CY Leung, Hong Kong Chief Executive, participated recently in an NGO-sponsored exercise apparently intended to educate more affluent people about the difficulty of living on low incomes in Hong Kong. In CY Leung’s mock family exercise (pun intended), he concluded that he could provide for a family of five – food, rent, transportation, healthcare, school, clothes, with even a bit of savings left over- on 9000 HKD/month (1,160 USD). Even factoring in every possible government subsidy, real or half-imagined in government reporting, that is a figure so absurd that one might well retch to death in the grinding gear shift from laughter to rage.
The housewives in TinShuiWai (TSW) and neighboring areas with whom I spend some of my fieldwork time spend much of theirs talking with each other about food. Price for quality, nutritional value and flavor are the main concerns. Pork, chicken, tofu, leafy green vegetables, eggs, and fruit and so on. There is seldom talk about fish or seafood in general except in reminiscences or planning for a special occasion. They also talk about mushrooms, especially 香菇, also commonly known as shitake.
These discussions are not the happily obsessive Chinese – especially southern Chinese – talk about food as pleasure, medicine, and even sexual health supplement. Ai Xiaoming, perhaps China’s most prominent feminist activist scholar (and a victim of recent political purging on the mainland) once told me that she believed that Chinese people have sublimated and transferred their sexual urges by focusing their erotic affections on food. The anthropologist Judith Farquhar, in her work exploring associations between food, sexuality, practice, and consumption in contemporary China, would disagree with Professor Ai mainly in blurring the lines between food, sexuality, and medicine, and in historicizing these relations – showing the inter-relationality of these forms of bodily experience in terms of contemporary market-driven consumptive practices that selectively draw on Chinese “traditional” medical practices in producing a range of pleasures and desires.
Consumed pleasures are in part produced to be sure, but they are bodily and material even as they may also be divorced from what anthropologists call (over-generally) “gift economies” through sorting processes that distance them from their human and material sources – dirt, sweat, terrain, pain, and local life.
Like pleasure, human pain – individual and collective suffering – is also in many ways produced (I am mixing notions of production here) through political economies of wealth and scarcity, the material effects of legal and social exclusion, differential conditions of citizenship and belonging, displacement, state violence, exposure, and more, as much as it is partly constituted in the language that expresses it. Elaine Scarry reminds us of the strange inexpressibility of pain through language, the paucity of our vocabulary for narrating pain in a way that conveys some sense of its actual experience. It is no accident that accounts of human suffering often turn to forms of visual representation.
This problem is even more acute for forms of slow, attritional suffering – lifetimes of less than adequate nutrition and medical care; stresses associated with the insecurity of relative poverty and vulnerability to the slightest change in economic status; decades of generally poorer sleep because of cramped and noisy housing conditions; daily disrespect and condescension; hopelessness. These cannot be captured visually because they take place over the course of lives. They cannot be seen as events, like a failed university entrance exam, a car crash, or suicide. They are, in a sense, “uneventful.”
This leads us back to TinShuiWai. Grocery prices there are among the highest in all of Hong Kong. This is a predictable result of the government’s decision to grant monopolistic control of retail there to two large corporations, Link REIT being of course one. The hawker patrol units, in their ill-fitting brown uniforms, do their part to make sure no one is selling homegrown vegetables or other foods without a license – at least not without paying them, if shopkeepers are to be believed. The result is that basic food costs considerably more in TinShuiWai, one of the poorest parts of the city, than it does in much more affluent areas like Wanchai and Central.
Unsurprisingly, then, food discussions are often about the sharing and attempted dissipation of worry and fear, and sharing vital information. The difference between the housewife -and the responsibility for households usually falls on a woman – who is able to stretch every Hong Kong dollar to buy the foods that cover the range of basic nutritional requirements and one who isn’t is a difference of life and its most basic quality for herself, her children, her partner, her parents. This takes skill, information, and considerable extra time and effort to gather and analyse information – to be there on the right sales day, to go a bit farther for a good deal but only if the cost of transportation is balanced by the savings, to know which seller can be haggled down a bit more or with whom friendly relations can be cultivated. Tofu or eggs? How often is meat worth it? Which fruits give the most nutritional value for your buck? Which ones do my family actually like? In general, how can I keep everyone satisfied with the food that I put in front of them? And on and on. Endless questions and complexities that must be discussed, talked through, vetted, compared, and reassessed in light of ever-changing conditions.
The answer to these questions is not situated within a range of decent choices. It is situated between barely meeting low-end nutritional needs and falling at various degrees below them. It is also about taste, food quality, and the simplest human pleasure of enjoying food together. These are the stakes in the seemingly innocuous and incessant food discussions among housewives in TinShuiWai. These are also stakes that mean, ultimately, some form of routine failure for most. Poor families in Hong Kong cannot meet all their nutritional requirements, no matter how skillful and careful the household food provider is, and certainly not in ways that consistently fulfil family desires for reasonably tasty and varied dishes. The expectations of Hong Kong womanhood, based on middle and upper class gendered and class realities that most Hong Kong women do not enjoy, are the backdrop for these failures.
