Life, death and red eggs

Chewing on Chinese food and identity with Celestial Peach

Celestial Peach’s Jenny Lau | Image by TOPIA

Celestial Peach isn’t just an excuse to allude to “my dream rear end”, it’s Jenny Lau’s plant-based quest to celebrate and question everything – from capitalism and immortality to what it means to be ‘good’ within Asian cultures

A single bite can take me home.

Jenny Lau is the founder, writer and everything else-er behind the ‘Chinese foodies’ website, Celestial Peach. What was launched as a blog about plant-based Chinese food in 2018 soon evolved into successful essays, art exhibits, community potlucks, dessert exchanges and fundraising efforts.

This East London resident with roots in Hong Kong and Malaysia is known around Hackney as the secret ‘glue’ holding together members of the Chinese diaspora and moving conversations forward, earning every drop of this unofficial title. The community-gatherer and constant questioner believes that though her personal quest for knowledge is personal, information is like food. It is more digestible when it’s shared. 

Out to highlight that, even despite our purest intentions, we are a walking talking bag of contradictions – and that’s just fine – Jenny chews on thoughts and lunch with events for and by London’s diaspora communities from across Asia.

Despite the pace and presence of the city, she somehow refuses to be rushed. In bucking the pressures for bigger-better-faster, she has worked to revitalise a Chinese community centre and build a dynamic, intergenerational community of doers. Today, Celestial Peach celebrates and explores all aspects of Chinese and Asian cultures without the knee jerk instinct towards monetisation.

TOPIA picked up the chopsticks to chat with Jenny Lau about life, death – and the peach

Hi Jenny. First up, Season 02 of TOPIA is themed around THE EGG. How is it symbolic in Chinese cultures?

In the different Chinese cultures, as with most others, the egg is highly symbolic. I particularly love that when a baby is one month old, their parents will hold a celebration party at which red-dyed eggs are handed out.

The shells of hard boiled eggs are dyed red for birthday celebrations

But also… the Chinese language is rife with witty homophone-based puns. The Cantonese in particular love to have fun with profanities and slang, so be careful when calling someone a ‘turtle egg’!

So, what exactly is a ‘Celestial Peach’?

In Chinese culture, you get the peach symbol everywhere. Pictures of immortality include this mythical fruit that bestows longevity on anyone who eats them. That’s how the immortals of Chinese mythology stay alive. There are all kinds of obsessions about longevity, probably more than other cultures. On your birthday you might get a peach-shaped cake. The peach appears in artworks and in embroidery. And I’m actually wearing my peach earrings today! It’s funny because we’re all obsessed with health and longevity, and yet the one inevitability is death. It’s the one certainty in life. 

Take us back to the start of Celestial Peach – and your self-led journey into Chinese food studies.

At the time, in 2018, I was on a vegan plant-based journey so I wouldn’t say I ate a very ‘true’  Chinese diet. Traditional Chinese cuisine is the birthplace of a lot of vegan ideas including mock meats and tofu. It also has principles of making sure that your food is balanced and satisfying, that there’s a lot of umami. I wanted to demystify some of the ideas that Chinese food is always meaty or unhealthy and talk about the simple ingredients and techniques. I started with this vegan guide and some spice mixes.

But I quickly realised that there was also a part of my identity that was being awakened. My constant quest for knowledge is personal, but also it feels communal. It is meant to be shared. I was starting to connect with the Chinese diaspora in the UK, and then very quickly a wider Asian community, thanks to social media.

You define your eating as plant-based rather than vegan. What’s the difference?

When you make a conscious decision to follow a vegan or plant-based lifestyle, it shouldn’t be a quick-fix plaster. There is this temptation to go down this militant, radical route where your beliefs are right and everyone else is wrong. But Buddha teaches the humble middle path. We all know that moderation is hard. In my own plant-based journey I’ve been so frustrated by the whitewashing and racism in discussions around both veganism and diet-related health.

Social media has made it worse, because suddenly personal lifestyle choices are inextricable from projections of morality and virtue and identity. There came a point when I realised that learning to eat with other people in a socially and culturally appropriate way would be a form of compassion – to other people, and to myself. It meant saying yes to fish and eggs, so that my mum stops worrying about me. It meant not declining to share dishes with friends when we’re out for dinner – my own version of safe treyf

We’re all obsessed with health and longevity, and yet the one inevitability is death. It’s the one certainty in life.

Three mushroom braise on a crispy nest of noodles

What are some of your favourite vegan Chinese dishes to make?

I love serving anything that has different types of Chinese mushrooms and fungi and all kinds of tofu. If I were to introduce someone to the concept of plant-based Chinese in one bowl, it would be lo han jai (羅漢菜) AKA Buddha’s Delight.

What is a simple experience or ritual that brings you joy or satisfaction daily?

