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Bonding Over Food: Hong Kong asylum seekers share their stories over home-cooked meals

Table of Two Cities is a community project documenting the tales of asylum seekers through storytelling events, told through food.

“Food is a universal language. It’s how we express our feelings and love, and care for those around us.” This is how LK*, an asylum seeker from Indonesia who has lived in Hong Kong for two decades, described the guiding principle behind the community storytelling project, Table of Two Cities.

The grassroots initiative organises events that raise awareness of the city’s asylum seeker community through storytelling, cooking demonstrations and a shared love of food. It’s an important intiative in Hong Kong, a city with a long history as a haven for asylum seekers. 

The first wave to arrive came from mainland China in the mid-20th century, fleeing violence and economic hardships as a result of the country’s civil war and Communist revolution.

Another wave followed from 1975 to the late 1990s, after the Western bloc-controlled state of South Vietnam fell to communist North Vietnamese in the Vietnam War. Today, the vast majority of asylum seekers come from countries like Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. 

The city is home to nearly 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers as of 2018, according to immigration authorities, many of whom face discrimination on a daily basis from local residents and government policies alike. 

Over a decade ago, the Hong Kong government followed a now-scrapped policy of arresting asylum seekers on sight if they didn’t have immigration papers on them. However, today lawmakers use media propaganda to stir the controversy of  “bogus” versus “genuine asylum claims that fuels racist attitudes about the community. 

Asylum seekers are also prohibited from working while the government processes their non-refoulement claim (an agreement in which Hong Kong will not send the claimant back to their country of origin if their claim is approved), which can take up to 2 years. This leaves asylum seekers dependent on monthly government stipends to make ends meet.

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Tegan Smyth, founder of Table Of Two Cities. Credit: Karma Lo

Table of Two Cities (or TOTC) hopes to bridge such divides, fueled by the belief that shared meals can bring different sides of Hong Kong to the table. Using food as a medium for storytelling, the events typically feature a live cooking demonstration from an asylum seeker in Hong Kong, who prepares a signature recipe from their home country for small groups of Hongkongers. During the meal, they also share personal memories of the dish, what led them to flee their home country, and what life is like in Hong Kong. 

“A story, and specifically someone’s personal narrative, is something that is living, that is determined by them,” says Tegan Smyth, who started the project in 2016. Smyth, a human rights lawyer who is active in the city’s refugee community, says she believed that there was power in hearing their stories of asylum-seekers told in their own words.

“Cooking and food is very universal,” she adds. “As a key component of Asian culture, it is a useful conduit to start potentially difficult but necessary conversations.” 

Bringing people together over food 

Born in Sydney, Smyth moved to Hong Kong when she was 8 years old. She returned to Australia to study Bachelor of Arts at Bachelor of Laws (LLB) 2014 at the University of New South Wales in Australia before returning to Hong Kong. During a 5-month-long human rights law course in Sydney, she was trained to work with refugee clients.

When she returned to Hong Kong after the programme, Smyth started organising community engagements events to raise awareness about refugees and asylum seekers among colleagues and friends. Noticing a general lack of knowledge about the asylum-seeking population in Hong Kong, Smyth felt motivated to start TOTC, so she reached out to the Refugee Union, a refugee-led NGO, to partner on the project. 

Officially launched in 2016, TOTC  started with once-a-month cooking sessions in a kitchen space at the Refugee Union’s office in Sai Ying Pun. TOTC invited asylum seekers with a penchant for cooking to prepare their favourite dishes for volunteers.

Shama Mashroor A Long Time Volunteer At Table Of Two Cities Helping Out At The World Refugee Day 2018 Event Cred Totc
Table of Two Cities volunteer Shama Mashroor helps at the World Refugee Day 2018 event. Photo: Courtesy of Table of Two Cities

At first, Smyth set out to record the recipes and personal asylum stories, then share them on the TOTC website. After the first few cooking sessions, many volunteer cooks expressed interest in returning, saying the experience had given them a sense of purpose and empowerment. 

Soon enough, the events grew in popularity. First, within Smyth’s personal network, then word-of-mouth followed by social media. In 2017, TOTC held their first inter-community potluck on the rooftop of Refugee Union’s building to celebrate World Refugee Day on 20 June. 

The event, which included a live African drumming performance and art jam, grew even larger the following year, as TOTC joined forces with other local charity projects like Taste of Hope HK, a cooking school non-profit, and Art Women, a refugee textile and art collective. 

