They’ve Got The Spirit

British daily The Guardian made an offering. So did broadcaster the BBC. No one is happy. Most are 😱

The Guardian’s CNY suggestions. Photos: The Guardian

By Zhao Guozhu

In the spirit of graciousness, I’d just have a laugh, a big laugh, 大笑一场. You would have read the reports and reactions by now. If you have not, let me have the pleasure. It was all about what to cook for the festive season. First, it was The Guardian with their not festively plated “pork and crab dumplings”, placed atop a sheet of joss paper (金纸, jinzhi, also known as 冥纸, mingzi or hell paper). Then there was the BBC with their dish of “lo mein” (the Cantonese pronunciation of 捞面, laomian, or what we know as dry noodles, not what the BBC described as “actually a very simple egg noodle stir fry”) next to a pair of envelopes—one of them, a hongbao (红包), the other, for use at funerals, on which it is clearly written 吉儀 (吉仪, jiyi or auspicious yi). The latter is usually given by the family of the deceased to the attendees of the funeral as a gift of appreciation (谢礼, xieli). Here, it is common to place in the envelope a small towel, candy, and a coin.

You can imagine the online shock and disdain, especially in this part of the world, where many of us are deep in the preparation of Chinese New Year. The Guardian heard or read them too. So did the BBC. The paper replaced that photograph with one that is missing the offensive joss paper. The broadcaster was more brutal—they deleted the picture altogether. The recipe that follows is now without a visual to tell readers what “lo mein” is. The thing that came to my mind: Why did the food stylists of the two shoots not think about what they had placed next to the dishes? The Guardian spread was attributed to Marie-Ange Lapierre (food styling) and Pene Parker (prop styling). Westerners must find it hard to style Asian food. On a plain plate, they don’t know how to make the dishes look good. So they have to resort to styling tricks, such as the use of items to exoticise the subject of the photograph, even if it means prop-hunting in a 香烛店 (xiangzhudian, joss and candle shop)!

BBC’s “lo mein”. Photo: BBC

There is something disconcertingly simplistic here too: As dumplings (饺子, jiaozi) “are traditionally served at the lunar new year feast”, The Guardian declared, they have to be styled with some assurance to the angmo creatives—something “traditional”. (Mostly northern Chinese eat jiaozi for the first meal of the Lunar New Year.) For many stylists in the West tasked to put together an image related to Chinese culture, anything that comes with Han characters (sometimes even Japanese text will do) or are at variance with their own aesthetical familiarity can pass of as inspired by China. It did not help that The Guadian’s dumplings could be gyozas and the BBC’s “lo mein” could be mee goong haeng (Thai dry noodles with prawns). Nothing about the two dishes say 中国菜 (Chinese food), so they need obvious visual cues, even extraneous ones.

Surely, they have knowledgeable people they could ask. Uncle Roger, perhaps? James Wong? Heck, Gemma Chan? I thought that following the 2018 fiasco over the Dolce & Gabbana ad, which showed a Chinese model eating a massive cannoli with chopsticks (both The Guardian and the BBC published reports), brands and the media too would be more mindful of how they effect representations of Chinese culture and cuisine. What would the British say if The Straits Times featured haggis served in a ciborium? Or, fish and chips wrapped in a (funeral) order of service? To The Guardian and the BBC, food prepared for Chinese New Year is for welcoming the start of spring, not the end of life. 别客气. You’re welcome.

One thought on “They’ve Got The Spirit

  1. Pingback: Oh, BBC. Grrr… | Style On The Dot

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