Author: May Yu

Title: “Hot Soup in the Chilling Season – A Food Memoir”

Description: This text is a food memoir essay based on the genuine interaction of a former university faculty of English and her beloved students during the 2019-2020 democratic movement in Hong Kong. It recounts the last joyful moments of union and soup-sharing before they are being parted due to political displacement, the personal struggling survival and aftermath of community traumas, and the most treasurable bonding of displaced souls through the common goal of returning home.

From discovering the traditional foodways of an old fishing village to home-cooking for the university hostel residents, the author invites glocal readers to explore Hong Kongers’ cultural roots and self-identities in relation to our social contexts from past to present.

Dramatic to readers, the Everyday of mine and my people’s in displacement times.

Inspired by a study programme assignment submitted in partial satisfaction of the requirements for the Permanent Residency under the Canadian humanitarian measurement ‘lifeboat scheme’ for Hong Kongers. Adapted from the true stories of dreaming in Hong Kong during
2019 and 2021. Written in Canada on 9th July, 2023.

By May YU 9th July, 2023

“The academic world had already been shaken by suspicions that colleagues with a history of rights activism had mysteriously failed to have their contracts renewed. Many feared they were secretly being observed and monitored in the classroom…. bubbubbubbubb… ”

As I was reading the news headline of what happens in my homeland on The Telegraph*, the babbling sound from the kitchen caught my attention. I headed to the kitchen and turned the rice cooker off before the boiling soup splashed out from the pot like the unstoppable Niagara Falls I visited on a conference trip a few years ago. By that time I had never pictured myself residing on this land, displaced from my home and people.

Lifting off the lid of the rice cooker, I saw the white steam rising at once, where the symphonic layers of aroma from the meat, dried seafood, and herbal ingredients of my dragon tongue leaf and dried sea conch soup diffused rapidly through the air in my tiny bachelor apartment.

I couldn’t count how many pots of double-stewed soup I’ve made since my displacement to Canada. All I remember is my habit of double-stewed soup making being established when I first moved from the urban area to a rural fishing village named Tai O at the southwest of Hong Kong during my PhD years a decade ago. Walking between the wooden stilt houses built on rippling waters around the Pearl River Delta from the 18th century, I was fascinated by the local specialties sold at the many dried seafood shops in the small and beautiful community with old legends of mermaids. Ranging from aromatic salted fish, preserved shrimp paste, to sundried scallops, squid, octopus, fish roes, fish maw and more, Tai O’s dried seafood ingredients compose the essential notion of ‘colours, aromas, and flavours’ (色香味) in the villagers’ home cooking. Furthermore, not only have I found my love for dried seafood during my stay in the old fishing town, I’ve also adapted to the villagers’ ancient wisdom of double-stewed soup making.

Double-stewed soup (老火湯, or “Old Fire Soup”) is a unique genre of Cantonese cuisine made with very local ingredients along the southern coast of China, in which the combinations of herbal, dried seafood and meat ingredients vary according to the solar terms in the Lunar calendar. Embracing the Chinese medical philosophy of ‘everyday-diet-as-treatment’, double-stewed soup making reflects the seasonal environmental changes in relation to the wellness of body and mind. Such home cooking is an iconic cultural symbol of ‘love and care from family’ to many Hong Kongers through generations. Even though Hong Kong has developed from a small fishing port a hundred and eighty-two years ago into the international metropolitan of today, cooking and soup making with dried seafood still remain as social practices reflecting our remarkable cultural roots, geographical uniqueness, and distinctive community identities.

Back in my kitchen, I ladled myself a bowl of golden-brown dragon tongue leaf and sea conch soup fresh from the pot. It is soothing like clear broth while the coix seeds thickened the texture so it was not totally watery. The first sip hit my palate with complicated flavours of savoury seafood and salt-marinaded meat, with the sweetness of dried pear slices as well as candied dates where I added to my soup as a finishing touch. The ingredients gave a variety of colours to my bowl of soup. Holding this bowl of piping hot soup in my palm required extra caution as if you’re keeping a jewellery box of memories in your heart.

The heat released from my handcrafted blue-and-white cloisonné bowl was almost burning. It was just like the radiance from the strong sun back on that mid-summer’s day in August two years ago. Three students of mine arranged a special ‘early’ graduation photo-shooting event on our university campus in Hong Kong that summer. It was the last time we could gather in person before one of them and I had to depart from our homeland for safety concerns under certain unspeakable political circumstances – unspeakable yet you could get a picture from the news headline I was reading from The Telegraph. My students invited an independent journalist to be our photographer. As usual, I prepared double-stewed soup the evening in advance, and gave these thirsty soulsthe bottled herbal soup for heat-clearing on the photo-shooting day. I could not recall how many bottles of soup I’ve made for my students since the democratic protests broke out over the city in summer 2019, where everyone residing in Hong Kong were unavoidably involved in the dreadful socio-political hardship since then.

In fact, it is odd to use the word ‘usual’. My students and even myself have found it unusual for a university faculty to have constantly prepared meal boxes and pots of soup for her students residing in hostels. Home cooking and soup making were supposed to be the family-based practices in Cantonese households. And it was sad that I took up this role to make these young adults home dishes and double-stewed soup. The story was almost bearable to start with.

The outburst of Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill protests (Anti-ELAB) in June 2019 had created an unprecedented re-boost of civic consciousness for students and citizens in Hong Kong. University students, in particular, have been severely impacted by physical conflicts arose not only on streets but also on multiple campuses as students defended their home of study against police’s entry. Even for students with no plans of participating in assemblies or strikes, study and campus life had been affected due to the suspension of class and premature end to the semester. As the escalation of clashes between citizens and authorities drew concern worldwide, Anti-ELAB has also raised awareness to these young participants’ physical, emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Witnessing or experiencing police brutality in times of protest, many students, either as protesters or mere civilians, have undergone traumatic moments. Some university hall
residents refrained from going home on holidays to avoid ruined family relationships, giving an example of how intensive conflicts upon different political stances undermine human relations in community. Such social and political traumas persist up to this day has become the collective experience of the everyday among students and citizens across the whole territory.

I started making double-stewed soup for a few students from my Language Studies course. They were the committee members of student unions and thus among the most active participants in the democratic movement. Our trust was built upon I gave them my full support, on behalf of myself but not the institution, to go on strike and boycott attending my class while providing addition help with their study outside class time – usually at midnight or dawn when they were back from everyday black-bloc-style mass protests. To them, what they chose to fight for out there, for our present and future, would be far more vital than what we would discuss in a Language course classroom. And to me, it was never their grades which mattered the most but how they perceived and interacted with this world. After all, the future is ours – but the ‘future’ of these young adults would apparently be longer than my ‘future’. Whatever decisions my students make for their future, I am eager to walk with them, and to bear the same consequences, on the path they choose to take. The path they are willing to have me walking with them, as peers and community members.

Our time of gathering almost every night was significant. It was not only about tutorials, but most importantly, to confirm everyone’s back and safe. The study area of their hostel was not really spacious, but this room decorated with student unions’ banners under the dimming light meant a safe space, at least for a nap and a sip of drink, to these restless students in the long nights.

One night, a guy shared with us he hadn’t been home through the semester to avoid extreme violence from a family member with a different political stance, and hence hadn’t had homemade dinner for quite a while. Another student also expressed financial difficulty for his parents stopped funding his tuition as a disapproval of his civic engagement. He could only afford feeding himself with fast food and staying over at a classmate’s hostel room. Doubtlessly many citizens who supported the democratic movement would offer financial aids, but it was the least form of ‘support’ these students had hoped for. They had been calling for actions of civil resistance from all citizens, and were often disappointed with the idea of ‘donation replacing action’. Their situations and attitudes inspired me to start making fresh meal boxes for them. Instead of mere financial support or even actions of protest, perhaps hot meals could offer them the essential spiritual comfort for
sustaining mental and physical wellness in such a hard time. And of course, I wouldn’t miss out the iconic symbol of home cooking, double-stewed soup.

I ain’t no physician nor medical practitioner. Sadly, witnessing (and in fact personally experiencing) all the impacts of overwhelmingly toxic tear gas on students’ health over months, I made my best attempts to research on Chinese medical theories and made varieties of double-stewed soup for body-nourishment and tackling lung and skin issues. Dragon tongue leaf and dried sea conch soup, for instance, has been one of the soups I often made for students for its strong effects in strengthening the lungs and spleens. Not only did I prepare the portion for my own students, I intentionally made more so that they could share the soup with their hall mates facing similar conditions.

After a several occasions of soup-sharing, my students brought their peers to our gatherings. I was delighted to meet these students from other disciplines for the first time, where I still remember a shy and chubby guy from Humanities thanked me for the soup, saying he was impressed by a professor who made soup and meal boxes for her students, even the ‘unknown’ ones, like family members. That was the very first occasion I met someone whom I didn’t know drank my soup! Thankfully, they all liked the tastes and appreciated the combinations of ingredients. There began our virtual chat groups and regular catch-ups beyond study or protest topics. Eventually we became close friends; they would share with me their everyday ups and downs, and I would not hesitate to ask for their opinion on my own life decisions. I did all my degrees in this university, and it had always been my dream to contribute as a faculty member to my own uni. I had never expected encountering this friendship with my students, my junior fellows, in this most challenging year of teaching-and-learning. The time spent with them has become my fondest memory over my fifteen years in this uni.

My practice of making soup for them kept on, until the one last time we met in person on the ‘pre-graduation’ photo-shooting day on our campus. They borrowed academic gownsfrom their senior fellows or friends from other universities, but found it uneasy to put on without much experience of wearing an academic dress and a hood. I then helped them to put the outfit on. After all, having graduated for three times naturally made me the most experienced one with academic gowns among them. Even the photographer was amused by the scenario, saying that I looked like a big sister helping the younger siblings to dress up. These students were actually from various class years, and none of them were in fact graduating yet. The only reason of them arranging this special ‘exceptionally-early’ graduation photo-taking was the fact that we would not be able to meet up again in the near future. We all knew it, but no one was willing to utter it. We tried our best to make the day cheerful as the last memory of reunion. It was a memorable day, but our emotions were also tangled like the layers of flavours from the very last sip of double-stewed soup in the bottle.

As my memory diffused with the steam from my soup into the air of my bachelor apartment, the bowl of dragon tongue leaf and dried sea conch soup in my palm has cooled down. Separated apart, I am no longer able to make soup for my students. This soup making habit has now become a remedy to keep my heart warm and sustain myself in hope for meeting them at any place in the world one day. Double-stewed soup
is the representation of family’s care and love in Hong Kong traditions. Just as the photographer indicated, to me and my students who have scattered across the world for forced political displacement, we are a family of the same hope. A hope of returning home. The home where we are from, the home where we can sit down and enjoy our sip of hot soup with freedom from the chill of fear.
(2263 words)

*Smith, N. (2022, 2 April). “Chilling effect” of China crackdown and Covid measures prompts record brain drain in Hong Kong. The Telegraph. Last accessed on 4 April 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2022/04/02/chilling-effect-china-crackdown-covid-measures-prompts-record/