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Médiations générationnelles

Skimming the Scum: Hygienic Modernity in Chinese American Intergenerational Soup-Making

Modernité hygiénique dans la fabrication de la soupe sino-américaine
Evelyn Y. Ho, Eileen Chia-Ching Fung et Genevieve Leung


Cet article analyse le partage intergénérational de recettes de soupes familiales chez les Sino-Américains à partir d’enregistement audio et video de séances de cuisine. Trois thèmes principaux ressortent: 1) la construction de l’hygiène au cours de la préparation des repas, 2) l’interrogation de l’authenticité et de la “chinoisité” dans les pratiques d’alimentation, et, 3) la revendication du capital culturel comme élement identitaire d’un groupe marginal aux Etats-Unis à travers les connaissances intergénérationnelles de l’alimentation. Considérés ensemble, ces thèmes montrent comment les Sino-Américains sont aux prises avec une longue histoire de discrimination et, en même temps, repoussent les tendances à l’assimilation grâce à la préservation positive de leur affinité culturelle et dessinent des espaces pour les nouvelles générations.

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1Throughout history, people of all cultures have passed down from generation to generation important domestic instructions including how to maintain a household, raise children, or cook meals. While these tasks are all important, perhaps none other carries such rich meaning and treasured status as passing down recipes for particular dishes. Home cooking is both a daily way to feed and sustain family members and an important tie to culture and a daily indicator of health. In this paper, we examine Chinese Americans’ intergenerational sharing of important family soup recipes.

Theoretical Framing

2We use Rogaski’s (2004) concept of hygienic modernity to understand the practice of intergenerational soup talk. Originally coined to make sense of the change over time to one Chinese port town of Tianjin, the concept is applicable more broadly about Chinese cultural practices and relevant to post-colonial and transnational spaces. Rogaski explains that before western biomedicine entered China or even the Chinese imaginary, Chinese medicine and Chinese people had a complex understanding of weisheng or hygiene as regimen for, in literal translation guarding life. Scholars of Chinese medicine recognize both the Daoist and Buddhist origins of Chinese medicine including the attention paid to moderation and balance (Rogaski, 2004). As a pre-modern practice of health, scholars have made connections to Galenic western medicine’s attention to balance, breath, and even pulse as a sign of good health (Kuriyama, 1999). However, when scientific biomedicine became the dominant and hegemonic form of medicine worldwide, Chinese medicine and weisheng rituals became an obvious marker of China’s deficiency and a site for national identity building (Rogaski, 2004).

3Hygienic modernity examines how the practice and concept of weisheng has transformed and materialized over time from a set of rituals defined by a set of cultural knowledge; that is, weisheng becomes a discursive practice, which Foucault (1972) would argue, reflects a set of organized knowledge that structures social and communal relations. The rhetoric and practices of shaping, imposing, and disseminating the practices of weisheng becomes medicalized and normalized in daily works. These practices demonstrate a system in which knowledge is organized socially and collectively to be accepted as discursive logic and thus gain cultural legitimacy. We examine how a specific cultural practice in soup making among Chinese Americans serves as a means to procure positive cultural capital for ethnic identification and affirmation across generations. The next two sections will review research about the history of Chinese in America and Asian American food and cultural pathways.

Yellow Peril and Contagion Fears: History of Discrimination against the Chinese in America

4The subjects of food, cooking and eating have always provided material histories that contain discriminatory and racial inequity in Asian American studies. This article serves as a reminder, then, that studies about food are both personal and political, recognizing that the rhetorics surrounding the culinary acts as liminal and discursive space. To that end, it is important to frame our inquiries within the immigrant history of Chinese in the U.S.

