Damn, I think to myself, stretched out across my bed in the makeshift cinema of my darkened bedroom. Atop my duvet, tie-dyed blue like the Pacific Ocean, sits an empty bowl that contained my “movie snack” that I ate in approximately 5 minutes. I’m watching Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express; it’s my first time seeing it, and my 179th movie since last March, and so late into the pandemic I wonder if it’s a symptom of my longing to hear Cantonese being spoken at length, or for a place that rescinds further from reality into memory as each day passes. In the film, Tony Leung’s character slurps a bowl of instant noodles, adjacent to an open oblong can of black bean dace. I become preoccupied with thoughts of sesame-tinted, bouncy soup noodles and tiny fried dace plucked from a yellow and red tin, each soft black bean bursting with concentrated saltiness, and the oddly satisfying crunch of little fish spines. The food shared between the two protagonists of In the Mood for Love (played by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung), feed the underlying sensuality of the fantasy they weave as they mimic their spouses in an affair. They dine together in cramped quarters–trapped in Leung’s room overnight–picking at the same plates and coaxing wonton noodle soup from metal containers into bowls. As they eat sticky rice, the back of my tongue tingles with the muscle memory of knowing the toasty bitter taste of lotus leaves. I’m reminded of the intimacy of eating out with another person, the shared mmm’s after eating something delicious, the sensation of the surrounding chatter and clatter falling away the deeper the conversation gets. Afterwards I remain in a highly melodramatic disposition; my stomach feels like an endless pit and I don’t know what I’m longing for more, shared platters and laughter with friends in a tightly-packed restaurant, or the deep comfort of sitting at the dinner table with my parents, bowls of white rice in our palms as we pick at a styrofoam container of burnished, glistening roast meats–both fictional scenarios (in current circumstances) that replay in my brain. All that running through my mind, and what I say aloud instead is simply, “I’m so hungry after watching that.”
For the past year and a half, I’ve been living in two states: fantasy and hunger. I’m writing a story about two sisters who are spies that save the world, and a play about another pair of sisters who travel to Hong Kong, although I’m an only child. I write essays on food for my newsletter, Simmer Down, and to do so I dredge old memories from times when I was freer–ramen in Japan, pasta in Venice, hot and crispy bubble waffles from the night markets of my youth. I imagine elbow-to-elbow family meals, fridge-cold fruit after dinner, washing down mooncakes with crisp jasmine tea, moments of respite with my cousins during not-too-hot Summers, us drinking bubble tea and nibbling on creamsicles. These moments are a plenty, as I was raised in a 為食家 (wai sik family) where food is the centrepiece of our occasions. “為食” is a phrase used only in Cantonese, and can be described as an absolute infatuation and devotion to food. It’s to be gluttonous–not for great quantities to consume, but to experience food’s utmost potential, from simple and subtle flavours to those amped up to max volume. For the 為食, food is life; it’s thinking about the next meal while you’re eating, it’s breaking a long streak of intergenerational scarcity by ensuring your loved ones are well fed, and it’s an effective medicine for the soul. On the cusp of the first UK lockdown, on top of being afraid to go outside due to a lethal virus and the heightened potential of assault in our contemporary wave of scapegoating Chinese people instead of looking critically at failing governments, I was also obsessively worried about whether I’d have enough to eat.
My mom loves to remind me that growing up, in reference to the home cooked Chinese meals my dad would produce 6 nights a week, I used to say, “there’s nothing good to eat.” I would sit for extended periods of time at our white formica table staring into my bowl of Cantonese soup with my left hand cradling my head, my neck unable to carry the weight of all my misguided dreams of cheeseburgers and spaghetti. My dad is a trained cook, and there were afternoons when he would pick me up after primary school with little paper sleeves of thick chips or slices of apple pie in tow–he cooked those foods for other people, I thought, why didn’t he cook them at home? I know now. Mentally chasing an unattainable version of life as a kid, I refused to notice the sensory delights evoked by the fragrant steam bursting from our rice cooker every night, the silky warmth of tofu made savoury by braising liquid, the throat-soothing properties of winter melon soup, or the satisfyingly unctuous and fruity juice of a chunk of roasted duck. I got over this as I grew older of course, and as lockdown continued, my desire for these foods became more urgent. In desperate need to taste the familiar, I realized I had to learn how to make everything I wanted from scratch, and began my quest to place myself in the comforting arms of home food.
