My grandmother does not cook for the white gaze

The reputation of MSG is tainted with racism. Cheryl Chow unravels the story of the so-called ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.’
Illustration: Wendy Wong.

Pit — My grandmother does not cook for the white gaze

This feature originally appeared in Issue 09: MSG.

You do not fold the paper wrapper into a rest for your chopsticks, which you usually do. You do not chat with the Cantonese waiter, who knows you’re from Hong Kong, which you usually do. You do not ask for the off-menu 魚香茄子 (braised aubergine with minced pork), which you usually do. Sitting across from your new American friends, Jack and Jill, you unfold the laminated menu. ‘Oh my god should we try chicken feet?’ Jack cackles. ‘I’m down to try weird stuff but let’s not get the super greasy gross saucy stuff,’ Jill orders. ‘I don’t want a headache later.’ You order the dishes you want the least; the dishes you imagine they will make fun of the least. In English, of course. 

The food comes. You feign suspicion with your eyes. You feign clumsiness of your chopsticks-holding hand. ‘Gross,’ you lie. ‘This sauce is so sticky and gloopy.’ You are overcome with guilt, shocked by your readiness to betray. Where did you even learn to substitute your pride for shame? You think of your family back in Hong Kong and imagine them watching you in disappointment. Jack’s laughter snaps you out of your guilt and back at the round table in Hei La Moon Restaurant in Chinatown, Boston. They are picking at the chicken feet. You forgive yourself for your temporary betrayal, because it makes you feel safe.

Since the pandemic, Chinese restaurants in the West have been hit especially hard: naturally with the closure of the restaurant industry, but also with the life-threatening reality of anti-Asian violence. This violence subscribes to the myth that Asians are a monolith, and that this monolith is responsible for Covid-19. 

In Oregon, Asian-owned businesses have been targeted, vandalised, robbed. In San Francisco, the 84-year-old Thai immigrant Vicha Ratanapakdee was brutally and fatally assaulted in February. In New York City Subway, two elderly Asian women were struck in the head and 61-year-old Filipino-American Noel Quintana was slashed across the face with a box cutter. In London’s Chinatown, a bakery was vandalised with black paint, and also in central London, a 23-year-old Singaporean student was beaten up and told ‘we don’t want your coronavirus in our country’. A Chinese lecturer at the University of Southampton was also beaten up. In Paris, a group of Japanese citizens was attacked with acid. In Atlanta, six Asian women working at massage parlours were shot and murdered in a rampage. All this year, all in 2021. And the list continues.

Western media has made East and South-East Asians the defining face of the coronavirus, thanks to its unnecessary and misleading insistence on using images depicting them on coronavirus-related news. As if to say, ‘here’s the representation you were begging for’. The sub-narrative of the coronavirus (referred to by Donald Trump repeatedly as ‘Kung Flu’ or ‘the China virus’) has reignited century-old false stereotypes about Asian food – and thus, Asian people – being dirty, diseased, unsanitary, exotic, abnormal. Public narratives lead to public sentiments, passively or subconsciously, being accepted as the truth. But the narrative that bat-eating Chinese people were to blame for the pandemic fails to take into account that ‘exotic’ animals are not part of the mainstream diet for people in China, nor for Chinese diaspora across the world, and that the meat-eating history of many Western countries isn’t even that different to China’s.

So, when we say food has the power to unite, what kind of unity are we imagining? Are we forgetting that in discrimination, there is also unity: a collective sense of ‘us versus them’?  Can good food negate racism? Classism? Sexism? Or is the experience of eating another culture’s food only a superficial, temporary window, out of which one stretches their comfort zones for self-satisfaction? Is food rooted in a common humanity, as a tool to deeply understand and appreciate our differences? Or is food weaponised to confirm our biases, projections and assumptions about others? How can we protect ourselves from internalising these biases, when sometimes it is a means of survival?

