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Writing a Love Letter to a Hong Kong

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

Being an author wasn't something I had planned on when I was in art school, and now here I am with my third book baby! From sharing the ease and versatility of plant-based cooking with The Plantiful Plate (Artisan 2018) to raising awareness to minimize plastic usage with Living Without Plastic (Countryman Press, 2020) co-authored with Plastic Oceans International, Book #3 (Chronicle Books, 2024) is extremely close to my heart and heritage—it's my love letter to Hong Kong, home to my family for three generations. Writing this book was life-changing and there were a lot of "firsts"... I learned about my family's history which I never sought to ask about before, I overcame fears (of brown-colored dishes, how to photograph using a studio light, and edit in Lightroom) and I sketched illustrations for the first time since college, using Procreate for the first time.


Each experience I've had with my three different publishers has been different. Here's how this cookbook came to life.


June 3, 2021

STARTED WRITING BOOK PROPOSAL


This book was born out of wanting to preserve the rich and unique culture and culinary landscape of Hong Kong, a city that bloomed quickly after World War II into a bustling international metropolis and food haven. It was because of colonial influences and FOMO of expensive Western foods that Hongkongers made their own versions of tea and cakes with inexpensive pantry ingredients to make these foods accessible to the working class. This was the start of our distinct "Soy Sauce Western" cuisine which is the heart and soul of the city. Whether it's because of gentrification/modernization, a change in people's palates, or simply because it's too labor intensive to craft foods, like some nostalgic treats, parts of our culinary culture are disappearing.


December 2

RECEIVED BOOK OFFER


When I got the call that my book proposal was accepted by Chronicle Books, the very first thing I did was to create a vision board for the tone of the book. I've always been enamored with the melancholy beauty and atmospheric cinematography of In the Mood for Love, by Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai set in the 1960s. This Pinterest board became the ongoing inspiration and reference for the photography and design.


Pinterest board featuring photo collection of Chinese foods, Hong Kong, food photography and design influences from the 1960s.

I wanted to include Hong Kong's most iconic foods from dim sum to a celebration dishes so I began researching, reading articles, watching videos, and learned a lot about distinct Hong Kong dishes including one called Poon Choi which translates as "Big Bowl Feast" or "Basin Cuisine" which originated from one of Hong Kong's walled villages who were harboring the emperor who had fled from the Mongolian invasion. The villagers prepares a festive meal but did not have enough serving plates to present the feast to the emperor and his contingency and used large wooden basins instead, layering the foods with hearty sustenance like taro and vegetables on the bottom layer, and featured the most prized foods on the top layer. This impressive display of complimentary tastes and textures is recognized as the only food item on Hong Kong's Intangible Cultural Heritage list. From this unique festival dish to the humble and indispensable Hong Kong Milk Tea, I finalized which foods and drinks most represented the city to a lucky 88 recipes for the book. The book chapters and recipes are arranged by time of day—from morning bites to late night snacks or Siu Yeh, a little-known fifth meal of the day enjoyed by Hongkongers.


February to November 2022

OFFER COUNTERSIGNED, STARTED RECIPE DEVELOPMENT


Now that the book agreement was signed and sealed, it was time to start delivering! Recipe developing began with visiting Mama Wong, my college bestie's mom. For decades, I've been lucky to have enjoyed her cooking, every time she visited her son—she's always been an inspiration in the kitchen! I'm not kidding when I say we went to ALL of Toronto's Asian supermarkets to shop and cook every day for a week. I learned how to choose the freshest Asian vegetables, we talked about food, cooking, Hong Kong, and family stories as we prepared and shared meals together that week.


Chinese grandmother in the kitchen standing on t a short stool
Mama Wong

I also have had opportunity to learn in the kitchen at Dim Sum Go Go, a restaurant in Chinatown. I've been taking photos and shooting video for their social media for several years. I learned by observation (and asked a few questions along the way!) It was an honor to be able to watch these sifu / master chefs who have been hand-crafting dim sum for over 20 years.


Then it was time for me to take all this knowledge and veganize everything. Not only is eating a plant-based diet good for your health, it ensures a sustainable future for our planet. It was also in my own self interest that I made all the dishes vegan—because unless you go to a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant, vegan adaptations are hard to find. And I would prefer not to order the typical Chinese restaurant "go-to" vegetarian dish, Buddha's Delight, unless that is the ONLY veggie-friendly choice. Oftentimes there will be small amounts of meat and/or animal products used as an element of flavor in a dish, like minced pork in Fresh Fragrant Eggplant, and lard in many Chinese pastries. Vegetables are so versatile, they can easily be used to replace animal products without detracting from a dish's culinary heritage.


It was important for me to try to recreate visual and/or textural similarities of the original dish, without sacrificing flavor in order to evoke the same nostalgia. And I didn't want to only use mushrooms and tofu as meat alternatives. Instead, I wanted to highlight all the colorful produce that the vegetable (and fruit) world has to offer. Because, let's face it, Chinese food is often very brown—a fear/loathing I had to overcome while creating the recipes. My recipes make use of red cabbage, cauliflower, jackfruit, artichoke hearts, and when in season, I suggest making my Turnip Cakes with purple daikon or watermelon radish.


Watermelon radish slices ready to be julienned to make turnip cake
Watermelon Radish makes a beautiful pink Turnip Cake

November 8

HANDED IN MANUSCRIPT!


I was thankful that I didn't have to simultaneously recipe test, write the manuscript and photograph the entire cookbook for submission on the same date, like I did for my first book, that was A LOT, and I got burnt out from that experience. Here, I was able to focus solely on the words—all 59,411 of them! Even knowing that there would be several stages of copy edits, it was still nerve-wracking to be certain that I included everything I want to say before hitting that [send] button!