5Because of U.S. immigration laws and policies, Chinese in the U.S. are likely to have entered either in the mid- to late 19th century or in the post-1965 era (Lee, 2016). These generations of Chinese Americans and their families come from a variety of regions in China and throughout Asia where the Chinese diaspora have settled. In California, where many of our recordings took place, there is a long history of Chinese starting first in the mid-1800s when Chinese (almost entirely men) emigrated for the Gold Rush and were later brought to the U.S. as cheap labor for building railroads (Lee, 2016). By the late 1800s ethnic tensions between Chinese and other foreign laborers resulted in passage of a number of restrictive immigration laws including the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first U.S. law to restrict immigration based on race/ethnicity, banning all immigration from China and used to restrict other Asians as well (Lee, 2016). Legally, immigration was not opened again to Chinese and other Asians until passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act when large numbers of Chinese (mostly skilled labor and family reunification) increased immigrant numbers dramatically (Hsu, 2015).

6Because of these laws, the period between 1882 and 1965 created a certain racialized, gendered, and classed profile of predominantly Chinese poor bachelors who lived in overcrowded Chinatowns; one important and sizable example is San Francisco’s Chinatown. These ethnic enclaves were viewed as dens of debauchery, contagion, and death (Risse, 2011) and served as some of the earliest instances of the Yellow Peril image and stereotype (Tchen & Yeats, 2014). In part, this image emerges from racist practices that disallowed Chinese from using the public and other hospitals and health clinics, because they had “loathsome ailments that would contaminate ‘civilized’ patients” (Risse, 2011, p. 416). But these ideas were also reinforced through the cultural beliefs around the need to stay away from death, dying, and illness, which led to many seriously ill and dying Chinese living in San Francisco to spend their final weeks and days in “chambers of tranquility.” These chambers were actually just halls where corpses were held waiting to be prepared for burial and other death rituals including sending remains back to China. These combination “end-of life”/necro-holding cells were the only places to segregate those with illnesses that could not be cured by the Chinese herbs and medicinal knowledge held within the community (Risse, 2011). Fears of contagion only intensified as the first cases of bubonic plague arrived in San Francisco (Risse, 2011). This history echoes eerily and all too familiarly in present-day U.S. and international discourses about the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). For example, in France, newspaper Le Courier Picard announced “Alerte jaune” (Yellow alert) and “Le péril jaune?” (Yellow peril?), to much French Asian backlash (the newspaper later apologized) and in the U.S., fear-mongering has been particularly aimed at stereotypes of Chinese food and the foods Chinese people eat (Yeung, 2020), displacing them to the periphery of U.S. society and hygienic modernity.

7The fear of contagion and dangers in interacting with Chinese (and other Asian Americans) can be seen in movements throughout U.S. history tied generally to colonial interests in Asia. The U.S. war in the Philippines, internment of Japanese Americans in World War II, the onset of the Vietnam War, domestic anti-miscegenation laws, and even portrayals in mass media led to repeats and reiterations of the Yellow Peril ideology and relegation of Asian Americans to the sidelines of public discourse and everyday life throughout the 20th century.

Discourse of Asian American Food Production and Ethnic Authenticity

8For Asians living in America, including the Chinese who represent one of the largest Asian ethnic populations in the U.S., food and food-related rituals have had public and private fora through which they negotiate identity, lifestyle and environment. Food is a symbolic and ontological tool as food practices in general are rooted in gender, political, economic, and ideological contexts. The relationship constructed between Chinese Americans and the food they consume has become increasingly important in the discipline of Asian American studies. Various literary and cinematic productions appropriate the performative nature of food metaphors and consumptive activities as means to reaffirm specific cultural familiarity and identification. The production, preparation, and consumption of food therefore reveal the complex interdependence between regional resources and ethnic subjectivity. While people have long made the connection between cuisine and cultural identification, only recently have scholars in Asian American and cultural studies noted its historical and cultural implications, witnessing an intimacy between the expression of selfhood and the appropriation of food imagery, consumption of material goods, and other acts of incorporation.

9Recently, an increasing number of scholars have acknowledged the significance of food narratives and food culture in Asian American studies. Anthropologists and literary cultural studies scholars have offered various studies of foodways and their relationship to identity and social formation (e.g. Douglas, 1966; Griffiths & Wallace, 1998; Levenstein, 1988); among this body of literature, several Asian American scholars have examined food and Asian American cultural and literary production (e.g., Chin, 1998; Ma, 2000; White, 2001; Wong, 1993) as well as food criticism (Ho, 2005; Mannur, 2010; Xu, 2008).

10Such scholarship on Asian American studies and foodways clearly underscores the relationship between the rhetoric of identity politics and the cultural practices of cooking and eating. The critics have shown us the language surrounding cuisine is a politically and culturally significant act. Language use is never neutral but is determined through sociohistorical and sociocultural contexts. We build upon this knowledge in a new context: intergenerational soup making practices and the discourses around food. Such discourses build cultural capital, (re)define ethnic authenticity, and reinforce intergenerational traditions and cultural values. Cultural practices of cooking function as a way in which an ethnic subject can gain strength through identification and affirmation or be objectified by oversimplification and stereotype. The food talk, i.e., “skimming the scum,” performs these cultural practices that are essentially liminal and subversive; in that, the ethnic subjects begin to take shape. It is within this backdrop that we analyze the intergenerational talk in everyday soup-making. Our main research questions are as follows:

RQ1: How does soup-making serve as a cultural practice for a formation of a “displaced” ethnic subject intergenerationally?
RQ2: How does cooking-hygiene talk function as a cultural practice that reflects a discourse that connects the language about health and intergenerational immigrant subjectivity?


11Data for this study come from 16 video and audio recordings (14 hours) of Chinese Americans learning how to cook a cherished family soup from a family elder (grandparent, parent, aunt/uncle, etc.). Participants were solicited via convenience and snowball sampling between March 2018 and November 2019; the first author appears as a participant in two different large family gatherings and is identified. All participants agreed to record these interactions in a home setting, and data were transcribed and translated by trained, bilingual/bicultural research assistants fluent in Cantonese/Mandarin and English. We, as Chinese American authors with various levels of English, Mandarin, and Cantonese language fluency, and coming from an interdisciplinary mix of literary/cultural studies, sociolinguistics, and communication, used a discourse analytic framework (Tracy, 2001) to analyze the interactional components of the talk.


12Across numerous different families, Chinese American discourse while cooking revealed important moments of intergenerational confluence as well as questioning. Three main themes emerged: 1) Construction of hygiene around Chinese meal preparation; 2) questioning the authenticity and Chineseness of particular food practices; and 3) claiming cultural capital as part of a marginalized identity group in the U.S. through intergenerational food knowledge. Taken together, these themes demonstrate how Chinese Americans wrestle with a history of discrimination while simultaneously countering assimiliationist tendencies through preserving positive cultural affinity and carving out spaces for newer generations.

The Construction of Hygiene around Chinese American Food Production

13The connection between consumption and hygiene continues to occupy the minds of Chinese Americans in culinary practices at home. In the following excerpt, an uncle (5th generation on mom’s side and 4th generation on dad’s side) and his nephew (Casey) are cooking a lotus root soup that the uncle learned from his paternal grandfather. The nephew had recently moved to San Francisco from Hawaii where lotus root is difficult to find. Casey said he has not eaten this soup very much while growing up. As Chinese Americans who have been in the U.S. for many generations, this recording occurred almost entirely in English as both of the men have not retained their family’s Cantonese or Hoisan languages. As they begin to prepare the dish, the uncle states:

Excerpt 1: Uncle + Nephew
Uncle: So I like to cook soup whenever you know it’s cold outside and I think it’s good for your constitution. It is supposed to be good for your health. It’s supposed to kind of build up your Qi and keep you warm but it’s also just delicious, don’t you think?

14San Francisco is notoriously chilly year-round (much more so than Hawaii), especially in the neighborhood where this family lives. By presenting this soup as both healthy and delicious, especially from a Chinese medicine perspective (which we will discuss in the next section), David is able to position this soup as an everyday way to maintain health outside of the formal medical system, pointing back to the notion of weisheng as a hygienic ritual of balancing the constitution. Given the time frame of when their family has lived in San Francisco, this balancing practice may have been important as their early immigrant ancestors would not have had easy access to biomedical care. David and Casey also have an extended discussion about the different types of lotus roots available in the market and the kinds David and Casey’s mom ate as children. David says at one point “So you know Chinese people, they pretty much eat- they don’t waste anything right?” in talking about why lotus root was probably so popular for Chinese cuisine. Not eaten just for its taste, the lotus root instead was a food of availability and resourcefulness, but also reinforcing the stereotype of the backwardness of early Chinese immigrants who could not achieve the status of foods of distinction (Bourdieu, 1979).

15Speaking to the internalization of deficit stereotypes attributed to early Chinese Americans, though pre-Coronavirus discourses of contagion between Chinese Americans and White Americans have been more latent, the next excerpt demonstrates how the obsession about restricting contagion and contamination continues to be integral to proper food preparation and cooking of soup:

Excerpt 2: Uncle + Nephew
Uncle: And the steps to cook this dish is basically you want to first boil the pork I should have actually taken some of the skin off we can actually still do that but I like the pork butt and- because it has the flavor of the bone marrow as well. You can also use pork neck because pork neck is actually more traditional for how they cook Chinese soup and plus it’s cheaper….let’s see and what the first thing we want to do is kind of get some of the impurities out of the pork butt so we’re gonna let it you know boil that’s why I already got the water to boiling. And you want to let the impurities of the pork come out it comes out like this usually like a brown scum, and you have to kind of take that out. Some people will actually spend time to boil the pork, wait for the scum to come out, and then just like boil it for like twenty minutes and toss all the water out. I don’t have time to do that (laugh) but that’s how people do it when they’re retired, so what I do is I’ll like boil it and I’ll just take the scum out and I think that’s good enough.

16The instruction to first boil, then toss or skim, as a preparation for cooking was one that repeated throughout our recordings especially if the soup involved cooking raw meat. Elders instructed the next generation to treat the first boiling not as cooking but as cleaning. As David explains, the boiling removes the impurities which he directly ties to the brown scum that emerges on the top of the water. Noticeably, no one discusses what the scum or impurities were, only that they were bad and dirty and the proper way to prepare was to get rid of this. David also speaks to the time necessary to cook properly. He knows how he was taught and recognizes that this is probably the better way to do this. However, in light of the responsibilities and time constraints of a modern working family member, David instructs and concedes that the skimming method will have to be good enough.

Chinese “Authenticity” in the Imaginary: Everyday Chinese Medicinal Foods

17When we began this project and started asking Chinese American friends, family, and colleagues if they had a particular Chinese soup that they made regularly or for special occasions, the varied responses that we received speak to the kinds of cultural questions that we will examine in this section. Underlying the responses of “we just make soup, not Chinese soup,” and “it’s nothing special, it’s just what we have that we throw together,” is an anxiety over issues of authenticity and identification that manifests especially clearly in intergenerational talk. The fact that people were able to identify their own cooking as not Chinese means that they were operating under a framework in which there are things that are authentically Chinese in comparison.

18Similarly, while some participants openly discussed the value of the soup in terms of Chinese medicinal qualities (e.g., reducing heat, warming up the body), they did not ever explicitly identify their soups as a “Chinese medicinal soup” or a form of Chinese medicine. In this sense, this intergenerational stress between what counts as an “authentic” Chinese soup manifests itself across multiple facets. Our data show that being Chinese and feeding their everyday soups to other Chinese was not enough to authenticate the soup they were making as “Chinese” or perhaps special enough to be a treasured soup. In examining the data, it appears that what defines “Chinese” and “treasured” is in fact its intergenerational nature. The fact that the soup recipe was taught and passed down from some Chinese person generationally older than themselves was a relevant marker to fit in this category. In addition, in soliciting these stories, many of our younger generation participants remarked that this activity of recording was something they had wanted to, and meant to do, “at some point” while their relatives were still alive. In other words, our solicitation, although created for the purpose of eliciting these stories for research, touched a chord that already existed, especially as expressed by the younger generation participants whom we recruited.