The reputation of MSG (monosodium glutamate) is tainted with racism. MSG was invented by the Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 and marketed and sold under the Ajinomoto brand to China and the US in the following decades. The product saw more success in the US than in China, where it was seen as a threatening symbol of Japanese imperialism. By the 1950s, the use of MSG was widespread in Asia; and in America, it was found not only in restaurants, but also in breakfast cereal, TV dinners, frozen vegetables, condiments, baby food and canned soup. MSG was inexpensive, convenient and added umami to meatless dishes. It made sense that MSG was popular…until it wasn’t.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred all Chinese workers from entering the US, was repealed in 1943. This led to a gradual increase of Chinese restaurants in the States, which at the time mostly served American versions, or derivatives, of Cantonese food. The relaxation of immigration laws in 1965 also led to an increase of immigrants from other parts of China, such as Sichuan, Shanghai and Hunan, and consequently, their food. 

Three days after April Fools’ Day 1968, The New England Journal of Medicine published a letter submitted by Dr Robert Ho Man Kwok of the National Biomedical Research Foundation in Maryland. The letter started like this: ‘For several years since I have been in this country, I have experienced a strange syndrome whenever I have eaten out in a Chinese restaurant.’ 

The ‘syndrome’ that Dr Robert Ho Man Kwok described was a combination of fatigue, headaches and ‘numbness in the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and back’, that would come fifteen to twenty minutes after eating the first dish. After listing out and eliminating common ingredients in Chinese cooking as the cause for these symptoms, he posits: ‘Others have suggested that it may be caused by the monosodium glutamate seasoning used to a great extent for seasoning in Chinese restaurants.’ 

In the weeks that followed, The New England Journal of Medicine published many letters that, without scientific evidence, affirmed the validity of the quick slur of ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’. Racist newspaper headlines like ‘Chinese Food Make You Crazy? MSG is No 1 Suspect’, ‘Kwok’s Queeze’, ‘Chinese Chow Numbs Some’ and ‘In Hong Kong it’s Dog or Snake at Lunch Now’ spread the misinformation like wildfire. In defence, Chinese restaurant-owners raced to plaster giant ‘No MSG’ signs at their storefronts and on their menus, despite extensive scientific research that found no relationship between MSG intake and the so-called ‘syndrome’. On the other hand, Campbell’s canned soups, which contained MSG, was pardoned from this newfound scare. But of course – unlike Chinese-American food, Campbell’s soup was ‘American’ – inferred white – enough. ‘You know what causes “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”? Racism,’ the late, great American chef and writer Anthony Bourdain said on the television show Parts Unknown in 2016. 

In an episode of the podcast This American Life, producer Lily Sullivan uncovers a strange update to the myth of ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’: a retired surgeon, Dr Howard Steel, had come forward claiming to be the author of Dr Robert Ho Man Kwok’s letter. He claimed that the 1968 letter was written after his doctor friend bet that an orthopaedic surgeon like Steel could write a baseless letter and have it published in The New England Journal of Medicine. He claimed that the name Ho Man Kwok was a play on “human crock”, that Chinese food wasn’t the point of the letter, and that he did not anticipate the decades of damage that would follow. A white man slandering Chinese restaurants as yellowface as a late April Fool’s. Hilarious… 

But the plot twist twists again. When Sullivan, the reporter Michael Blanding and professor Jennifer LeMesurier further investigated Steel’s claim, they found it strange that a real Dr Robert Ho Man Kwok existed at a real National Biomedical Research Foundation. By that time, both Ho and Steel were dead. So, they reached out to Ho’s children, who told them proudly that Ho did, in fact, write the letter. They reached out to Steel’s daughter too, who was convinced that her father’s confession was merely a prank.

Could it be that Dr Robert Ho Man Kwok, a Cantonese immigrant medical researcher, wrote this letter with an earnest concern for the side effects of MSG? Was his concern planted by internalised racism, and fuelled by America’s fear and distrust of the unknown in the 1960s? Was his letter just a way of distancing himself from the other ‘dirty, dangerous, exotic, foreign’ Chinese immigrants? Could it be that it was his way of feeling safe? An act of assimilation, of survival? Regardless of intention, Chinese restaurants and other Asian restaurants suffered. 

Merriam-Webster only revised their definition – which the established MSG food brand Ajinomoto had to petition for – of ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ in 2020, a definition they hadn’t updated since the 60s. Should it take 60 years for a dictionary organisation to acknowledge the weight of words? Good writing and racism have never been mutually exclusive: ‘He offered us a mess of birds’ nests; also, small, neat sausages, of which we could have swallowed several yards if we had chosen to try, but we suspected that each link contained the corpse of a mouse, and therefore refrained,’ Mark Twain wrote about his visit to Chinatown in 1864. 