The process of making home food at times feels habitual, and at other times new and completely laborious–a series of trial and error sessions that have provided unexpected and immeasurable solace. A week into the first lockdown, I dumped a single pork rib and a log of lotus root from our tiny freezer into a pot of water with re-plumped shiitake mushrooms, dried red dates, and slices of ginger. I learned then that lotus root is not fit for freezing, as when it defrosts, the ice crystals embedded into its flesh cause irreparable mushiness. In pre-Rona times I might have been disappointed at the diluted nature of my lotus root soup, but in that moment, stirring the pot while taking a video to send to my parents back in Vancouver, I felt like another person entirely who was performing an act of care that I couldn’t bear to criticize. I learned how to cook a lazy person’s version of Hainanese chicken rice, gently poaching chicken thighs in a liquid of ginger and spring onions, which I continued simmering with the chicken bones until only four small jars worth of rich broth remained, ready for nights of congee, macaroni in soup, and udon with wilted iceberg and homemade char siu.
I studied up on how to make dumplings. In a period where it felt like time was being taken away from me, I was taking time back by learning these laborious processes–standing for long periods in the kitchen, focusing on the consistency of the pork, the elasticity of the dough, and the pressure of my fingertips that had spent too long tapping at my keyboard and gliding over my phone. I took care to freeze the pleated parcels individually on trays before tossing them into a bag, an act that considered the future me, anticipating the days leading up to stressful bi-weekly shops when the fridge was empty.
I ordered the various flours to make my own rice cakes, stirring with water and steaming the opaque mixture before rolling it into the logs that would be cut into bevelled oblongs the next day. I fried them with pork and shredded cabbage, attempting to recreate how I’d eat them at a restaurant, including extra oil so they would leave a gloss on my lips, but it wasn’t the same. Growing up, my grandma used to cook scratch made rice cakes for lunch on school days, stir fried with bean sprouts and pork in a wok that would sear a smoky crispiness to the exterior of some of the noodles, providing a contrast to their springy interiors. Whenever I make rice cakes, I think about her, and of our family around a large round table, digging into Shanghainese breakfast after spending our Sunday morning paying respects to those loved and lost.
Missing family dinners, I subsequently made efforts to perform our traditions during Mid-Autumn Festival and Lunar New Year, re-learning customs I realized I never paid attention to until I had to uphold them on my own. I often ask my parents for advice during our frequent phone calls, our conversations ricocheting solely between COVID, ramblings about the past, and food. They recount their nights prior eating homemade pho, braised beef with daikon, green curry, milk tea ice cream bars dotted with tapioca pearls, and I’m overcome with a sense of feeling 蝕底–a suffering caused by missing out. “When you come home, we’ll eat ______,” is the response to my jealousy. But the three of us know some things might never feel the same again, that while the pandemic has changed our social boundaries and way of life, so much more has happened alongside it that cannot be repaired. When this feeling arises, I’ll hear about times long before I was born, of Hong Kong cart noodles eaten on the sidewalk, or taken home in the same kind of metal container Maggie Cheung carries down that narrow stairwell in In the Mood for Love. We’ll reminisce about my grandma’s cooking, her super stuffed 粽 (rice dumplings) for Dragon Boat Festival, and 鹹水角 (fried glutinous dumplings) and 豆沙角 (red bean dumplings)–pastries referred to collectively in Toisanese as “tay” that she would make exclusively for new year. No one else learned how to make them, and long after we’ve let that loss roll off our backs have we comprehended how integral that food is–not only to our family’s tiny legacy, but to what it means to be diasporic Hong Kongers as we enter a present that is producing, by force, a new generation of exiles.