I’m one of those annoying people who is very ritual-driven. For the last seven years I’ve been getting up at 5:30am every day to practice yoga. I practice the ashtanga method as it was traditionally taught in Mysore, India. It’s impossible to describe to anyone from outside the ashtanga community so most of us don’t bother and just retreat into our own geeky enclaves to talk about our strange lifestyle decisions.

How have the conversations around activism within the Chinese and ESEA communities changed since 2018?

The conversations within the UK ESEA communities are very young. Often we look towards the Asian American community because the history of the community there is much older, there are more of them and they’re much more vocal. But there’s a danger of modelling ourselves too closely on the Asian American experience. Our history and experiences are very different.

Actually, could you explain the term ESEA

This term, ESEA, which is only three or four years old, stands for East and Southeast Asian. And that’s been a very new development in terms of trying to carve out a new category that isn’t Asian because Asian is taken by the South Asians here. It’s a term that isn’t as homogenous as ‘Asian’ and isn’t ‘oriental’, which is offensive. But again, it’s flawed and can be used incorrectly or without nuance. I am interested in observing more than commenting; there’s a lot to be learned from just watching and learning. It probably all comes out in my writing like a year later, when I’ve managed to process it all. In my essay ‘P is for Pan Asian’, I talk about the pros and cons of this term ESEA.

How have you worked to develop your dedication to listen? Is it the mindset that you had as a child – that beginner’s mindset – or is it something that you’ve learned through all your community organising?

I love that you use the beginner’s mindset because that is a phrase that’s used a lot in Zen Buddhist ideas and a lot of other Eastern philosophies. That is exactly the mindset I’ve tried to approach everything with. It comes from the other disciplines that I practice. I’m a musician, and I have studied music for over 30 years. I also have a daily yoga practice. In both practices, you’re always a student. I love learning: I think that’s the fundamental thing that I’ve never I’ve always benefited from. 

The other day, I wrote a post on Instagram that got really good feedback. I got to this point where I was battling with social media, and my relationship to it. I’ve always loved social media as an amazing tool, but it’s become an attention machine with algorithms that influence how people behave and amplify the worst in us. I wrote down a list of guidelines – only for myself – as a gentle reminder of why and how I’m going to use social media. I feel like that’s a really good thing for anyone to do. You don’t have to feel the pressure to perform or give your opinion on everything. There are enough opinions out there – most of them aren’t very unique.

The second thing, and this more of a cultural thing, but I think that women are not necessarily naturally good listeners, but they’re conditioned to listen; to shut up. I’ve often found in my daily life at work that I was being spoken over. Especially if you happen to be someone who likes to think first and then offer something to the table. And that’s why I hate dinner parties!

Women are not necessarily naturally good listeners, but they’re conditioned to listen; to shut up.

That’s interesting from someone who actively organises potlucks! What sets dinner parties apart from other forms of community eating?

Dinner parties are not for conversations. It’s a performance. It’s about who can come up with a good point first, and then insert it. And even if you’ve just made the point, someone will take the point and say it louder. So, I guess my form of retaliation was to write and to write a lot. I found it just so liberating, because I realised, it doesn’t matter if no one reads it. I’ve said my piece, and I’ve taken a nice, healthy 6,000 words to say it. No one interrupted me. There’s no word limit. Listening is a very feminine quality, both unfortunately and fortunately. It’s an introvert quality as well.

Changing gears, what’s the premise of the Celestial Peach potluck?

Food is like a honeytrap to get people through the door, whether it’s people from your own community or from outside of the community. The premise is very simple: bring a home-cooked dish. It doesn’t have to be from your culture, but you know, why not? I think most people are very proud to show off something from the culture and their repertoire. And then we just eat together and make friends and share stories. It’s not just Chinese people who attend, there’s representation across this ESEA category. I have tried to keep it inclusive; anyone who is interested can come, even if you’re not Asian. However, I try and prioritise people who have an ESEA background, which can be challenging. I don’t ever want to turn people away, but there are also limited places.

Why do you prefer to keep it small?

I like keeping it small and intimate, like a club. It’s a very modern capitalist idea that you need to keep growing and growing, so you can boast about it. Instead, it’s about developing beautiful relationships. I see people pairing off or collaborating, It’s mutually beneficial. We want each other to succeed.

Food is like a honeytrap to get people through the door.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the term Pan Asian. You talk about it within your essay ‘P is for Pan-Asian’

I’ll give you a great example. A favourite potluck of mine was the Christmas feast. The idea was to do a huge, huge banana leaf rice feast. (Eating on leaves with rice is quite common across a lot of Asia.) All I did was buy banana leaves, then lay out ten-metres-worth, with loads of cooked white rice. I told different people to bring certain kinds of things and then we just poured it artfully onto the leaves, and it looked and tasted amazing. And it was literally Pan Asian food. There’s so much commonality in our different cuisines, yet there are ways in which they’re different. But ideas bleed across borders, ingredients travel across borders. I quite like exploring that in our activities. 

