Guest blog by Sean Wai Keung, Glasgow-based poet and performer.
What do you think of when you hear the term ‘fusion food’? Or ‘authentic food’? These are some of the questions I’ve found myself asking over the last few years as I’ve dedicated much of my artistic practice to exploring the relationship between food and place.
Take, as an example, chips, fried rice and curry sauce. A pretty standard takeaway dish in this part of the world. I took a look specifically at this dish for a call & response text commission from GENERATORprojects, a Dundee based artist run initiative. The result, ‘hungerblossoms’, explores the migration narratives to be found within this small tupperware of Scottish culture – our chips here came about as the result of European migration, our fried rice thanks to migrants from Hong Kong, our curry sauce as an unintended side effect of our inescapable links to colonisation and empire. Through this one small dish, associated mostly with nights out and unhealthiness, a whole world of historical inter-connections can be tasted.
But why does this matter? On the day I’m writing this, right wing protesters are in George Square, ‘protecting’ statues they perceive as being targets for anti-racist demonstration. More than one source corroborates the shouting of racist abuse towards Black or Asian people. Who we are, and why we are the way we are, feels more important than ever.
And it’s with this as a background that I have been researching and exploring the more specific migration history of Glasgow itself. I read It Wisnae Us by Stephen Mullen, which explores the historical connections between Glasgow and slavery with a particular focus on the buildings and streets of the Merchant City, and Who Belongs to Glasgow? by Mary Edward, an account of migration in this city including chapters specifically looking at migration from the Highlands, Ireland, Italy, China, Asylum Seekers and more.
Reading both these books has given me a new appreciation of both the positives and negatives around migration history in Glasgow. On the one hand, learning about the sheer number of streets and buildings honouring participants in the slave trade has been disheartening, as has recounting the various struggles every migration group has faced here, including even those from within Scotland (a quote here, taken from The Scotsman newspaper in 1846 and reprinted in It Wisnae Us: “It is the fact that morally and intellectually the Highlanders are an inferior race to the Lowland Saxons.”). On the other, learning about the breadth of historical support for abolition and the wider coming-together of people amongst Glaswegians has give me hope. For instance, I learned that an 1826 Scottish petition demanding abolition of the slave trade gathered 39,000 signatures, at the time representing around a quarter of the total population – a few years later, James McCune Smith, born into slavery in New York in 1813 and denied University education in the US, found refuge at the University of Glasgow, where he graduated top in his class in medicine in 1835, becoming the first African American in the world to do so. In more recent history the Citizens of Glasgow movement worked hard to fight for the cause of Nelson Mandela and to end apartheid in South Africa.
What does any of this have to do with food? Well, the slave trade was built on a foundation of sugar and tobacco. Famines drove migrants from the Highlands and Ireland here. It was the Italian and Asian communities who helped to supply the ever-increasing demand for fast and easy food. And while today there may be racist slurs being shouted in the middle of a square named after a famous anti-abolitionist; tomorrow you will still be able to find restaurants proudly calling themselves African, Kurdish, Chinese, Italian or Highland, all within walking distance of that same square. Can any of this food be counted as ‘authentic’? I don’t know. But I still intend to keep exploring it, and through this the wider narratives of belonging in this city as well. There isn’t a single easy answer, but at least through our food we may have an opportunity to come together and talk about it, and I think that here in Glasgow we are particularly well-practiced at trying to have those conversations.