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Images: supplied, image design: Tina Tiller
Images: supplied, image design: Tina Tiller

KaiOctober 6, 2023

How recipes knit our past with our present

Images: supplied, image design: Tina Tiller
Images: supplied, image design: Tina Tiller

There’s a world of knowledge to be found in the recipes passed between generations. Auckland Museum curator Nina Finigan talks with local artist Bev Moon about her knitted versions of family recipes.

Although they may be a ubiquitous presence in everyday life, recipe books haven’t formed a significant part of New Zealand’s public archives and museums. Yet, those sauce-splattered, and cake batter-splotched pages tell us a great deal about where we’ve come from and who we are. As part of an ongoing collaboration between The Spinoff and Auckland Museum, curator Nina Finigan is on a quest to give recipes, both on paper or not, a presence in the archives. In the first of this series, she talks to Auckland-based knitting artist Bev Moon.

Moon is a Chinese poll tax descendant whose work tells the story of her Taishanese ancestors who arrived in New Zealand in the late 1880s, in search of gold and new opportunities. Moon’s touring exhibition Fortune (consisting of a knitted yum cha feast) is a tribute to her Cantonese mother Yip Sue Yen and grandmother Lee Choy Kee who faced great obstacles to settle in New Zealand as refugees during WWII. After years of separation, they finally joined husband and father Yip Tack Lee (Dixon Yip) who had settled in New Zealand decades earlier. Both women were superb cooks and accomplished knitters.

NF: Our relationship to food is inherently tied to our memories – a smell of a particular thing cooking can transport us back in time in a split second. Can you talk to us about some of your most potent food memories? 

BM: My dad (Ng Sik Kwun) owned Kelburn Fisheries (a fish and chip shop) from 1955 through to 1987. I asked him once, “why did you go into fish and chips” and he said it was because no one would give him a job. Back when he started the business, the locals were reluctant to hire “foreigners”, so he worked two full-time laundry jobs for several years to save the money to buy his own chip shop.Growing up [I] always felt different. I went to a school in Kelburn and other people’s parents were lawyers and doctors and teachers, and my dad had the fish and chip shop. I was always conscious about that. But I was also quite popular because I could get free fish and chips every night after school! 

Because he worked in a fish and chip shop, he’d come home with funny things – sometimes he’d bring home fish bladders and hang them up outside to dry. I’d be so embarrassed when friends would come over and say, “Why have you got those?!”. But the dried bladders, which are known as fish maw, and what we called fish bubble were turned into delicious soups. Nothing was wasted. 

What about your mum?

My mum was an amazing cook. She came to New Zealand with my grandma in 1940 – refugees from the Sino-Japanese war. When she was young, she and grandma would make pork buns and doong (also known as joong, or gor doong tee) – which is bamboo leaf filled with glutinous rice, and water chestnuts. My mum’s younger siblings would sell them around Haining Street (also known as Chinatown) in Wellington. 

Yip Sue Yen (age 7) and Lee Choy Kee in 1939, just before they left China

They didn’t do this by the time I came along, but I used to always help Mum fold dumplings. I used to enjoy that because it involved making, perfecting and getting the different shapes – I was always kind of arty and enjoyed using my hands.

What dishes do you remember your mum making?

She would make gow gee and pork buns and steamed buns – things like that. 

To be honest, Mum also had to cook ordinary European food as well, because that’s what [us] kids wanted. But she had to have a big repertoire because she would also cook Chinese food for my dad when he came home late from work – he’d have a little glass of whiskey and a bunch of different Chinese dishes on this little round table. Poor Mum – she was always in the kitchen.

When my mum got sick, Dad learned to cook a whole lot of Chinese dishes and he became a really good cook. For the last two years of her life, he did all the cooking and took care of her. 

I’m interested in how recipes are passed down through the generations. Sometimes recipes are written down, sometimes they’re learned in the kitchen – or sometimes not! Do you know how this knowledge was learned in your family?

It was definitely through doing. Mum would have learned from grandma, from working alongside her and making things because mum had to leave school at 13 to help look after her younger siblings. So, she was full-time at home looking after the kids and helping cook. Mum had that *a pinch of this dash of that* approach. She just knew how to make something taste really good. My sister Debbie is like that too. I don’t have that talent. They know how to fix something and what tastes good. Cooking to me is like a mystery – some sort of alchemy.

It wasn’t until later in life that we said to Mum, can you please write these things down? Because your knowledge is going to be lost. So she did – she wrote a little notebook. But in the book, it’s things like “rice flour, the one with the yellow packaging”. Now, I don’t know what was so special about that particular rice flour in that yellow package.  But she wrote that all down which was great. 

Left: handwritten recipes by Yip Sue Yen. Right: handwritten knitted yum cha recipes by Bev Moon, 2022

Earlier you showed me these amazing photos of your parents’ wedding, not just of the ceremony but the reception – the hall filled with tables laden with food and a photo of the chefs, smiling ear to ear. Can you tell me what you know about that day? 

The wedding of Ng Sik Kwun and Yip Sue Yen, Wellington, December 26, 1955

My dad’s family were Seyip. Back in the fifties, when my dad and my mum got married, there was a reasonable Seyip community in Wellington. Cantonese speakers of other dialects found it hard to understand Seyip. It was a close-knit community.

There was a Seyip association and a Seyip community, and my dad was really involved in that. My mum married into that community. Dad arrived in New Zealand in 1947 and he worked two jobs in a laundry day and night for about eight years before they married. He had free lodging as he slept at one of the laundries, so he had enough money to buy his fish and chip business and put the deposit down on the family home and pay for his wedding to my mum. To help with the wedding, my dad rallied all the people in his community – they did the catering and the waitering and the setting up of the venue, which was at the Seyip Association building on Vivian Street, in Wellington. They would have had all the traditional Cantonese dishes and big pots of rice.

The Wellington Seyip community banded together to celebrate the wedding of Ng Sik Kwun and Yip Sue Yen in December 1955. Left: wedding chefs. Right: happy wedding guests

I want to ask about your art practice, because it’s so inextricably tied to food and family. And even though you don’t feel that comfortable in the kitchen you’ve found a way to connect to that story and the knowledge held within your family. Can you talk about your journey and how you arrived at the knitted works? 

It’s only recently that I started making stuff to show people. My mother was a refugee and my dad worked two jobs day and night for years. They really wanted us all to be doctors and accountants and lawyers and art was just this frivolous thing. My dad slaved away for 32 years on this wet concrete floor in the fish and chip shop – my art probably wasn’t what he slaved away for. I used to always feel guilty about it. I think that’s why I picked up knitting, because it was useful and there was a reason to do it. And because knitting was something I learned early on from my mum. Knitting and cooking are two things that Mum and Grandma did. It made sense to put them together – it was just a way of expressing my story.

It’s such a beautiful thing to honour your family in that way. Why did you decide to delve into your family history in your art practice? 

What really sparked it off initially was going to Dragon Tails back in 2019 – that’s the biannual conference about Chinese diaspora in New Zealand and Australia. I knew that my family had come to New Zealand back in the 1880s, and so we were early settler Chinese, but I didn’t realise how significant that story was to the history of New Zealand. And so after that I thought, “Actually I do have an interesting family story. This is something I can tell, which is mine.”

So, you started knitting a yum cha feast which would eventually turn into your installation work called Fortune. What was the first piece you knitted?

The pork buns. I already knew how to knit a sphere. So I knitted that and then a lot of it’s just maths, you think, “Oh well if it’s this many stitches, it’s going to be this big; if it’s this many it’s going to be that big”. And I just kept going.

Bev Moon | Fortune (a knitted yum cha for my mother’s 90th birthday), 2021-2022, Mixed media, on a table with central rotating Lazy Susan, Photo: Richard Ng.

You’re using the skills the women in your family have passed down, to showcase women’s knowledge, which is so often hidden. Has the process of creating this and your subsequent work been a powerful thing for you? 

Knitting is actually a very therapeutic thing to do. I used to be quite embarrassed about being different. When I was a teenager it was all about integrating and assimilation and being like everybody else. When I was younger, I used to avoid anything Chinese but now I find it inspiring and I’m glad that I’ve got that story to tell. 

It’s also helped me connect. Fortune is now being shown around the country. I applied to the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust for money to pay for crates so I could tour it and since then, everywhere I’ve been, the Chinese Associations have gotten involved and I’m kind of reconnecting in that way.

Being part of a diasporic community can be such a complicated thing, especially if you’ve gone through periods of feeling distanced. Through your work, do you feel a connection to that part of your heritage?

Yes, definitely. I didn’t always have the easiest relationship with my dad, so I feel like there is something else driving it. I spent my whole life avoiding Chinese things, but this is actually who I am and no one else is able to tell my story. I just feel lucky that I’ve got a way of communicating it.

I know you don’t like to cook, so I won’t ask you for a recipe! But I wonder – what is your Desert Island Dish?

To be honest it should really be my mum’s cooking or my dad’s fish and chips. 

From my mum’s cooking it would be the steamed gow gee. They’re these really nice dumplings and they don’t freeze very well, so you need to have them fresh. They’re filled with meat, Chinese mushrooms and other yummy things like little bits of shrimp. I have got the recipe for it in Mum’s book, but I don’t want to share that!

Bev Moon | Gow Gee from Fortune (a knitted yum cha for my mother’s 90th birthday), 2021-2022

And from my dad’s shop: just the general fish and chips. The fact that you could buy a potato fritter for just 5 cents and my dad managed to bring up a family of six kids selling 5 cent food. It’s extraordinary. 

This interview is part of an ongoing collaboration between The Spinoff and Auckland Museum to find the food stories and recipes that make us who we are. Do you have a story to tell? Send the details through to Nina at 

Keep going!