Singapore-born Audra Ang spent seven years as a Beijing-based Associated Press correspondent, where she covered a rapidly changing China.
In her new book, “To The People Food Is Heaven: Stories of Food and Life in a Changing China,” Ang describes meals she ate with monks, activists, and village residents, and how she came to understand the people and soul of a country through its food.
She talks to Lisa Mullins about her book, her love of jasmine tea, and her fondness for comfort foods, especially after covering particularly tense stories.
In 2002, an early summer monsoon brought heavy rains to Hunan province. Rivers overflowed and flooded the countryside destroying crops, homes and lives.
One of Ang’s first assignments was to cover the floods.
It was during this catastrophe she experienced her most memorable meal during her time in China. A farmer who lost a year worth of crops served Ang a large meal of Chinese delicacies, including his last chicken.
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Lisa Mullins: One of the first assignments that journalist Audra Ang received when she started to work at Associated Press Beijing Bureau was to cover a flood in China. That was in 2002. An early summer monsoon had brought heavy rain to Hunan Province. Flooding in the countryside had destroyed crops, homes, and lives. Audra Ang writes about her experiences in her new book. It’s called “To The People Food Is Heaven: Stories of Food and Life in a Changing China”. She recalls walking through one area with a photographer, Greg Baker. They came up to some houses right by a river.
Audra Ang: I thought that was what we would think as lakefront property. I thought it looked quite peaceful and a group of people kind of approached us. And I say hi and I asked them, “How have the floods affected you?” One of the men in the group answered me, and later on I found out his name was farmer Tu , and he said that his crops for the year had been enveloped by water. I was like, “Crops? Where are the crops? I don’t see anything,” because we were all looking out to all this water in front of his house, and he was like, “Right there. That’s where the crops were.” And that’s when I realized the very quiet devastation of what had happened to him. He took us on a boat ride. He had this long stick and he kind of paddled us around the area and he told us this story about how his village had fought for days to try and prevent the water from overrunning their little dike around the area and so people were stacking sacks of rice on these dams, but nothing really had worked and eventually all they could do was helplessly watch as the waters ran over these dikes.
Mullins: There is a point where he did something, he calls out to his wife. I guess maybe he knew you were hungry or maybe he was so grateful for the fact that you and your photographer were listening that he wanted to offer you a meal.
Ang: This is a very Chinese thing. It’s very polite. It’s a gesture of hospitality. People always offer you something to eat or drink, and being greedy and interested in food and I wanted to talk more to him and his family, I accepted.
Mullins: You must have been amazed though that this man who had just survived a flood was offering you a meal?
Ang: I actually wasn’t because, again, like I said, it’s kind of a gesture that you see all the time, but I was very grateful, I was just like, “That’s a really nice thing for him to do,” and I just kind of jumped at it without thinking and he called out to his wife through the window and said, “Hey, prepare a meal.” And I could hear the oil sputtering and things being fried and the clang of the wok and the spatula she was using. And I remember walking into the kitchen, I don’t remember much about the house or the surroundings, but I remember the table that was just piled on with food, and at that time I didn’t realize people don’t eat like this every day, especially farmers who lost everything. They had chicken and they had braised pork and they had eggs and fish and vegetables all laid out with bowls of rice for us. It wasn’t just farmer Tu and his wife, but some villagers, they were all just crowded around this table and they’re looking at Greg and I kind of expectantly.
Mullins: What did they expect?
Ang: They just wanted us to sit down and eat. And I looked at it and I was like, “Well, there are however many of you and there are just two of us. Surely you’re going to join us?” And they were like, “No, no, this is for you.” And, again, it’s all very polite, it’s all very Chinese to be like, “No, you first,” “No, you first.” And so I kind of in my clumsy Western way kind of put my foot down and I’m like, “I’m not going to eat anything unless you join us. This is really too embarrassing if we just eat all this food,” and so, of course, farmer Tu and his wife then sit down and then we start the meal. And I don’t remember at what point, but at some point I realized that he had slaughtered his last chicken for us.
Mullins: How did you figure that out? And why would he do that? He had kids to feed too.
Ang: It’s just a gesture of Chinese hospitality and I saw that so many times during my reporting experiences outside of cities, that people in the countryside especially would give as much as they could even though they didn’t have very much, and that’s why these experiences really stay close to my heart.
Mullins: You were born in Singapore. You are of Chinese descent. You go to the country as a journalist to cover the people and the events that are going on there and also to try and kind of, as you say, understand your place in the chaos of China. How did food help you do that?
Ang: Even when I left, I realized I still didn’t understand my place in the chaos. I’m trying to think if food just interacted with my seven years there in so many ways. Some of it was finding points of comfort in the strangest places, like when I was covering something sensitive, to go in southern China, that’s where my ancestors are from. And one day I’m [??] covering some riots and one morning I woke up and I was just dreading going back to that tense situation, police everywhere and villagers were upset, and so I just found this hole in the wall and I discovered that they sell these like fish dumplings which I never thought I would find outside Singapore. It’s something I ate as a child, something I really enjoyed, and I just had this bowl of fish dumplings and fish balls before going to this tense work situation and, again, it provided me some comfort and it tied me in with the local culture. Those kind of things brought me closer to my Chinese roots.
Mullins: Audra Ang. Her book is called “To The People Food Is Heaven: Stories of Food and Life in a Changing China”. Nice to have you on the program.
Ang: Thank you very much for having me, Lisa.
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