Since then, the events have caught on with local Hongkongers, who frequent the events in order to sample unique dishes from Congo or Togo. In the process, Smyth also spends time with asylum seekers to better gauge their needs and help them access essential supplies and resources for school-going children.

For example, TOTC raises funds to pay for the extra expenses the cook incurs and through fundraising events, they help cover school expenses such as textbooks and uniforms that are otherwise not covered by the government

A labour of love

“I feel at home when I cook for a community,” says Sabah*, an Egyptian woman who fled to Hong Kong due to fear of persecution after converting to Christianity. With her husband and three children, Sabah has been waiting for five years for her non-refoulement claim to be approved so they can resettle in another country. Sabah and her family’s claims are still being processed in the Immigration Department. 

“With [TOTC], I make big-batch recipes that remind me of church potlucks [in Egypt], and it gives me purpose and a reason to spread love through my own love for food,” says Sabah. 

While the cooks themselves are the stars of the show, according to Smyth, the events also come together largely thanks to a tight-knit crew of volunteer photographers, filmmakers and writers, who document the entire experience from start to finish which are published on their social pages and YouTube channel

Taste Of Afro Asian Cuisine Showcasing Cameroonian And Indonesia Dishes Cooking Class Cred Totc
Guests taste Cameroonian and Indonesian dishes during a cooking class. Photo: Courtesy of Table of Two Cities

“Many of us [the volunteers] come from intercultural backgrounds ourselves, and understand the experience of migration,” explains Smyth. “We want to help give agency back to them.”

Shama Mashroor is a regular volunteer who helps to interview asylum seekers during and after their cooking demonstrations, and records recipes, which are published on TOTC’s website. She says that through TOTC, she’s developed an appreciation for storytelling, as well as for the new friendships she’s gained along the way.

“I have learned a lot about interviewing people while honouring their stories at the same time, and all [the volunteers] made it a point to maintain connections with our interviewees.”

Zeerak Khurram, a journalism student from The University of Hong Kong and former intern at TOTC, says that the events have given her intimate insights into a community she previously never had access to. “[The experience] lets me interact with refugees and asylum seekers, and put a face to an issue that I usually only see as a statistic,” says Khurram. 

Rewriting the narrative

The events raise funds through ticket sales which ranges from HK$100-HK$300 per person. This fee helps cover the event costs as well as asylum seekers’ everyday expenses such as school fees, textbooks and uniforms. 

Thanks to the success of TOTC, the project has been able to host other refugee-led initiatives, such as public cooking classes, organised design-thinking (a human-centric type of  problem-solving process) and educational workshops about the state of asylum seekers in Hong Kong. 

Two Asylum Seekers From The Philippines Prepare Chicken Afritada Bitter Melon With Eggs Minced Pork And A Local Fish Dish Called Escabeche With Macaroni Salad Cred Totc 1
Two asylum seekers from the Philippines prepare chicken afritada, bitter melon with eggs, minced pork and a local fish dish called Escabeche with macaroni salad. Photo: Courtesy of Table of Two Cities

The project’s next such initiative will be a Table of Two Cities Cookbook, featuring dishes made by asylum seekers at the events. The cookbook will include 15 chapters, each one documenting the personal account of a refugee and a chosen recipe, and will be translated into Chinese as well as English.

“I felt really strongly about making the final work accessible to different communities,” says Smyth. “I don’t think we should lose sight of the fact that we are an initiative operating in Hong Kong.”

While the cookbook is scheduled to be published in late 2021, TOTC already has a reason to celebrate. Last year, the Hong Kong government recognised Grassroots Future, the organisation overseeing TOTC, as an official charity under Section 88. This will lend the organisation more credibility in the future, as well as make it easier to raise funds and introduce partnership opportunities.

“There are so many refugee-led events which are a service to the community, but they lack resources and face many bureaucratic hurdles,“ explains Smyth. “I am hopeful this will help with community-building and the spearheading of new projects.”

African Soiree Event Serving Beignet Haricots And Fried Plantains Cred Totc Web
African Soiree event serving beignet haricots and fried plantains. Photo: Courtesy of Table of Two Cities

LEND A HAND

What can you bring to the table, when it comes to supporting Hong Kong’s asylum seekers? Support Table of Two Cities, buy the forthcoming cookbook, or join a community project by volunteering with Grassroots Future.  

Editor’s note: Fatima Qureshi was a former intern of Table of Two Cities. 

*Names changed to protect the individuals’ identities.