14 December, 2011

Love. Hate. Marmite.

The One year, for my birthday, I was given three Marmite cook books. The same one. My brother asked me if I thought I might be a little one-dimensional.


The affair
My love affair with Marmite began at a young age. I had a tendency to climb the kitchen furniture, which one day lead me to a large jar of Marmite. Aged something like 18 months (ask mother for confirmation) I ate the entire thing, with my hands. My mother was convinced I'd be really ill, and despite being a nurse, whipped me off to the local doctor. Happily, he told her that I'd just be really thirsty for a while and might have some nappy rash. My liver and kidneys both fared well, and a passion was born.

Marmite throughout my ages

When I was five, I was given my own pet Guinea Pig. He was brown, so given that his predecessors were called Toast and Marmalade, I felt that Marmite was a great name for him.

At a similar age, I was given a Marmite plaque, depicting a traditional Marmite jar, which never got screwed onto my wooden bedroom door, because sometimes these things just never get done.

I once tried to get a supermarket to give me their giant glass Marmite jar, which was used to serve up single portion packets in the supermarket café. I collected tokens to buy some Marmite socks – one with Love, the other Hate, stitched onto the bottom. I then collected tokens to get the Marmite fridge magnets, each with a different provocative word, that were used to make rude poetry in my student house.

Now days, I have a collection of special edition Marmite jars... just not the one with the real silver lid (available in the UK). And for Christmas, my mother gave me what looks like a jar... but isn't!




Despite the love/hate argument, Marmite is actually pretty diverse (and, if you whip it, it turns a paler colour and tastes sweeter). In my family, we eat it melted onto butter and rice, with a fried egg on top. This beats the more traditional See Yow Fan (豉油飯) any day of the week; it's my cure-all for homesickness, heart-break, flu, rain, hangovers, and generally moochiness.

But Marmite also tastes good with banana, it's great with healthy-style peanut butter and lettuce on granary bread... Or eat it with cheddar cheese and raw onion. Spread it on toast and put the toast back under the grill, you'll have a giant Twiglet in your hand. Put it in a white sauce, or your morning porridge or congee (白粥)...

No egg is complete without it, especially a boiled or poached egg... Marmite just makes breakfast. In fact, add it to almost anything you cook including Chow Mein (炒面) because it's always worth it.

I recently learned that in Malaysia, where people love to eat crab in every kind of form, they even serve Marmite crab, which I can tell you, is amazing. Try not to lick the plate afterwards.


Other ways to get your Marmite hit

These days I don't have to eat an entire jar in one sitting to get my fill... Marmite is available in so many forms, every time I go to the UK my eyes pop out of my head! These cashew nuts are so insanely amazing... I couldn't wait to photograph the pack before chomping down...

But there's also Marmite flavour rice cakes, Marmite Cheddar, Marmite Stilton, Marmite Fudges crackers, Marmite bread sticks, Marmite Walker's Crisps, Marmite Rolls (a vegetarian Sausage roll made with rice, available only in Walkley Bakery, Sheffield)... There's even Marmite chocolate – which is Very Peculiar.


Then there's the special edition flavours, like Guinness, Champagne and XO (crafted by master brewers). None of this is available in Hong Kong, where we have Marmite with jar labels that include the Chinese phonetic translation (媽密). In Hong Kong, a 250g jar of Marmite usually costs about (HKD)$55 which is about £4.45. In the UK, that jar costs me only £1.99 (and lasts me about six weeks).





Don't compare it!
Marmite is nothing like Vegemite and people that compare them should have their taste buds checked. A comparison like this can lead to hours of debate – and even taste testing in extreme cases. The two products have entirely different textures, flavours and ingredients. Never buy a supermarket generic brand, it's just not the same... And no, it's not like Bovril – Marmite is 100% vegetarian/vegan and a high source of protein; Bovril is made from meat.

Political implications

During the last UK general election, the BNP used Marmite during a party political broadcast, apparently in relation to the love/hate marketing angle. The use was not requested or approved by Unilever (who produce Marmite) and as a result, Unilever moved to take action against the BNP. No comment.

For the love of Marmite, I wrote this piece, because one day I was telling my friend how great Marmite is and she stopped me and said, "you realise you've talked about Marmite for a full ten minutes?"

Easily done.

Hong Kong cafés that serve Marmite

  • Brunch Club, Peel Street, Soho – check if they are serving Vegemite or Marmite
  • Shelley's Yard, Shelley Street, Soho – serve both Vegemite and Marmite
  • Oola, G/F Centre Stage, Bridges St, Soho - serve a Vegemite and cheddar pizza. Which means you can ask for Vegemite on the side with most anything
  • The Globe, Elgin Street, Soho


And I don't believe these guys serve Marmite, but they named their restaurant after it (ok, so it's a French term for a large, covered earthenware or metal cooking pot).