19The frequently heard expressions about “how Chinese” is the recipe and how the recipe is passed down all seem to reflect the underlying anxiety about displacement of generations of Chinese in the U.S. One particular place where notions of authenticity or reconnection to cultural practice were especially apparent were in instances where Chinese Americans were (re)making everyday soups with medicinal value. Recipe and instruction of medicinal cooking represent strategies to establish intergenerational authenticity and reconcile bi-cultural identities.

20In excerpt 3 below, a mother is describing how to cook a postpartum fish soup that she “invented” after hearing from others that this fish was good for mothers to produce breast milk. Chinese postpartum practices are quite well established and used in much of the diaspora most prominently in Asia (Chen et al., 2014) and typically are experienced by new mothers intergenerationally. The practices include restrictions on behavior (not lifting heavy objects, not exposing oneself to cold) and requirements for diet (such as eating hot or heat-inducing foods), which mothers and in-laws are often expected to prepare (Ho et al, 2015). These hygiene rituals could be seen as old-fashioned and restrictive in a modern world, but recent studies have also found connections between certain practices such as not lifting heavy objects and having foods prepared for you with increased mental health postpartum. Authors have explained that this might be because those restrictions can only be done by mothers who also have help and social support which may explain lower levels of depression (Ho et al, 2015).

21In the following exchange, a mother previously made a postpartum soup for her daughter when the daughter gave birth. In this exchange, the mother, Nora, speaks in Mandarin explaining how to make this soup to her son and his girlfriend.

Excerpt 3: Nora (Mother), Lucas (Son), Chloe (Son’s Girlfriend)
Nora: 這個大眼睛紅魚 這個不貪吃不臭 要一定要洗乾淨 知道嗎
(This big-eyed snapper, this one will not go bad, when you eat it, it doesn’t smell, you absolutely need to wash it clean, you know that, right?)
Chloe: Oh okay
N: 那個肚子裡面那是血 髒的都要弄乾淨
(That stomach, inside that is blood, the dirty stuff you need to make it clean)
N: 弄乾淨做起來不會那個腥味不會那麼大
(Make it clean, when you do that, that fishy smell will not be so strong)
Lucas: OK
N: 一定要洗乾淨 我這樣把他擦一擦乾水就沒有了
(You must clean it, I wipe it dry it like this, so there will be no water)
C: 你這個是哪裡學的?
(Where do you learn it (how to cook the fish)?)
N: 自己 自己想出來的做個魚湯
(Myself, I came up with this fish soup myself)

22Nora begins this recording by first talking about how to make the fish clean and not smelly. Like skimming the scum, these dual concerns with cleanliness and smell are important in understanding these recipes as examples of hygienic modernity. With a long history of the fear of airborne pathogens (e.g., miasma, COVID-19) and modernity’s disassociation with the malodorous smells of everyday life, the connection of dirt with bad smell, and the association of stinky food and foreignness comes out here and elsewhere and will be discussed in more depth in the following section. Additionally, the fact that Nora explicitly explains she learned to cook the fish “by herself” (as opposed to it being taught to her by an elder or family member, as would have been traditionally done for postpartum soups) demonstrates her “ingenuity” in figuring out how to maintain a tradition in the U.S. context that still reads as Chinese in its origin.

23Similarly, the practice of making medicinal soup could lead to expressions of bicultural negotiation and reconciliation. In Excerpt 4, we see Emma is asking her boyfriend’s mom, Lily, about making a winter snow pear soup.

