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Changing Chinese Foodways in Asia

by: David Y.H. Wu and Chee-beng Tan, editors

Hong Kong China: Chinese University Press 2001, Hardbound
ISBN: 962-201-914-5

Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Spring Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(2) page(s): 18

This monograph on Chinese Food Culture uses food as the lens to investigate recent theories in social science concerning ethnicity, identity, and globalization. Its chapters, each by different authors, investigates them in rural South China, cosmopolitan Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, and in Korea and Japan. Specifically, it investigates them at the altar and at the table, in a Pearl River Delta village, when eating yum cha, tasting in a Chinese café in Hong Kong, and eating in Hakka restaurants. It also looks at Hong Kong mothers’ food restrictions during pregnancy, ethnicity and food among Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore, food imagination in Korea, ramen and Peking Duck in Japan, breakfasting in Taipei, and at pork-eating in Asia.

Li Yih-yuan writes in the Foreword, pointing out generalizations in Chinese restaurants, no matter their menu or sign specificity, and points out their symbolic identity and age differences. Li’s look at the impact of traditional Chinese medicine, refined Chinese food, fast food Chinese style, and Chinese food overseas, sets the stage for discussions about how much, what sort, and what concepts guide Chinese food behavior, no matter the region or type. This book’s beginning is a wonderful start to other contributions about global understandings of Chinese food.

The editors' points of view show how and why this book demonstrates some newer anthropological thinking. They do, as do all the chapters and their respective authors, a fine job at looking at general and specific transformations of Chinese food internationally, regionally, and in specific locales. Most specifically, this book looks at Chinese food and cuisine in Asia now. It is the first to do so, and long overdue. What is wonderful is that it is neither academic nor stuffy as is often the case when others have explored folk beliefs and practices, traditional or modern, in Southeast Asia. The chapters show Chinese foods eaten by Chinese and adapted and adopted by non-Chinese adjusting them to their own specific culinary tastes and cultural rules.

The book deals with and describes four major changes. They are: Local ecology and economy, intermixing of Chinese cuisines, localization adaptations, and changes due to globalization and the intermixing of local and non-local foods. It ends with a concluding commentary by Sidney Mintz who poses an interesting issue of real versus non-real eating as vehicles that express deep emotions. He looks at the habits of mind in some of the chapters, distribution and human needs and desires, and the aesthetico-sensory roles and models that food takes. His last paragraph highlights important features of the book, namely its sensitivity to issues, willingness to think, sometimes outside of the box, and the ability to collect and share information. This helps the authors and the editors achieve their goals, namely demonstrating an understanding of and sharing changes occurring to Chinese food.

Overall, this is a phenomenal look at variety and depth of changing Chinese food habits in China and in Southeast Asia. Everyone interested in Chinese food can learn from it as they see into the many changes taking place. They will see better and understand more about Chinese food changes taking place in every country and city in the world. China scholars need to read and reread this book. It is loaded with information and ideas for further investigations. Always, one needs to ask what are the shortfalls of a book, and this one does have one. It is a problem in many otherwise fine and valuable books about food; it has no index. This is easily remedied in this era of computers if one allows readers who so desire, the opportunity of acquiring the book on a CD. There it is easy to search for items read about but not recalled when wishing to refer back to them. Editors and Publisher, are you listening?

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