We may never know who the real author of the letter is. Racial othering has existed centuries before Dr Ho and Dr Steel and will continue to exist for as long as systems of white supremacy exist. Giant ‘No MSG’ signs are still plastered on storefronts of restaurants in Chinatown and even of restaurants in Asia. The numbness, fatigue and palpitations of racism linger on violently, plaguing generations, gradually radiating to the rest of the world and back.

‘Don’t eat out too much la. Restaurants here use a lot of MSG,’ my dad would warn me whenever I returned to Hong Kong. ‘Unlike in America. You’re probably used to healthier foods now,’ he’d say. Growing up in Hong Kong, I was surrounded by the same myth of MSG – that it was harmful – just without the label ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’. There are a small number of restaurants that claim to serve food with “no added MSG”, found mostly in neighbourhoods where there are more Western expats migrants. Although MSG wasn’t as villainised in Hong Kong, it was still understood widely as a harmful ingredient. The misinformation from the West, interpreted by some as superior knowledge, has forever altered the consensus of the mainstream’s perception on MSG. Racism transcends borders, and can be exported and imported just as easily, if not more easily, as an ingredient can.

Amidst all the present chaos and confusion about Hong Kong’s cultural and political identity, there lies a danger of romanticising the colonial past. It is the same danger that once convinced me that beauty and pride was reserved only for white faces and white bodies: not for me. It is the same danger that once shamed me into lying, in a classroom of white British girls, about what language I spoke at home. I grew up looking into a false mirror, internalising the violent reflections of the white gaze. 

In 2013, The Myanmar Times’ resident chef Phyo Arbidans, having moved back to Myanmar after living in Australia, regurgitated the baseless Western myths of MSG in a piece about processed foods: ‘Some of the side effects caused by MSG include headaches, nausea, dizziness, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, a skin rash and ringing ears.’ In 2014, Vietnamese-Californian food writer Lien Hoang paralleled Arbidans’ accusations against MSG in her piece for Asia Life Magazine, claiming that local Vietnamese people have built up a tolerance for MSG, and that ‘back home in the United States, there’s far more anxiety about MSG in soups, processed meats and canned vegetables. And of course: in Chinese food (equally, Vietnamese food), which hasn’t helped that cuisine’s low-quality reputation.’ 

It is this eager readiness to accept and glorify Western stereotypes of Asian food that enables their sinister whitewashing and bastardisation of it. Our food is taken from our ‘dirty’ hands and made clean; lazily homogenised for profit; colonialised over and over again; co-opted, made a mockery of, erased, and then, we are gaslit. ‘If a dish hasn’t been eaten or reimagined by a white person, does it really exist?’ asks restaurant critic Soleil Ho. From systemic racism to internalised racism, from an opinion letter in a medical journal to a Yelp review, the white gaze – as it was designed to – either dictates or is catered to.  

But food is about survival. Resilience. Community. Care. Food is my grandmother’s love language. The mountains of work that need to be done globally to dismantle systems of white supremacy must not obscure our many reasons for celebrating our food and our stories. Chefs like Momofuku’s David Chang, Junzi Kitchen’s Lucas Sin, 886’s Eric Sze and artists/writers like Ingrained’s Eda Yu and Gabrielle Widjaja have been expanding and reclaiming the discourse on Asian food, and have also been mobilising to raise funds and awareness about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) hate crimes, as in the #EnoughIsEnough campaign and the Protect Our Elders project. 

In my grandmother’s dining room, I spin the turntable; a gallery of her best dishes. I wheel the 咕嚕肉 (sweet and sour pork) in front of me. I saturate my blue rice bowl with the vibrant traffic light colours of the dish and devour, selfishly, most of it. There has been another anti-Asian attack, this time in Boston, an elderly woman, the TV reports. I hold my chopsticks incredibly well, and I eat incredibly well. I eat with grateful acknowledgement that my grandmother is not an immigrant in the West. I eat thinking of the grandmas and grandpas in Chinatowns everywhere, wishing I could protect them more fiercely than how I tried to protect myself in Chinatown, Boston. I eat with no audience in mind. My grandmother does not cook for the white gaze. 

You can help by donating to grassroots organisations in this list compiled by Eda Yu, or by reporting anti-Asian hate crimes via Stop AAPI Hate.

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