Excerpt 4 Lily (Mother), Emma (Lily’s Son’s Girlfriend)
Lily: 因為無花果又係,即係,比較清潤啦
(And because figs are also, like, comparatively lubricative)
Emma: 即要balance返啦
(That is, to balance back the diet)
E: 咁你全部啲,材料,都喺 Chinese market
(So, all your ingredients were [bought] from [the] Chinese market?)
L: 喇,呢個可以喺墨西哥舖頭囉
(Look, this fig can be bought from Mexican stores)
E: 都係啊,頭先講咗
(Yes, you told me that before)

24In her instructions, Lily emphasizes the significance of using figs, a sweetener and throat coater/lubricant that protects one’s throat from winter colds/illnesses. Not only does she mention the Chinese medicinal value of figs, she even triumphantly mentions that they can even be found in “Mexican stores,” a move that can be seen as integrating Chinese consumption/purchasing practices within a Western locale. That is, one can substitute going to a Chinese shop with a “Mexican” one because figs can be found in both places. Emma’s response of “Yes, you told me that before” indicates that this was not the first time Lily told Emma of this resourceful bicultural life hack. Both excerpts 3 and 4 illustrate how the creation of everyday Chinese medicinal foods are talked about and authenticated in the imaginary for Chinese American families and that adjustments are made as generations are in the U.S. longer.

Chinese American Modernity and Food: Shifting Toward Cultural Capital

25In the history of Asians in America, yellow peril stereotypes focused on the idea that Asians are difficult to assimilate in U.S. society. In part because they do not blend in phenotypically, but also because of their supposed ties to home country (e.g. this was what led to President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 and the internment of Japanese American U.S. citizens during World War II), we interpret some of the debates around the rightness and wrongness of food-hygiene-related practices as possible commentaries about what it means to be Asian in the U.S. While some of the hyperfocus on smell and scum could be read alongside a racist history of the yellow peril, we can also read second generation skepticism of these time-consuming practices as backward and markers of the lack of cultural capital in immigrant elders. In other words, younger generations born in the U.S. and have acculturated through language, speech, and other cultural practices may actively distance themselves from foreign practices of their elders.

26The confusion over exactly why one should bother with cleaning, and whether this is indeed a Chinese practice, can be seen in a conversation between a handful of 1.5 generation (immigrated to the U.S. as a child) and second generation (born in the U.S.) adult Chinese American cousins who were talking about soup at a holiday dinner. This exchange happens mostly in English with some Mandarin words thrown in and the cousins are discussing the various Chinese soups that they each have learned from their moms and they laugh about how the instructions never include times or measurements. One cousin (the first author) suggests that to cook broth properly, one should cook the meat and bones and vegetables until the soup is milky, “Then you actually throw away all that stuff. And then you cook with the broth, the soup that you are making. If you really want it to taste good.” Framed as a matter of taste, the other cousins debate if you should throw out the meat and vegetables or eat them and one younger cousin asks, “Wait, you don’t eat that?” Then the cousins debate if this a “Chinese” or Americanized practice.

Excerpt 5: Sam, Author, Diane, Caitlyn (Four Adult Cousins)
Sam: So you boil it first and then you throw it all away?
Author:You make broth with like, with the 骨頭 (bone) and a little bit of meat right? And once it becomes milky, that’s when the like that’s when
Diane: But the, but the throw 的骨頭 (redundant bone), do you think that’s the more like the Americanized way?
A: I don’t know
D: Because the Chinese like
Caitlyn: We leave everything in there
S: You need the vegetables for the flavoring
A: So you should actually, you either you add the vegetables in later or I mean if you make it 很高級 (very high-class/fancy) I think? you throw everything out.
D: Yeah that’s it.
A: And then you add everything back in. So then you cook it just enough
C: Oh I get it
A: That it tastes good and as opposed to like falling apart.
D: 因為那個骨頭的渣渣,肥, 就那些都
(Because the dreg of the bones, the fat and all of that)
C: Yeah
A: All that stuff. But that might be Americanized
C: 所以要 (That’s why you need a) strainer.
A: I think that’s more Americanized way, yeah.
C: No, but that’s how my mom explained it last night too.
A: Ah, she did say?
C: She boiled everything and then uhm
A: Cuz this is the 消毒 (disinfection), right?
C: Cuz I was like do you 炒 (stir-fry) she said 牛肉麵你炒的 (for beef noodles you stir-fry), but for the 湯 you boil I said ohh

