115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Peering through the Wok: Concepts of Home and Identity in Diasporic Chinese Celebrity Chefs’ Food Narratives and Memoirs

Jacqui Kong, Monash University (Malaysia)

In this paper, I explore how the concept of ‘home’ is depicted in the culinary memoirs, narratives, and television programs of diasporic Chinese celebrity chefs such as Kylie Kwong, Poh Ling Yeow, and Ching-he Huang. I utilize textual analysis in order to examine these rich visual media texts authored by the chefs, such as the cooking television programs which they host, and the cookbooks which they have written.


Marianne Hirsch, in her book, “Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory”, outlines how family photographs can be powerful records of personal and familial history, yet at the same time, possess deceptive means of ordering and aligning our ‘vision’ and interpretation of what we see, in a certain manner or direction.

It is Hirsch’s overarching concept which I draw upon as I analyze the media texts in which selected diasporic Chinese celebrity chefs such as Kylie Kwong (Australian-Chinese), Poh Ling Yeow (Malaysian-Australian-Chinese), and Ching-he Huang (Taiwanese-American-Chinese), have appeared in and authored personally. I suggest that in their television programs and cookbooks, one may find a rich amount of detail which reveals not just recorded recipes and techniques for cooking Chinese food and dishes, but also a personal and collective recording of what ‘Chinese’ identity means to them. This is made even more tangible as these chefs have authored cookbooks that also function as food and travel memoirs, for example, traveling back to their ancestral family homes in China or Taiwan.

As diasporic Chinese individuals, these chefs have profound and vivid memories and also current experiences of what it means to ‘be’ Chinese in a place that is not China. It is therefore the ways in which they describe their experiences and feelings about ‘home’ and personal and collective identity through the food which they cook and eat, which I wish to explore in this paper.

 I will thus conduct a textual analysis of the content of their cookbooks and television programs, whilst at the same time drawing attention to the particular visual mediums of these texts and their implications. As these two types of media texts are primarily visual in nature, I propose that they are rich in meaning, and contain subtle nuances which tell us more about diasporic identity and its close connection with food, memory, community, tradition and culture.

In order to do so, I will also analyze the particular filmic medium of the cooking television shows which these chefs host and appear in. By drawing upon Bill Nichols’ theory of the documentary as being “persuasive” and constructed in nature, I examine how these documentaries surrounding food and food preparation are designed in particular ways in order to convey specific meanings through definitive audiovisual signs and cues.

In this manner, I hope to be able to elicit new ways of understanding and watching-reading such television programs and cookbooks which these celebrity chefs both host and author. In line with PAMLA’s conference theme this year, of “The Sense of Sight: Visuality, Visibility, and Ways of Seeing”, I offer contemporary methods of analyzing these popular audiovisual media texts which feature celebrity chefs, and the manner in which they articulate their identities through their food. 

Topic Area: