Charlotte Muru-Lanning chats to Jack Woon, director of new local docuseries Sik Fan Lah!, about the meaning of food in contemporary Chinese New Zealand life.
The Cantonese phrase “Sik Fan Lah” is a familiar expression in scores of New Zealand households. Translating to “it’s time to eat”, the phrase is a declaration that food is ready – bringing with it the promise of time spent sharing a meal around the dining table.
It’s not surprising then, that Sik Fan Lah! is the title of a snappy new TVNZ documentary series celebrating Chinese food in Aotearoa. Over six episodes a revolving door of hosts set out on a culinary adventure up and down the country. Funded by NZ on Air, the series’ hosts include Masterchef winner Sam Low; Wellington coffee entrepreneurs Natalie and Stephanie Chin; Black Fern Tyla Nathan-Wong; Dunedin’s Royal Albatross Centre educator Janice Chi Fen Huang; meme queen Abigail Masengi and playwright Nathan Joe.
“There is no recipe on how to be Chinese,” says Sam Low between bites of egg tart in the first episode. “It’s like yum cha – just because you’re Chinese it doesn’t mean you have to like every single dish.”
Each of the 23-minute episodes is a fizzy expression of how Chinese identity is forged through food in contemporary Aotearoa. Along the way we’re taken to a fish and chip shop with an opulent secret menu and to watch Chinese seafood dishes cooked in the geothermal waters of Ngāraratuatara in Rotorua. A foraged banquet is prepared and shared by the moana, claypot rice is cooked in the windy Otago goldfields and dim sum are shared with Chinese New Zealand trailblazer Esther Fung. Culinary traditions, like identity, are maintained, adapted and redefined. The sheer vastness of the kai shared is reflective of the diverse histories, origins and languages that encompass what it means to be Chinese. But there’s a common thread too: a love of food.
I spoke to Sik Fan Lah! director Jack Woon, who was born in Malaysia but moved to Aotearoa with his family when he was five, about the lessons learnt in making the series and what it says about the definition of Chinese food in Aotearoa.
Why did food become the central thread for the show?
Food is universal. Every culture is centred around food but in Chinese culture and Asian cultures, we put food at the centre of every festival, every ritual we do. So this Chinese New Year that just went by, wherever we go, we’re gonna have food. It’s all about feasting whether it’s Lunar New Year or Dragon Boat Festival or Mooncake Festival. And there’s a special dish that encompasses each festival. So if you’re talking about culture, so much of it is in that food and food is such a beautiful vehicle for culture. Because when you have food in front of you, it’s a way to bring people together and it’s also a way to communicate. It’s not just the ingredients, the process of making it, but it’s also the love that is behind it. The personal story of how parents and how families show love, especially in Chinese families. Our parents might not say “I love you” but the way they show love is just to cook you your favourite dish, that love is on the table.
Where did the initial idea for the show come from?
This was our co-producer Jess Wong’s idea. She was just sitting at dinner with her grandparents and she had a thought that so much of her heritage she learned through food, around the dinner table with grandparents and parents. And so when NZ On Air put out a call she worked with Pan Asian Screen Collective to put this proposal through. New Zealand has about a 15% Asian population and yet we’re so underrepresented in the actual production voices on screen. So it was recognised by NZ On Air that there was a really big gap in Pan Asian representation on screen and this was one of six projects that were funded. [Also funded in in this round were The Spinoff ‘s video series Takeout Kids and Hair Now.]
Asian experiences in Aotearoa are often tinged with trauma, and the show definitely carries that, but it also feels so joyful. Was it a deliberate decision to create something celebratory?
Absolutely. I think it’s all about the burden of representation. When we are people of colour anything we put out is going to be representing your people of colour. The burden of representation is a problem because when you do something great, it’s about you, when you do something bad, it’s about your entire culture. This show, quite clearly it’s about Chinese New Zealanders, so we just wanted to ensure that this was about all about the positive sides of us. We have to represent as much of the positive as we can. It’s almost like a chance to fight back against how we are typically represented. We have to do something different and I felt this was different enough. The hope was to just make it first and foremost, attractive, tasty – just like our food. I just want this to be a big celebration, because being able to be Chinese in New Zealand is a cause to celebrate.
There’s so much diversity in terms of what it means to be Chinese, let alone what Chinese food is – was that a challenge when you’re working within the limitations of a relatively short series?
Challenge is the correct word. Because one of the first things I thought when Jess asked me to be on this project, was that Chinese, and food are the parameters. But it’s so broad, right? Just the word Chinese is so broad. We’ve not just got huge swathes of geographical regions of China, you’ve got Southern, Eastern, Western, Northern. And then when it comes to New Zealand, we’ve got completely different experiences based on when you came to New Zealand. You’ve got the descendants of the gold miners in Dunedin who spoke Cantonese and were from the Guangdong region, and they came to New Zealand in the 19th Century. And then the generation after that were their families who were market gardeners and they ran fruit shops. And then the generation after that is almost my family’s generation, the people who came over to study in the 70s and 80s. And their families came with them, not even just from China, but from Malaysia, Singapore, and all the other diaspora regions. And now we’re starting to see the very new generation, which is often direct from China. So it’s just a whole bunch of different experiences, different languages, different cuisines. We knew from the start that if we did do a show about Chinese New Zealanders, we have to acknowledge that it’s completely different, completely diverse. And so in our choice of what stories we were going to tell, we decided we were going to make sure we cover the whole spectrum, in every episode. That was one of the reasons we decided to choose six different hosts, rather than just have one host.
Do you feel like the series comes to any kind of definition on what Chinese food is in New Zealand?
I think the point we are trying to make is don’t define it. If you are Chinese, you are Chinese. And if you’re making food, it’s Chinese food. The whole point is like you do it your own way and there’s no right way of being Chinese.
What does the show mean to you personally?
In some ways it was a challenge to make this show but actually, it’s one of the easiest shows I’ve ever worked on because I could just be myself. When I grew up, I thought being a New Zealander meant, you’re either Pākehā or Māori – Chinese wasn’t a part of New Zealand. I didn’t think I was completely a New Zealander until now. While making this, I could just be myself. And I think that’s the same for everyone who was a part of the show, there’s just this power that’s unlocked when you can be yourself on screen. You don’t have to think about whether this is right, whether this is Kiwi or whether this is Chinese, you’re just being yourself and you have the right to be on screen. I think that’s the most touching experience I’ve had working on this project is being able to do that for the first time in my life. I’ve been working on American shows even while I was making documentaries in China. It wasn’t my story – that’s a foreign country for me. I haven’t made a show for my people, by my people – until now. That’s why I’m so proud of it.
Sik Fan Lah! premieres on TVNZ 1 at 10am, Sunday 12 February, and is available to stream on TVNZ+.