How are you being supported? How can we help?

This is another reality that I’m dealing with as I expand this platform, or programme, or whatever it is! It’s a very relevant conversation for people who are doing what I do in these in-between spaces – creating community and serving community. When you’re a facilitator, when you’re that glue, you don’t get remunerated for it. I don’t get paid for anything that I do and I don’t want to be. But I’m also not working that much because this is taking up that much time, so I’ve had to become much harder-lined about stuff. This year I set up a Patreon. If you sign up, you get a first invite to the potluck, you get first dibs on supper club tickets. This seems like an interesting model to try and work with. I’m not trying to make money off this work that I do. But also, I deserve to be able to live and not have to pick up another nine-to-five. I’d like more people to sign up. I’ve learned to ask for things. Until men start behaving more like women, we have to match them by asking for what we need, just like they do!

Until men start behaving more like women, we have to match them by asking for what we need, just like they do!

What’s the Asian Dessert Exchange? 

The Asian Dessert Exchange was an evolution of the potluck. It grew out of the very long lockdown. Because we couldn’t meet up, and everyone was low. I wanted to find a way to spread joy in physical form. A lot of traditional desserts from across Asia are quite sturdy and send-able. I had this idea like a Secret Santa exchange, where every month you could get paired with a random person, and send them a dessert in the post. It was meant to surprise and delight.

There was an element of cultural exchange too, because I was encouraging people to make traditional desserts that are hard to find in the UK. In East and Southeast Asia, there are so many ways you can steam glutinous rice, sugar and coconut milk. But mostly, I like the idea of really questioning what solidarity means. We recently had a fundraiser for the Sri Lankan crisis and another for Filipino typhoon victims. We’re open to suggestions from the group, because if it’s something that’s close to someone’s heart, we turn up. We support it. 

I love your thoughts around gifting and exchange.

Giving something without expectation is the most important part. In the food world, you are often forced to sell heritage, commodify it, because there is a strange urgency that if you don’t do it, some white guy is going to come and take your idea and turn into a book and make lots of money off your culture. I hate that that pressure exists. I get why people do it, but I also just love this idea of learning to make, or learning about this thing, and then giving it away to someone who will appreciate it. That’s the niche that I’d like to occupy.

You are often forced to sell heritage, commodify it.

There is a lot of music references in your  ‘An A-Z Of Chinese Food’. Give us an example of your cross-disciplinary ideas…

K for Kosher’ is because I have a lot of interest in Jewish culture, and I studied Jewish music as well. I think it’s very nice to just start from the place that you know and build it from there. You don’t have to be an expert in everything. And I like that people who don’t know anything about Chinese food or culture have also read my stuff and found it interesting.

H is for Home cooking’ was a turning point for me. That’s where I started writing much more personally. Until then, I wrote in quite an academic way. And then got to H. And I was like, I need to address some things within me. It’s not just myths that are perpetuated from the outside; there’s a lot of myths from within the community that are damaging – how we should be, what our shared identity is.

Where would you suggest someone start reading?

I want people to take away a sense of curiosity and look at things in a different light that they hadn’t before. I always say start with the introduction. Some of the essays also pair well together, like Oriental and Exotic. I was just looking at my website stats, and I saw that a lot of people had come in on that search term “Is Ch*nky racist?”. I’m intrigued by that, because it means there are people who obviously don’t know that the C-word is very inappropriate. I’ve probably helped educate someone, whether it was their intention or not.

I also really enjoy writing satirical pieces. I don’t ever want to do trauma porn. In my community, yes, we’ve all experienced racism. But we also can’t allow that to define our identities. That’s why everything I do is about celebration, the richness of the lived experience and of our culture and I will very rarely talk about racism. There’s a breadth to the identity. It’s not just about being marginalised.

What is one totally unexpected outcome you’ve seen as a result of your work? 

The best way to learn about my culture and my food is to start reading my interviews with the other Chinese foodies. That’s how I started this series of now 100 #ChineseFoodiesOfIG. It was five months’ worth of hard work, not just from me but all the artists who donated their beautiful artworks.

The other day a Chinese ‘aunty’ had attended a supper club that I hosted and said to me at the end: “What you’re doing for the Chinese community and the younger generation is commendable. You’ve made it cool to be Chinese.” To others, this might seem like a weird, almost offensive thing to say, but those in the know will know what she meant. My heart melted a little at that comment. The best way to learn about my culture and my food is to start interviewing other Chinese foodies. So that’s how I started this series of now #100Chinesefoodies.

I imagine that there’s a lot of intergenerational knowledge sharing that happens in your meetups in Hackney Chinese Community Centre.