The failure to live up to those standards works it way through food talk. Women compete with and judge one another in relation to their ability to get better and cheaper food for their families. Their families often judge them as well, the housewives complain to me, criticizing them for seeing the same dish time and again, or comparing them unfavorably to a classmate’s mother who cooks better dishes.
The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called this form of “misrecognition” – blaming oneself or those closest to you for being failed individuals instead of the structural conditions that predispose failure – “symbolic violence,” thus articulating in his work the relationship between forms of “intimate violence” that one commits against oneself or others in similarly disadvantaged circumstances, and the “structural violence” that unevenly distributes opportunity, health, and the conditions for flourishing (or not). Years before Bourdieu’s formulation, the philosopher Hannah Arendt described something similar, though referring to a much more direct form of collective violence:
The fact that with monotonous but abstract uniformity the same fate had befallen a mass of individuals did not prevent their judging themselves in terms of individual failure or the world in terms of specific injustices.
Mushrooms. As Anna Tsing describes, they can be a luxury, and part of very lengthy, geographically-dispersed supply chains that see them sorted dozens of times, distancing them from the richly informed and intimate sorting process they begin with through ever more impersonal and random sorting methods, turning them, well before they end up sold in stores, from material items connected to place, soil, effort, and knowledge to a product independent of all of those – although unevenly throughout the process. It requires, Tsing argues, this constant re-iteration to keep them a commodity. In the end though, as in Japan, they are often bought and turned back into gifts shared with others.
Ann Hui in an interview conducted for her movie based on the murder/suicide case that brought TinShuiWai to public notoriety also noted the talk she heard about shitake mushrooms among housewives there. In this case, though, shitake are unlikely gifts, aspirational or remembered – rare luxuries.
An older woman originally from Chaozhou, in nearby Guangdong, mainland China, confided something to me about shitake mushrooms when no one else was around. Grandma, as she had told me to call her, was responsible for the grocery shopping in the family. Both her daughter and son-in-law worked full time in order to barely pay the bills for themselves, her, and a 15-year old daughter who they had hopes for but were sure would not be admitted to university; she studied hard but wasn’t at the top of her class, and they couldn’t afford extra tutorials. Grandma’s own husband had died years before, which she told me, laughing, was lucky since they couldn’t have possibly afforded his appetite.
Grandma told me about mushrooms like she was sharing a secret. She said that if you don’t have meat, add a big 香菇 to a clay pot of soup. Other mushrooms will do, if you know the right ones. Let it slow cook for a good amount of time, and it will add meaty flavor and satisfying substance to the soup that will keep folks happy. She had learned this little trick as a young mother trying to provide enough food for her family towards the end of the Cultural Revolution. Her family, she said, had suffered a great deal because of their class background as wealthy peasants. Meat, eggs, and tofu were even more rare for her family than for others at the time. Grandma had devised many simple but clever methods to help manage deprivation and hunger, while doing what she could to make tasty dishes for her family. She was somewhat proud that her experience could still be of use in what she calls, with a hint of an ironic glint in her eye, “developed Hong Kong.”
I have not found, with a few exceptions, many who are severely malnourished in TinShuiWai. What I have found are many living their whole lives on less than they need in terms of basic nutrition, and less than they need as human beings in terms of the most basic social pleasures of food. The casual observer may not notice the difference between young people there and the more affluent young people in other areas of the city – body posture and structure, weight, height, skin texture, the brightness of eyes, and other markers of physical and psychological health. They differences are, however, painfully obvious if one looks closely and consistently enough over time – which is also one way of understanding the work of ethnography.
What many scholars refer to as precarity – a “…politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support more than others…, ” as Judith Butler has defined it in part- continue to worsen for growing numbers of people globally and certainly so here in Hong Kong. In aggregate, and this includes but is not limited to food insecurity, these conditions take a grinding day-to-day toll that can be difficult to “eye-witness,” so slow is this form of structural violence, becoming clear enough, however, by the final, too-late marker of sharp differences in life expectancy across social classes.
We don’t normally talk about this when we talk about young people, schools, opportunity, and education in Hong Kong. Certainly our local social scientists who focus on youth and education issues don’t normally talk about hunger or nutrition in the context of the “problems of young people.” It seems somehow out of place in this very wealthy though starkly unequal city to talk about real bodies in real places, their different levels of health or illness, protection or exposure, energy or exhaustion, visibility or invisibility, and how this might impact all areas of their lives, including how they do in school and how prepared they are for an increasingly hostile world. Lives more vulnerable than others, CY Leung tells us in tragi-comic ignorance and entitled condescension, can be properly managed if one only budgets sensibly.
Those wasteful poor.
I mentioned CY’s “Adventures in Poorland” role-playing game to a few of the housewives recently, pausing for dramatic effect before telling them his absurd and insulting conclusion. The fantastical tale provided material for quite a bit of humor and lasting talk that turned, as it continued, into more than a little anger.
*The image is a still from the film “The Way Are,” directed by Ann Hui, which focused on life in TinShuiWai.