I often stream Cantopop compilations, like the tantalizingly titled Unforgettable Hong Kong Cantonese Golden Hits 1, or my playlist of English and Cantonese songs assembled under the theme of watching the irreversible change of that which you love. It starts with Hayley Williams singing, “why do memories glow the way real moments don’t?” before slipping into Jacky Cheung’s “每天愛你多一些”(“Loving You More Everyday”). I listen while writing Simmer Down, waxing poetic about the distinctly Hong Kong foods–and the culture that produced them–that both my mother and I were raised on, one generation after another, in two separate parts of the world. I grew up eating in 茶餐廳 (HK cafés), watching HK dramas and listening to Cantonese radio, and spending weekends in Richmond where lit signs stack high at roadsides with Chinese in bold and English as an afterthought–but as a child, I had only been to Hong Kong once, in 1997. I returned 20 years later, unknowingly for the last time. A friend of mine calls Vancouver the “Hong Kong afterlife.” If one believes in afterlives, maybe it’s reassuring knowing that once the past is complete, there’s only the road ahead, but it doesn’t ease the pain of witnessing what could continue to live be sentenced to death, over and over again. I cope with the news by spending a day watching yeast bloom, spilling bread flour, kneading canary yellow dough by hand and shaping them into balls. Hours later, I pull half a dozen pineapple buns with beautifully crinkled tops from the oven. I share the batch with my friend–her first pineapple buns–and ate mine as 菠蘿油, sliced through with a slab of cold Lurpak butter thick as cheese nestled in the centre. All I have capacity for in this stasis is to lean on home food for survival and solace, as a carrier of legacy, of memory.
我經常放廣東流行音樂合輯，譬如標題很吸引人的《香港粵語難忘金曲1》，或者我的英文和粵語歌曲播放列表，主題是看著你所愛的人和事不可逆轉的變化。開頭是海莉·威廉姆斯 (Hayley Williams) 在唱「why do memories glow the way real moments don’t?」，之後是張學友的《每天愛你多一些》。我一邊聽，一邊寫著《慢燉》。我以詩意的語言書寫獨特的香港食物以及孕育它們的文化，在世界的兩個角落，這些味道養大了我和阿媽一代又一代人。我自小在茶餐廳吃飯，看港劇，聽廣東話廣播，週末在列治文度過，路邊是高高掛起的招牌，上面是粗體的中文和後來加上的英文——但其實我只在1997年去過一次香港。20年後，我再一次回去，卻沒想到竟然是最後一次。我的一個朋友稱溫哥華為「香港來世」。如果一個人相信來世，知道一旦走完一生，前方還有直行的道路，或許會感到安心，但這並不能減輕一次又一次目睹本該活著的人被判處死刑的痛苦。為了應對這些消息，我用了一天時間看酵母發酵，灑上麵粉，用手揉搓金黃色麵團並將它捏成球形。幾個小時後，我從焗爐裡拿出六個頂部有漂亮紋理的菠蘿包。我和朋友分享這些菠蘿包——這是她人生的第一個菠蘿包——然後我在我的菠蘿包里塞進一塊厚厚的凍牛油，中間再夾一層一樣厚的芝士，做成菠蘿油吃。在這種停滯狀態下，我所能做的就是依靠家鄉食物來生存和慰藉，作為遺產和記憶的載體。
I lay on my duvet, tie-dyed blue like the Pacific Ocean. As the first story of Chungking Express ends, the protagonist goes for a run, hoping that he’ll sweat enough that his body runs out of water for tears. He checks his voice mail and after receiving a warm birthday message, asks, “if memories could be canned, would they also have expiry dates? If so, I hope they last for 10,000 years.”