We are starting to see some younger voices come through, catalysed by the pandemic, by the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes by Coronavirus as well and the association with the Chinese. Social media has been able to connect with younger people in a way that we couldn’t find each other before.

Why do we need to go “beyond the stale”?

We don’t need another privileged white man giving us his take on stuff. What’s interesting about my whole journey with this platform is that I started to unlearn a lot of these ideas that were baked into me; a lot of patriarchal ideas, a lot of sexist ideas that I didn’t realise I held. I’m trying to work with this idea around the division of labour, and the different ways in which men and women have to occupy roles in society. Until recently, I would still pedestalise men, and not question their authority. But now I’m finding that I’m working mostly with women. And I can rely on the women to get the job done well, with absolutely no drama. So, I’m now questioning those assumptions and biases of the past.

We’ve all experienced racism. But we also can’t allow that to define our identities. That’s why everything I do is about celebration.

What have been your greatest challenges?

It’s still the internal dialogues I struggle with most. Battling with bitterness, resentment, jealousy, disappointment, imposter syndrome, perfectionism, ennui… In Chinese society, there’s very strong patriarchal ideas. That adds a further level of complication. Traditional ideas around filial piety is a big talking point in Chinese culture. You respect your elders; you’re expected to care for your parents, and it creates this very interesting tension. In last few decades, social circumstances have changed, whereas the rules of filial piety have not. It makes it harder, especially when you’re talking about diasporic Chinese people who have been brought up with Western values. We live in Western society, we have Western needs and preferences, and, but we’re still expected to look after our parents and deliver on very traditional measures of success. That’s something I’m personally battling with because I’m a woman in my late 30s who doesn’t want to have children. I can’t believe that after everything I’ve achieved, the things I’ve set up (I’m so proud of all my successes), that the one thing I still get is: “When are you having children?”! This cannot define me anymore. Part of me still thinks it is filial piety to please them. But it’s a real pain point for me.

Lastly, tell us something that will blow our minds!

I’ve only been to China once in my life! Since writing these essays I have had this yearning to travel China, because I haven’t. I grew up in Hong Kong. It was always this very daunting prospect for me, and I think it’s too long to explain, but I have a tortured relationship; a lot of Hong Kong has this relationship with China that’s very fraught. Meeting more Chinese people, as in mainland Chinese people, through the community centre, has made me fall in love with China and not feel so afraid. And I think it’s often the case that when something is on your doorstep, either physically, geographically and also maybe culturally, you’re not so interested in visiting until much later in life.

Thank you for speaking to TOPIA and being part of our World of Good.

Celestial Peach’s Top 7 to follow

1. WoonHeng Chia inspires you to adopt a meatless lifestyle, one meal at a time
2. Swilipino Swedish/Filipino pop ups and catering
3. Kip Dorrell‘s  vegan Thai supper clubs in London Docklands
4. I love what Lion Dance Cafe is doing in the SF Bay Area. I admire the combination of thoughtfulness, fierceness, activism and vulnerability. And of course, their creative approach to meatless Chinese-Singaporean ‘authentic not traditional’ cuisine.
5. With Warm Welcome, an Asian American community organisation that was one of the inspirations for my Asian Dessert Exchange Bakers’ Box. 
6. XO Soused podcast by food anthropologist Dr Mukta Das and chef Andrew Wong. They bring real academic and historical rigour to the dynamic story of China’s cuisines.
7. IG mental health accounts like @asiansformentalhealthand @southasiantherapists, who give culturally sensitive psychological comfort to countless people on a daily basis (but should not replace actual therapy or inner work).

What’s so good about this?

BEYOND THE STALE is an ongoing interview series that celebrates the indie storytellers and tastemakers changing media for the better – whether in food, science or sex – by addressing its blind spots. Thanks to honest blogs, rich podcasts and the rise of the newsletter, these rock ‘n’ roll raconteurs, many of whom have yet to see their identities reflected within wider media, are building communities and creating spaces that don’t have to cater to the masses and mainstream narratives.

Jenny Lau is part of a new generation creating fiercely engaging and compelling work that provides a window into a more nuanced range of cuisines, histories, neighbourhoods, politics and global perspectives.

Meet the writer

Adrienne Katz Kennedy is a London-based food and culture writer. The former Clevelander and former New Mexican dance anthropologist is a contributing writer for the travel cookbook Hong Kong Diner and has also been featured in Whetstone Journal, Pit Magazine, Heated by Bitman, Courier Media and Sierra Magazine. Her work focuses on storytelling, identity and communication – whether through dance, food, cultural practices or Instagram Stories. She often wonders how she ended up living on a chilly island, and how late is too late to make the day’s last cuppa without risking the sacrifice of sleep. Follow @AKatzKennedy.

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