Editor— Law Ling
Channing Lee is the founder of Message In A Dish. She has a background in Applied Art and is currently studying for a master’s degree in Cultural Studies. She worked in the media industry and used to communicate with readers in written words and images. Now she chooses to express and exchange ideas with the help of food. She set up Message In A Dish in 2016, aiming to spread love and care in communities, and foster conversations on food justice and social issues.
It all began with XO sauce. Channing is gifted at cooking. She makes really good XO sauce with a unique choice of ingredients: Jihua ham, squids, and a number of chili pepper. One of her friends suggested that she sold homemade XO sauce to others online. Channing did. Her XO sauce went very popular and the number of orders kept increasing. It was too much work for her. Peeling garlic cloves for such a great number of orders could take days, let alone preparing other ingredients and cooking them. She wanted somebody to help. But who? She came up with an idea which involved housewives. She paid low-income mothers, whom she met in home visits before, HK$100 per hour to peel garlic cloves at home. In that case the women could make some money without leaving their children at home.
Channing knows the living conditions of the grassroots from previous home visits, but it was her first time to actually feel how it was to be a worker in food & beverage industry. She stayed up all night to peel garlic cloves and experience how exhausting manual labor could be, even for just a simple task. “I couldn’t have got all those orders finished without the help of the ladies in peeling garlic cloves. There wouldn’t be any XO sauce produced at all.” She pointed out that workers were exploited in a capitalist society as retailers spent a large sum of money on advertising and slotting. From her point of view, labor is what makes the products, not the shelves of supermarkets nor advertisements; the dignity of workers ought to be protected. Therefore, she wanted to challenge capitalism as an employer by offering a high hourly wage to employees.
The cooperation with women led her to rethink the function of food. Food can mean more than satisfying people’s appetite. It can act as a message carrier, bringing people together and even resolving conflicts — the Chinese chat about everything while dining. Having these ideas in her mind, she opened a Facebook page to initiate discussions on the cultural meaning of food. More practically, she organizes cooking workshops which are targeted at the middle class regularly, to share her cooking skills and views on social issues. For instance, she taught participants to cook with ugly vegetables and fruits on one workshop. By cooking delicious meals with imperfect food, she raised people’s awareness about food waste on one hand and, and explored and redefined the concepts of beauty on the other.
As for the underprivileged, she worked with Social Ventures Hong Kong (SVhk) to provide disadvantaged women such as the new arrivals with culinary classes. The purpose was to equip them with the skills of being a chef in private kitchens, so that they could work their way out of poverty. “Kitchen is a good place for sharing,” she was glad that her students became more confident and smiled more openly. She planned to run a similar project for marginalized women, including drug addicts and prostitutes. However, the focus of the project will be on strengthening family relationships. Eating at home can be very difficult due to the long-hour work culture. People usually dine out and do not have much family time. “Back to the table” is what Channing encourages. “Nothing makes the kids happier than a meal with family,” she said, hopping that the ladies will cook for their family more often after acquiring the skills.
In the meantime, Channing has been working with Bright Services, a social enterprise which offers job opportunities for ex-offenders and th poor, to produce homemade XO sauce. Not only did she train the staff in kitchen, she also generously shared her secret recipes with them. “Impactaste” is the highlight of the XO sauce. The word has its origin in Spanish and Portuguese, meaning “to impact”. Channing emphasized that everyone who buy the XO sauce could make a lasting impact on the lives of the underprivileged.