China, change and a nation's culture of food

Author, now living in Durham, writes about her years in China

aweigl@newsobserver.comJanuary 15, 2013 

  • Meet the author Audra Ang, author of “To the People, Food Is Heaven,” will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill as part of the monthly meetings of Culinary Historians of the Piedmont (CHOP NC). For more information, go to flyleafbooks.com or chopnc.com. The bookstore is at 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Chapel Hill. To hear an interview Ang did recently on WUNC’s “The State of Things,” go to goo.gl/TD1TT.

Audra Ang spent seven years in China as an Associated Press reporter, covering the evolving world power and its people.

But it’s the food she remembers.

There were the meals she enjoyed with fellow foreign correspondents, her housekeeper and Chinese dissidents. There was the modest feast with a farmer who had lost everything in a flood but killed the family’s last chicken to feed Ang and a photographer.

Ang, 42, who now lives in Durham, has chronicled her time and meals in China in a new book, “To the People, Food Is Heaven: Stories of Food and Life in a Changing China.” Ang will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.

During a recent lunch at Old Havana Sandwich Shop in Durham, Ang shared her life’s travels from Singapore to Seattle, New York to Beijing, Boston to Durham.

Ang grew up in Singapore but came to the United States to attend the University of Washington. Just before graduation, she was recruited to work for The Associated Press, an international wire service. Ang spent about a decade working as a reporter and editor in Seattle and New York. When her visa was about to expire in 2002, the AP decided to give her an opportunity to work in its Beijing bureau.

Ang recalled being initially overwhelmed by Beijing, a city that is 22 times the size of New York’s five boroughs. Plus, she was reporting in a language that she had studied in Singapore but in which she was far from fluent. At least being Asian, Ang said, she could blend into a crowd, a plus in a country that monitors and tries to thwart the work of foreign reporters.

As a self-described eater and not cook, Ang was struck by how much Chinese hospitality was tied to food. It was common for people to offer her at least tea, if not a meal, when she was out reporting. Ang even found herself taking up the custom of giving a gift as a thank you for hospitality – most often fruit, which was expensive in China. Plus, while people in the United States might gather after work for drinks, in China after work get-togethers involved sharing a meal.

Ang didn’t go to China thinking she would eventually write a book. After seven years in Beijing, she would spend 2010 as a Nieman fellow, a prestigious journalism fellowship at Harvard University. Her editor asked for a story to sum up her time in China. She wrote about how food tied into her reporting experience: that meal with the farmer after severe flooding in summer 2002, the tea offered by police who detained her for questioning, the precious bottles of water handed out to victims of earthquakes, an Easter meal enjoyed with a handful of Chinese dissidents.

That 1,600-word essay didn’t go far enough. Ang said, “I felt like there was so much more to write about.”

During her fellowship, Ang decided to expand that story into a book. After the fellowship, she took a sabbatical from her job and became a guest lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley while she finished the project. Her book was released in October.

In August, Ang took a job at Duke University. She has since come to discover Southern food. She was surprised by how much she liked pepper jelly served over cream cheese with crackers. Then there’s banana pudding. And one of her favorite meals so far: the fried pork chops at Hog Heaven Bar-B-Q in Durham.

As we finished our lunch, Ang said, “I think Southerners are kind of like Chinese in their love of food.”

Weigl: 919-829-4848

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