. Many vendors were selling fresh fruits and vegetables, but some also sold dried goods like mushrooms, beans, and dehydrated seafood. Sidney explained that local people frequent markets like these to buy food on a nearly daily basis, to be prepared that same day – an occurrence that might contrast the average American’s weekly haul from Target.
On the lower level we checked out the fish market which was beaming with fresh seafood ready for purchase. Sidney showed us how to tell if certain breeds of fish were raised in captivity or in the wild by observing their size and the colors of their fins. Some vendors were selling products that could only have been fresher if they actually had just caught the fish themselves.
On the top floor of the market was a cafeteria filled with hot food stands. We grabbed lunch at the busiest time of the day: a brilliant move both in terms of experiencing the space at its height and yet also a terrible one for easing into a new situation. Sidney led us to a table which was large enough for our big group, and we all went our separate ways to pick up the food from that we wanted. Several of us followed Sidney’s suggestion and stopped by a stall that sold traditional Cantonese noodles and dumplings. Back at the table, everyone shared the dishes that they chose and we ate communally, while swapping food and stories from our earlier time in the market’s lower floors. While hectic at times, and not without some cultural miscommunication (apparently you should order the majority of your food from the stalls closest to your table, oops!), our time in Tai Po Market was a dynamic introduction into Hong Kong’s multidimensional culinary world.
Kee Wah Bakery
In addition to the many different dumplings we tasted over the trip, we tried several other kinds of tasty treats, such as at the Kee Wah Bakery. There we met with Louis Cheung, the Brand Archive Officer who talked to us a little about the history of the bakery, founded in 1938, and its impact on Hong Kong cuisine. Through tiny 3D models and old black and white photos, we were able to visualize families coming in to order bakery goods for celebrations, festivals, or daily treats. The Kee Wah Bakery symbolizes tradition; something passed from generation to generation, and a way to celebrate hard work and perseverance in a time when many stores and bakeries faced extreme hardships. The store is filled with pops of colors, reds and yellows, and individual wrappings and tins decorated with beautiful scenes of Hong Kong or images of pandas and celebrations of Chinese New Year. Before heading to the adjoining Tea Room for lunch, we filled our bags with treats, including pineapple cakes, cookies, teas, and more. Before we sat down for lunch, Louis ordered us each our own egg tarts. Warm with a sweet and delicate crust, the tarts tasted delicious and provided the perfect way to end our tour of this historic bakery.
Faculty Member’s House
Nestled on the top of the large hill of the Chinese University of Hong Kong was the home of a faculty member, Professor Ping-Chen Hsiung, who was our host for the evening. The apartment was filled with pleasant conversation from students and professors, delicious food, and of course, wine. We were informed this meal was not a usual evening dinner for the family, but instead a display of hospitality and celebration. Centered in the table was a large, beautiful pig, with many additional side dishes including vegetables, rice, and soup. In addition to the main entree, the hosts included a dish filled with prawns, chicken, and pieces of pork, a traditional Cantonese meal. Throughout dinner, we learned more about social gatherings in Hong Kong and the difficulty in hosting larger groups like ours in the small apartments, where the majority of Hong Kong residents live. We learned that our host’s home, as part of university housing, was nearly three times the size of a typical Hong Kong apartment. In the average apartment, a kitchen is only large enough for one person to cook. Thus, many Hong Kong residents go out to eat often or rely on the services of foreign domestic workers to prepare meals. Speaking with Professor Hsiung and her colleagues, we learned a lot about home cooking and the ways urban, densely populated living might impact who can be in the kitchen and who can pass down family recipes.
After these three different culinary experiences, we were able to explore on our own around the more urban parts of Hong Kong. During this time, we experienced many facets of the city’s food: street food to high end dining; dim sum to Indian food; night market finds to pricey nightlife cocktails.
At the start of the trip, we now realize that we were a bit naive about the culinary landscape of Hong Kong. We struggled with our role as both scholar and visitor, wanting to work on a cultural project but not overstep our boundaries; this can be the challenge of doing cultural work in many settings. How do we tell stories that are not our own? We decided to lean into this tension, and be transparent. The stories we encountered are not ours, and we recount them now through our lens--flawed, condensed, but also appreciative.
Johanna Obenda is a MA student in Public Humanities and a graduate fellow of the Study of the Public History of Slavery at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. Her academic interests surround multimedia storytelling and explorations of the ways public-facing institutions engage with narratives of enslavement and race.
Alyson Myers is a second-year is the Public Humanities Master’s Program. She is interested in museum education, history, and making museum spaces more inclusive and accessible.