Historian Highlight is an ongoing series sharing the research experiences of historians in the History Faculty in Cambridge. We ask students how they came to research their topic, their favourite archival find, as well as the best (and worst) advice they’ve received as academics in training. History is all about how we tell stories – this series looks at the stories we have to tell as graduate students. In our twelfth post, Charmaine Au-Yeung describes her MPhil research into food, nationalism and identity within the Hong Kong Chinese community in Britain.
What are you currently researching?
I’m currently researching the Hong Kong Chinese diaspora in twentieth-century Britain! More specifically, I’m looking at the Chinese restaurant – and the food and eating experiences associated with it – as a space where ‘Hong Konger’ and ‘British’ identities are remade and negotiated. I see the restaurant as the primary place which the diaspora used to climb up the social ladder and also become ‘British’.
What led you to research this topic?
There’s a funny story about that! I came to Cambridge last year with the intention of studying Chinese diasporas in South America through food history. I even started planning out a research trip to Lima, where I’d conduct ethnographic research. But a multitude of issues came up, which meant that I had to change gears entirely midway through term two. It was a bit chaotic, to put it mildly, but I eventually landed on my feet and developed my contingency plan: do the same sort of food-based analysis, but apply it closer to home.
As for the choice to do food history – it’s a bit of an obvious pathway for me. Eating well has always been a burning passion of mine, and I love cooking, baking, and writing about food. As luck would have it, I got the chance to research and write about food for an undergraduate class I was doing on South Asian migration (a condensed version of that final essay actually appears on Doing History in Public!). I absolutely fell in love with looking at food through history and connecting it to wider societal issues.
What’s one thing you wish more people understood about your topic, and why?
I look at more than just dishes and raw ingredients! I like to think about food anthropologically and philosophically. It’s about the spaces that the foods are served in, the kinds of people that gather around a table to consume a dish, the smells and tastes associated with the food (and reactions to those smells and tastes), and cookbooks.
What’s one of your favourite historical sources?
I love a good bit of oral history; it never fails to surprise me whenever I remember that people alive today whom are my age can be historical sources. It might sounds weird, I but I think this is especially pertinent to food history: everyone eats, and has a personal experience and relationship with food. So, one of my favourite things to do is to put a poll up on my Instagram account to ask my friends what images come to mind, for example, when I say ‘Chinese food’. That usually spurs a bit of back and forth with a few of my pals, and we come out of it saying ‘oh man, I hadn’t thought about it like that before!’. It’s a lot of fun.
Have you had to adapt your work to suit recent travel restrictions? If so, has this changed how you approach your topic, or the kinds of sources you use?
Oh yes. I mentioned earlier that my research topic has now entirely changed. Methodologically-speaking, my primary source research was going to be more reliant on oral histories. Since the big change, I’ve been doing a lot more archival research than I originally set out to do and, ironically, no actual interviewing of my own, but luckily it’s all proven to be quite fruitful!
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as a historian?
Have courage in your convictions, and separate the feedback that you receive on any piece of work from your self-value as a person. Also, and more practically, stop working after 6:30pm.
And the worst?
The examiner who docked marks on my dissertation because it was 1.5 spaced instead of 2.0, among other strange qualms? In fairness, they did make some good points in places, but still! 1.5 spacing instead of 2.0. Very confusing.
Finally – what’s your must-do Cambridge experience?
Cambridge Market Square and Mill Road for the excellent food! I have a long list of recommendations.