27As the cousins discuss, it is important to get rid of the scum which might also include the bone fragments and other fat and dirty elements from soups in order to cook soup properly the way their mothers have taught them. Their discussion about the reasons for doing so point importantly to ideas of hygienic modernity as explained previously and as displayed in this Chinese American multigenerational context. However, the discussion centers not only on the issue of whether and how one should do this, but also about whether and how these practices can be understood to be markers of Chineseness, thus, an issue of authenticity to imagined positions of American or Chinese. On one hand, Chinese practices are hyper-focused on cleanliness and hygiene, which these cousins all take for granted. On the other, Chineseness can also be recognized through the practice of eating everything and not wasting. Because throwing out the cooked meat seems too wasteful, the cousins wonder aloud if it’s actually a Chinese practice or if it’s a fancy/bourgeois practice instead, noting the two cannot coincide. In this exchange, they affiliate fancy with American and Chinese with frugality.

28These questions continue in intergenerational talk as seen in excerpt 6, where a family (Uncle, Aunt: both 1st generation immigrants; three adult 2nd generation cousins) are cooking a variety of dishes for a family dinner. The Aunt is known to be a “good cook” in the family and the cousins have asked her to cook a few dishes and teach them the recipes.

Excerpt 6: Uncle, Aunt, Jean, Esther, Author (Three Adult Cousins)
Jean: 你不要丟在這裏面 (Don’t throw it in there [the sink])
Uncle: 可以丟在這裏 (You can throw it in there)
U: How bout your drainage, it’s boiled. Later 丟在地上, 倒在地上
(throw it out on the ground, pour it on the ground)
J: 我們做什麼?(What should we do?)
Aunt: 什麼?倒在哪裡?(What? Throwing it out where?)
U: 倒在水泥地上,它讓它冷。
(Pour it on top of the cement floor, let it cool down [on the cement].)
A : 等一下這個可以做肥料,很好的肥料。
(Later on it can be used as fertilizer, very good fertilizer)
J: 嗯,真的?(Oh really?) fertilizer.
Author: 可是那個 (but this) you won’t get raccoons? (laugh)
Aunt: 澆到花上啊,樹上啊,都很好。
(Pour it on flowers, trees, both are really good.)
Esther: What are we doing?
Auth: With the rib water.
Aunt: Yap, 放到水泥,不要放到, 因為這是 (Put it on the cement floor, not on the, because it is)
Aunt: 等一下,這個做肥料很好。
(Later on, this works really well as fertilizer.)
Aunt: 很營養的。(It’s very nutritious.)
Auth: Oh
[2 lines removed about where to place the pot]
Author: This is with the rib water
Uncle: Jean 你就倒在哪裡,不要讓它,讓它擋著..
(Jean just pour it there, don’t let it, let it get blocked)
Aunt: 我會倒,我會倒。
(I will pour it, I will pour it.)
Uncle: 倒在哪裡,要它長的就是肥料。
(Pour it over there, wherever, you want things to grow.)
E: Is it like a gizzard or something?
J: No, it’s the water. You know they always say wash the meat before you put it in the soup? So that’s the wash, bath water for the pork chops.

