The way Clarence Kwan tells it, what’s on your plate is one of the most political statements a person can make. Fitting, given that Kwan—otherwise known on Instagram as @thegodofcookery—is the creative mind behind an anti-racist zine making its rounds in both the food and social justice worlds.
The aptly titled “Chinese Protest Recipes” urges its readers to recognize food as a form of resistance and reclamation—and the food industry as a battleground where white supremacy can be dismantled one dish at a time.
“Every takeout choice is a vote, in my opinion,” said Kwan, who serves as the executive creative director at an NYC-based social impact agency, to Colorlines in a phone interview earlier this month. The Toronto resident has been spending every weekend for the past year working at a Chinese barbecue shop, shadowing his shifu to learn the art of roasting meats.
“With so many systemic issues, it can be hard to know where to even start. So an easy place to start is by examining what you’re eating three times a day. Start with what’s on your plate. Then you can start to dissect your own biases and how you interact with other communities and how you interact with other people through the food itself and how you vote with your dining dollar. Because how you spend is a real reflection of your relationship to other communities and to the world around you.”
Kwan’s “Chinese Protest Recipes” is a zine with a mission: to use Chinese food to foreground Asian American/Black American solidarity at a time when white supremacy poses an existential threat to Black communities. The project, produced in partnership with Ronald Tau of the Toronto-based design group Meat Studio, features a number of Chinese food recipes sprinkled with anti-racist reminders like “TALK TO YOUR ASIAN FAMILIES ABOUT ANTI-BLACK BEHAVIOR AND ATTITUDE” and “STOP KILLING BLACK PEOPLE.”
The zine is free to download, with the directive to donate to organizations that are already doing anti-racist work, like Color of Change or Black Women in Motion. It’s part of a growing movement to “food-fundraise” for anti-racism. In June, the celebrated executive pastry chef Paola Velez and two other Washington, D.C., chefs pulled their efforts together to create Bakers Against Racism, a decentralized bake sale that raised funds for existing anti-racist organizations. They raised $1.6 million their first week.
“[The zine] really came out of George Floyd’s death,” Kwan said, “and asking myself, ‘How can we be better friends and allies to the Black community, and how have I, as someone who is not going through the same experiences of police brutality but is frustrated by a lack of change, how can I continue to stay silent?’ … This is my version of really speaking up and saying enough is enough in the world that I know, which is as a Chinese person who cooks Chinese food.”
Kwan is Chinese-Canadian, but he has a nuanced take on the complicated relationship between Asian-American and Black American communities. He points to the way racial groups have historically been pitted against each other in mainstream narratives as a significant barrier to progress.
“In terms of white supremacy and oppression, they want BIPOC to be bickering,” he said. “They don’t want us to get along. That is part of the strategy. So you have to realize that in terms of finding a way to combat these forces, we have to work together.”
Though the Asian-American and Black communities have vastly different histories of oppression, their shared marginalization in a predominantly white society has bonded them in the past—a fact that few of us learn in school.
In the early 19th century, some Americans had advocated importing Asian “coolies” to replace enslaved people after emancipation. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the majority of Asian immigrants worked as laborers, helping to build the nation’s railroads and in gold mines. When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, however, they were largely pushed out of railroad towns and into large cities, where designated Chinatowns were established. In 1854, the New-York Tribune editor Horace Greeley published an op-ed supporting the exclusion of Chinese immigrants from the state of California, calling them “uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception.” This was the age of “yellow peril.” Asian immigrants were regarded with xenophobic distrust, a far cry from the “model minority” myth that has come to dominate much of today’s narrative surrounding Asian Americans, and which has been used to drive a wedge between the Black and Asian American communities.
Importantly, during this period of extreme discrimination, some figures in the Black community showed up to support the Asian American community, and the foundations of solidarity began to form. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, for instance, famously argued on behalf of Chinese immigration to the states in his 1869 speech, a controversial stance at the time.
Decades later, in the 1960s, graduate students at the University of California Berkeley coined the term “Asian American” as a way to bring communities of the Asian diaspora together to help advocate for civil rights alongside the Black Power Movement and the American Indian Movement. And the friendships of activists like Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X, so well-documented over the past few decades, show just how intertwined the roots of these two communities have always been.
“There’s a lot more support and solidarity needed on both ends to tackle these real issues of racism and anti-Blackness,” Kwan said. “[As non-Black POC], we need to ask ourselves, ‘What’re you going to do about it?’ when we feel angry or upset over what’s happening to the Black community. Because if your day-to-day life doesn’t change, then nothing will change. But I also want more Black folks to ride for Chinese people when our Chinatowns are being obliterated. There needs to be solidarity across the board.” (In the wake of Floyd’s death this past June, organizations like the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum issued statements condemning anti-Black violence, offering hope for the continued, necessary solidarity that Kwan is referencing.)
Kwan’s endeavors to push back against white supremacy have existed long before the zine has. He’s the fourth generation of his family to work in a Chinese restaurant (his grandfather’s father had a restaurant back in China). But for Kwan, spending time in the kitchen goes well beyond just carrying on a family tradition. It’s an integral part of how he’s contributing to the ongoing fight against racial injustice, white supremacy and police brutality.
“Food has been used as a political weapon against BIPOC folks for centuries,” he said. “Historically, if you look at the way BIPOC communities have been allowed to survive and grow in Western society, food is all we had.” For many Asian American and immigrant groups, he added, opening restaurants and working in the foodservice industry “was often the only way those communities could stick together and maintain their cultural identity.” As such, he’s adamant about using “Chinese Protest Recipes” as a way to call attention to multiple issues through the vehicle of food.
“I was very similar to many kids of color, where we were made to feel ashamed of our food,” he said. “The mainstream media tells you to want kale salad and avocado toast, and you grow up thinking, ‘Oh, that’s how we’re supposed to eat.’ It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how much more there is to discover by learning how my ancestors ate. Or how my mom and dad ate. I developed my sense of identity and pride through reclaiming and owning and not being ashamed of eating how my grandmother ate, so I use food as a way of personal expression. I think it’s a way of reclaiming my power.”
Joyce Chen is a Seattle-based writer, editor, and creator, and the executive director of The Seventh Wave, an arts and literary nonprofit that champions art in the space of social issues.