A Taste of Both Worlds

David Chung '94, English 34, 1993

Food is a way of maintaining ethnic identity and uniqueness for different cultures. What happens when cross-cooking is attempted? Can there be some kind of synthesis? An English turkey, "a huge bird," clearly resists Chinese cooking: "How did you cook it? It would take ages to braise, dismembered, as one cooked duck. Boiling in the huge washing-cauldron would destroy flavour and reduce nutritional value. The oven was too tiny to accommodate the bird, even had Lily been confident enough to attempt this alien cooking" (177). When the Chens attempt to prepare the big bird for a meal, the result is a grotesque and unrecognizable failure: "Bloody chopped chicken with green ginger sauce might be delicious when prepared by Uncle Lo but a giant half-raw turkey was something other. The meat tasted vile, too, bitter and tough as if the bird's spirit still lingered in its cells" (178). The spirit of an English turkey cannot be transformed into that of Chinese Beggar's Chicken."

However, it is all right to adapt to an alien food, provided it is eaten on its own terms: the Chens "developed a taste for chips themselves, minus sauce, of course." (142). During their trip to the beach, the Chens' major venture outside of their own microcosm to see England, they sample the local fish and chips. "And the food was quite good, really not bad at all. Even Lily, depressed at spending two shillings and sixpence a head, had to concede it was good stuff as she bit a long finger of potato in half" (159).

It is also all right for the Chens to sell western food, such as Whore Lock and ice-cream (140-41), and for Mui to open a fish and chips restaurant (276) so long as the sanctity of the food is preserved. The food may vary from culture to culture, but they ultimately serve the common function of a marker for ethnic identity, one hard for an outsider to decipher. As Lily wonders, "Maybe 'mince, jam tart, and custard' was simply a generic term for food--as one said 'eat rice' instead of simply 'eat' in the traditional evening greeting of the south?" (172) To understand the food is to understand the society--at least to the extent that those born in it ever do. The food metaphor and imagery in Sour Sweet therefore seems to support a plural mosaic model of the post-colonial world where adaptability and flexibility is achieved through an acceptance of differences rather than through a forced synthesis or melting-pot.

How does Sour Sweet's construction of three issues support, contradict, or qualify the following remark about postcolonial culture?

The post-colonial world is one in which destructive cultural encounter is changing to an acceptance of difference on equal terms. Both literary theorists and cultural historians are beginning to recognize cross-culturality as the potential termination point of an apparently endless human history of conquest and annihilation justified by group Œpurity', and as the basis on which the post-colonial world can be creatively stabilized. (Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back. New York: Routledge, 1989, p.36)

It would be interesting to see what kind of a postcolonial world and relationship Man Kee, and Lily and Mui's food businesses, develop into. What kind of model is proposed in other books such as The Bone People (with a sort of Maori renaissance), A Forest of Flowers, and Meatless Days?


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