A Man-Eats-Man World; and the Empire Writes (and Cooks) Back

David Chung '94, English 34, 1993

The food-producer and food-consumer relationship in Chinese food history finds its modern day manifestation in the relationship between Chinese restaurants and take-outs and their English patrons. Although an inherent power hierarchy supposedly exists, sometimes one cannot determine whether the producer or consumer is better off; in other words, it is not clear who's eating whom. The producer may be making a fool of the consumer even though the consumer holds the buying power and dictates the tastes; the lorry drivers and teenagers think they get the better deal, but the Chens think that they are the exploiter. In fact, Chen thinks "the food he served from the 'tourist' menu was rubbish, total lupsup, fit only for foreign devils" (17). His wife, who takes a similar view of the food they sell, "didn't mind serving lupsup food but she drew the line at mass-poisoning their customers (a question, after all, of a contracting market). Mui's other brainwave was chips [i.e. french fries] (potato, not bamboo) with sweet and sour sauce. Not quite the money-spinner, chips, that Whore Lock and ice-cream were, but still outselling anything else they cooked. They were easy to fry in large quantities" (142).

Note, too, that the Chens take a position that is essentially that of the cultural imperialist. They scorn the food they sell and the British customers who buy it not because it necessarily tastes bad or lacks food value, but because it is not properly Chinese:

"The food they sold, certainly wholesome, nutritious, colourful, even tasty in its way, had been researched by Chen. It bore no resemblance at all to Chinese cuisine. They served from a stereotyped menu, similar to those outside countless other establishments in the UK. The food was, if nothing else, thought Lily, provenly successful: English tastebuds must be degraded as their care of their parents; it could, of course, be part of a scheme of cosmic repercussion. Sweet and sour pork' was their staple, naturally: batter musket balls encasing a tiny core of meat, laced with a scarlet sauce that had an interesting effect on the urine of the customer the next day...All to be packed in the rectangular silver boxes, food-coffins, to be removed and consumed statutorily off-premises...The dishes were simple to cook; well within Chen's capabilities, which was hardly surprising since they had been invented by the Chinese seamen who had jumped ship or retired in East London a generation ago" (105-6).

...if, say, unlikely though it sounded, some of them took it upon themselves to criticize the food as inauthentic...You're quite right,' she would say, forcing extra white rice on them. I congratulate you on your acumen and advise you not to return. We have a living to make, too, you know.' (158).

It is all a business of catering to British tastebuds. The whole affair reflects, in some ways, the symbiotic relationship in colonialism where the issue of cultural hegemony is blurred by the effects of the Empire writing back (and now, cooking back). The invasion of Britain by sweet and sour pork, Asian heroin, and Chinese secret societies is almost a perverted form of reverse colonialism. Consider other cases where the Empire writes back (or cooks back or whatever the case may be) in the works of other postcolonial writers; for example, Bruce Chatwin introduces the idea of "counter-invasion" early in In Patagonia with regard to evolution(Ch.3) and pursues this theme by showing possible Patagonian influences on such canonical figures as Coleridge, Shakespeare, and Darwin. In Sour Sweet, the final consensus among Mui and Lily Appears summed up in the notice posted in their establishment: "MANAGEMENT NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR COOK'S COOKING" (139).


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