December

CALL FOR RECIPE TESTERS


While waiting for my publishers to return the first copy edit to me, I reached out to my Instagram community to find recipe testers. The response was so overwhelming and generous, it was truly heart-warming! I thought the timing might interfere with holiday season, but in the end it worked out because people had the time to cook. It was encouraging to have received such amazing feedback from most people who tested the recipes.


January 20, 2023

RECEIVED FIRST COPY EDIT


It was good to have had a break from the book over the holidays and read, correct, and add to all the publisher's text edits in a massive Word doc that kind of made me cross-eyed (I'm used to Google docs.) I included all the feedback from recipe testers with some adjustments.


February 15

RETURNED COPY EDIT, GATHERING PROPS


Excited for the visual part of the book, I started gathering tableware and props from iconic Chinatown shops from Pearl River Mart, Wing On Wo & Co, KK Discount, and a variety of small mom-and-pop and restaurant supply stores.


A flatly photo showing a variety of Chinese porcelain spoons, chopstick rests, and chopsticks

February 3

RECEIVED PRELIMINARY DESIGN


While I liked parts of the presented design, I felt the overall look was not the nostalgic in-the-mood look I was hoping for. I made some constructive but open suggestions to readdress the design and visual storytelling.


March 20

RECEIVED SECOND ROUND OF PRELIMINARY DESIGNS


I was grateful to the art department for fulfilling most of my suggestions including the retro inspiration. Somehow, there was a disconnect about when I should have started taking photos, and I ended up sharing my recipe test pictures for the art department to use for positioning so that the first galley would not be full of blank pages or random photos.


April 19

FINAL COPY EDITS


I printed out the manuscript for the first time to have a proper final read-through and mark up and returned it back to Chronicle on April 28th.


Happy author holding a printed manuscript

May 1

PLANNING THE PHOTOSHOOT


In order to wrap my head around the enormity of shooting 88+ recipes efficiently, I had to really organize myself to match the foods with the amazing tableware and other props I've accumulated over the years. As a visual person, the easiest way was to illustrate each potential shot. This was so helpful and when it came time to shoot, it made everything easier—the only on-the-spot decision I had to make was what color backdrop I was going to use, based on the props and the sequence of the recipes in the book.


Sheets of paper showing a grid of food images and sketches
Photoshoot planning with test pics and illustrations
May 25

RECEIVED THE FIRST FULL DESIGN GALLEY


Minus the real photographs, it was exciting and kind of crazy to see the book come to life! Overall it was coming together, though there were adjustments to be made to the backgrounds for the chapter openers and the intro section. We also started talking about the potential book cover. We realized there were many more photographs needed to feature Hong Kong, I reached out to local Hong Kong photographer Jeremy Cheung (who also happens to be my sister's friend!) to include his perfectly moody atmospheric photos in my book. This is the photo I fell in love with:


People eating dinner on folding tables and chairs outdoors in Hong Kong
Photo © Jeremy Cheung
May to July

RECIPE PHOTOSHOOT


I was given the green light to take photos at the start of May, which is also the busiest month for my work with Pearl River Mart for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM) events so I wasn't able to squeeze in time to shoot that first month. Plus, I've never used a studio light, backdrop, and tripod setup before, so it took me time to learn how to play with the lighting (The Bite Shot on YouTube was so helpful!) in order to get those in-the-moody shots that I was striving for. For me, moody doesn't equate to dark photos because it was important to highlight the food, and I wanted to integrate the use of colors to vividly represent Hong Kong.


Behind-the-scened food photography staging for mooncakes with a red lantern
Mooncake photoshoot setup (one of my favorite pics!)
July to August

HOMEKONG


Landing in Hong Kong for photoshoots and research, I felt it in I was home. I paid my respects to my maternal and paternal grandparents and my great-grandfather. I went in search of childhood sweets like Dragon's Beard Candy—a treat that I vividly remember watching being made by hand from a solid but malleable sweetened lump to thousands of cotton candy-like strands. I went to some classic cha chaan tangs, aka Chinese diners which, despite gentrification, are still neighborhood gems. Cheung Hing Coffee Shop in Happy Valley is one of the few places where on can find Vitasoy in a glass bottle! (You can be sure I bought one for a prop, haha!) While it is reassuring to see these steadfast remnants of history, there aren't as many as there used to be, and there is a lingering melancholy knowing that they are a part of Hong Kong's fading past.


My longtime friend William Furniss took portraits of me throughout the city. As a HK resident for 30 years, it was too much fun running around the city with him to capture me in my little slice of Hong Kong and I'm grateful for his forever cheerfulness and time spent with me whilst in the midst of setting up a photo exhibition—a true Hongkonger getting it done!


Chinese woman leaning on a wall and looking in the distance, holding a stainless steel tiffin
Author Christine Wong. Photo © William Furniss

Coincidentally, during the writing of this book, I relocated my mother back to Hong Kong after 7 years of living abroad in Southeast Asia which was hugely significant. Although we hadn't found a flat/apartment yet, within a day or two of being back, there was a noticeable difference in her from absorbing the energy of the city, and I could see how energized and happy she was to be back in Homekong.


October

PR & Marketing reached out to share key dates and deliverables I needed to start thinking about and organizing–events, press, brands, influencer lists, etc. For me it means starting up my newsletters again (it's been 3 years!), giving my website a much needed overhaul, and getting back to posting regularly on social media. I'm calling this my cocooning phase, there's lots to be done!


August 6, 2024

Book release day! Book launch with Pearl River Mart at Chelsea Market (details TBD). Check in on my Events page or sign up for my newsletter for up-to-date details!

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