China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Chinese food is a ubiquitous part of our global culinary landscape. But what, exactly, makes Chinese food Chinese? While PRC state discourse designates particular dishes as nationally representative, local debates rage over everything from the proper way to eat dumplings to what constitutes “traditional” Lunar New Year fare. Outside the Sinophone world, diverse cuisine is judged as “authentically” Chinese based upon its proximity to essentialized imaginings of Chinese-ness -- imaginings that are historically and geographically contingent but derive power from their assumed universality and timelessness.
This panel interrogates the category of Chinese food by historicizing its emergence and significance worldwide. We contend, first, that Chinese food is a historically constructed category influenced by transnational flows of goods and labor, international and national politics, and global white supremacy; and second, that it shaped, and was shaped by, global Chinese identities. Gina Tam historicizes restaurant classification in early twentieth-century Hong Kong, arguing that categories like “Chinese” and “European” were determined as much by an establishment’s licensing, serving style, decor, ownership and staff as by its cuisine. Yvon Wang traces discourses surrounding dairy in Maoist China, which derided dairy as decadent and imperialist while simultaneously praising it as integral to new China’s socialist diet. Michelle King shows how food writing in post-1949 Taiwan became a medium for Mainland refugees to connect with their lost homeland. Finally, Erica Maria Cheung takes us to the USA, arguing that the post-WWII mass-production of Chinese food shaped a racialized Chinese-ness that white Americans both commodified and dehumanized.