Food as Anti-Racist-Action: Clarence Kwan on Chinese Protest Recipes

Clarence Kwan, the author of Chinese Protest Recipes, is a leading voice in the food, racial equity and justice movements. Toronto-based, Kwan is the fourth generation in his family to work in a Chinese restaurant. The Paper. spoke to Kwan on Sept. 27.

The Paper.: You have put out a zine called Chinese Protest Recipes. Can you break down for our readers how you view ancestral Chinese cookery as being an inherent act of protest, when executed within “Western society”?

Clarence Kwan: I think what the pandemic has revealed is a lot of, obviously, overt and covert racism towards Chinese families and towards BIPOC communities. The type of racism and discrimination is the same old story that we’ve heard, or I’ve heard, for decades. It’s been going on for, like, hundreds of years. It’s such a boring-ass story. And a lot of the impact, on Chinese communities, has to do with food. It’s what we eat, like, oh, the raccoon, or whatever the fuck it is. It’s all the same, like very boring, very uncreative racism. So, in terms of eating Chinese food, consuming Chinese food every single day, meaning the way your ancestors ate, is for me, leaning into our full 360 degree Chinese identity. Or, for me, my Chinese and my Canadian identity, like full stop, unapologetically. It is about getting what I want, when I want, how I want, right in your face, and there is nothing you can do about it, because I’m not afraid of any of that [racism] coming my way or making me feel any type of way. So, I think in terms of Chinese food and using what’s on your plate as a form of resistance, being unapologetic about who your ancestors were, how they ate, and how we eat today, in a Western society, it should not be a source of shame. It should be something that we should be proud of, that everyone should be proud of. But because of the way that Chinese communities have been attacked, I see this as a very meaningful form of everyday protest.

So why these recipes? Do any specific recipes you include have a particular meaning in your efforts to bring about change?

They all have meaning in that these are all dishes that I actually want to share, just from a food perspective. Some are classics and some are potentially new classics but they all have a bit of storytelling to them. They all have connections to my personal story and also the issues that we’re dealing with today. Whether that is discrimination or solidarity or racism or the pandemic.

Here in the U.S., it’s arguably Cantonese food that most often represents the immensely diverse 5000-plus years of Chinese cuisine. That said, having been fortunate enough to spend some time in and around Hong Kong, I can attest that Cantonese food can be amazing. Still, most of it found here tends to be a faded simulacrum of the real deal. What makes Cantonese, or more generally Southern Chinese cooking, tasty?

I would say the number one thing to know is, similar to real deal Italian food, is that it is all about freshness and the quality of ingredients. So, in terms of Cantonese food it really is a stripped down, very simplistic, very pure type of cuisine. It relies on very few ingredients. And it relies on the freshness of the ingredients. Being close to the water, the quality and variety of seafood is immense and that fresh fish and shrimp at your doorstep is crucial. But when you translate that into, you know, Chinese-American food, that often just doesn’t exist. That is huge and part of the difference between what you would probably get in Hong Kong versus what you might get in, let’s say Idaho.

How can the conversation about dismantling white supremacy within the food industry translate into action? Do any recent developments make you hopeful that this revolution will manifest?

I think a lot of recent events and action has made me very hopeful. Number one, the fact that people are listening. That people, for the most part, are engaging in very uncomfortable, very real, very intense topics and discussions that require a lot of unlearning. And so that, for one, I find that extremely powerful that a lot of people are willing to engage and sit down and have these difficult conversations. With regards to actual white supremacy in the system, I think we’re probably at the beginning in terms of looking at food production, in terms of migrant workers, in terms of tipping, in terms of who’s running the kitchens, in terms of representation and journalism. I think food is no different from any other sector. If you just look at the numbers, if you look at the percentages of people who are in power, and people who have decision making power, it is overwhelmingly disproportionate. And that is no different from any other sector; it needs to have intense scrutiny and the actual system needs to be revisited in order to get to a better place in terms of the quality of representation.

100 percent of the proceeds from your publication, Chinese Protest Recipes are being donated to the civil rights advocacy nonprofit Color of Change. What do you want readers to know about this organization?

They’ve been at the forefront of the racial equality conversation in America. They’ve been doing a lot of the real work in terms of pushing the conversation into more formal, prominent places, into media, into panel discussions. So, in terms of impact, they are one of the foremost organizations in America at the frontlines of the fight. I’’s an organization that I believe in.

On what may be a lighter note, you use the handle God of Cookery on Instagram. Have you taken any lessons that can be applied to the fight against systemic racism and other injustices from world famous Hong Kong actor, writer, director, Stephen Chow’s films, particularly the 1996 tour de force God of Cookery?

You know, I actually think that is a real cool question. If you look at Chow’s movies, he’s always been a champion of the underrepresented, the working class, the kind of nobodies of the world. If you look at the cast of characters in his comedies, they’re basically faces from the underbelly of Hong Kong society. And these are always like the nobodies that hope to turn into somebody. He’s always been the champion of both Hong Kong culture and the working-class people that built it. I’ve always wanted to fight for everyday people, working-class people; and if you look at Chinatowns across the world, they’re populated by people who are not represented. And so those are the people I write for, and I think they are the people Stephen Chow has spoken for.

This pandemic has hit restaurants around New York City’s predominantly Cantonese Chinatown particularly hard. Because many cherished spots are located on narrow-winding side-streets and do not have the ability to create outdoor seating as mandated by the City. Where you are in Toronto has the fallout from the pandemic been pushing businesses and families out of the historic Chinatown? What can be done to combat this?

Well, I just came back, an hour before this call, from Furama in Chinatown, one of our institutions. This bakery has been around for 30 years. Tomorrow’s the last day. It’s becoming really normalized, this kind of thing. And it’s gonna be super scary. I mean, obviously, for all restaurants, big or small, fine dining, whatever. But particularly, these kinds of places and institutions. They are for working-class people. They serve buns for $1, because that’s all a lot of people can afford. You take away their institutions, basically places where they can hang out every single day, you’re talking about the decimation of actual communities, which is really brutal to watch.

To connect with Clarence Kwan and get info on how to order his Chinese Protest Recipes, check out his Instagram account: @thegodofcookery

Max B. Mangè

Max B. Mangè grew up in New York City and Albuquerque. Has lived/studied/worked in Mexico, Indonesia, Taiwan, India, Japan and Australia. His passions include travel, gastronomia, crafting/collecting...

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