29In this exchange, Uncle tries to tell Jean to let the “wash water” from boiling the pork cool down so she can later dump it into her garden to use as fertilizer. Unlike previous excerpts where there is no value in the cleaning water, the wash water here is actually presented as a helpful substance for growing other things. While not clean enough to eat, perhaps like other fertilizers (feces and rotten compost), it does not mean that it can’t still be used for something productive. Given the reclaimed modern and bourgeois movement of backyard composting and organic garden patches, a practice of throwing out cooking water in one’s yard could be read by some as a very green-eco-friendly practice. Or the practice could be another marker of the unassimilable nature of immigrant Chinese. It is worth noting at first, the cousins show both confusion and skepticism. The practice is so odd they don’t at first even understand what the Uncle is suggesting. Second, when the first author asks, “Won’t it attract raccoons,” this question could be a kind of skepticism of the practice also as backwards or foreign. That is to say, in enacting a “non-standard” public practice (i.e., throwing out water with washed meat into one’s garden), one runs the risk of being read as “dirty,” or attracting vermin (i.e., racoons), which further perpetuates negative Orientalist stereotypes. To add another layer to this, ironically, in a San Francisco Bay Area Foodie culture in which locavore eating, grey water recycling, and zero waste environmentalism reigns, the thought that one could use cooking water to water and feed plants seems quite modern indeed and the family seem to land on this conclusion by the end of the talk.


30In this analysis of intergenerational cooking recordings, we explored “skimming the scum” and other cleanliness practices as modern examples of hygienic modernity that exists in Chinese American discourse. Although Chinese medicine retains aspects of hygienic practices through attention to balancing one’s constitution through foods eaten and avoided, these cooking practices are also situated within the U.S., where Chinese and Asian immigrants over the last 100+ years have been seen as dirty, contaminated, and a danger to modern society. Questions of authenticity could be also heard in the discourses of soup-making, where Chinese Americans negotiated and reconciled their bicultural identities through their current cooking practices. Younger generations of Chinese Americans know of these practices but are also seen to modify them for convenience or because they disagree with their premises. In these intergenerational conversations, Chinese Americans engaged in important questions of authenticity and the place of food for establishing cultural capital as part of a marginalized identity.

31This research is limited by its small and geographically limited sample. As noted earlier, the first author appears in two transcripts as a participant in large family gatherings; future researchers could examine food making practices among a wide variety of generational dyads/groups. It is worth exploring whether these practices of intergenerational transfer are contextually specific to Chinese American experience or whether concerns with hygiene, modernity, authenticity, and cultural capital are important intergenerational concerns for other diasporic groups worldwide. Limitations aside, we believe the data collected are still representative of a larger set of stories relating to food and cultural pathways that diasporic Chinese tell and want to tell to the next generation who wants to hear.

32In a global milieu in which the COVID-19 pandemic continues (at the time of this writing) to be called “the Chinese coronavirus,” these data are a valuable snapshot in time when Chinese American families were contending merely with questions of intergenerational transfer, authenticity, and bicultural identity management set within a history of discrimination in the U.S. While soup making practices served as positive affirmations of culture and identity, acculturation on the part of younger generations is never fully successful as global events resurface Yellow Peril ideologies and distancing based on the assumed contamination of Chinese people and foods. Intergenerational practices of food production and consumption highlight how race and ethnicity cast historical shadows into current realities and inform the ways we organize social and communal relations in a global society.

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Evelyn Y. Ho, Eileen Chia-Ching Fung et Genevieve Leung, « Skimming the Scum: Hygienic Modernity in Chinese American Intergenerational Soup-Making »Revue française des sciences de l’information et de la communication [En ligne], 19 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2020, consulté le 11 mai 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Evelyn Y. Ho

Evelyn Y. Ho is Professor of Communication Studies, Asian Pacific American Studies, and Critical Diversity Studies at the University of San Francisco.

Eileen Chia-Ching Fung

Eileen Chia-Ching Fung is Professor of English and Asian Pacific American Studies, currently serving as the Senior Associate Dean in The College of Arts and Sciences at the University of San Francisco.

Genevieve Leung

Genevieve Leung is an Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Language, Asian Pacific American Studies, and Critical Diversity Studies at the University of San Francisco.

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