01 November, 2011

PitchYrCulture Mix #1 – Before-it-all


As people buzzed around Culture Club in Central (September 16th, 2011) it was easy to tell that the first PitchYrCulture event had gathered a mix of ages and races, all intrigued to see what the evening would be like. There was a comfortable hum of chatting, the sipping of beer and the scent of popcorn popping.


But before I get into how great the event was, let me tell you what it is. Organised by musical artists and artistic musicians (why differentiate?), PitchYrCulture launched a series of public-presentation forums, each dedicated to the exploration and explanation of recorded music in all its varieties. Events are themed and accept about 5-7 guest presenters. And here’s the hook – while each presentation delves into the song’s history, cultural impact, and artistic ambitions and/ or the presenter’s personal anecdotes or aimless digressions – the presentation must be the same length as the chosen song. And that’s not easy.

The first event was themed Before-it-all: Do you remember the first song that made an impression on you or meant something to you, when you were really young, before you started to care what other people liked, what other people thought of you, before you needed to be cool or fit in, before you cared what was ‘in’?

While we filed in and out, bought drinks and chatted, an audience member offered to sing us a song. Hailing from the Mainland, this Chinese student sung us a rendition of a traditional song, in Mandarin. With that under-way, it was time to get things moving, with MC (and founder) Andrew Guthrie. And what better way to start than with the Batman TV Theme song? Remember that jazz number? Guthrie does. Not only did it relax the mood and iron out any technical glitches, the theme song flowed nicely onto Clara Cheung’s presentation. Cheung (co-director of the innovative exhibition space, C&G Artpartment) picked an old favourite TV theme of her own. If we had asked for more perfect examples of East and West, we couldn’t have asked for better. Magical Angel Creamy Mami (我係小忌廉) had all the optimism, complete with synth sounds required to throw you into the nostalgia of 1980s Hong Kong TV (read: Japanese anime).

Keeping nostalgia alive – as was the point – we moved onto Anita Mui’s classic, Star, presented passionately and lovingly in impressive Cantonese and English by Singaporean, Arthur Wong. For those that hadn’t grown up in Hong Kong, or were uneducated about Cantopop, they were about to meet a legend.

Oliver Holtaway, musician and DJ, flew into Hong Kong specifically for the event. He neatly pushed us into the early 90s with Sesame's Treet by the Smart Es – delivering us into the heart of rave culture, posing the question: Did this song kill rave? His speedy, matter-of-fact presentation skills raced us through the political setting (Thatcher) and the history of how we worried about the youth in the UK during all those raves, in a manner that reminded me of a Tim-from-Spaced speech. Holtaway delivered his presentation within seconds of the song time – and was the only one to do so.


Alice Chik, Assistant Professor in the Department of English at City U (and co-author of the yet-unpublished English Pop, Hong Kong Style) took us further back in time with some rather amusing personal anecdotes and an apt reminder of how song can be used to teach English. Just how much is that _ _ _ _ _ in the window?

Mike Middleton, a partner of the Songs for Children indie music promotion organisation was one of the first people to ask if he could join the event. Presenting a song that encapsulated his teen years and the coming-of-age of “Indie Mike”, he started fast when telling us about Comin' Through by the Pastels. But then, he got quite absorbed by what he was saying. At one point, I had a vision of Middleton in full kilt (he’s Scottish), giving a speech at his son’s wedding. If he’d wanted a longer song, I’d have suggested Rush, but his manner, enthusiasm and changing pace made his presentation perfect, amusing and endearing.


Bringing the show to a close, Yan Yan Pang of Hard Candy and Tyger Feb took us back to the ‘90s one last time, reminding us of Richie Manic Street Preacher’s disappearing act and – uh oh, we’re in trouble… Shampoo. Growing up in the UK, there was no escaping that one (and I have the pink 7” vinyl) so I was glad to hear the song made it to Hong Kong as well. Pang later said to me, “I did see your smile when I said it's Trouble, so you must be a fan as well! I really enjoyed it, looking at my old CD collection again just makes me smile!”

Written with grateful thanks to Lennon at Culture Club.

For the full list of videos and songs:

Reviews of other PyC events:

For more about PitchYrCulture:
- Blog

© 2011-2012 Vickie Chan

19 August, 2011

Sites and Sounds

Finding music used to be about searching through zines, your siblings collections and writing a letter to a random penpal in the US, to get the latest EP from your favourite Punk band.

Digital has changed that. In a way, it's sad. That trawling search reminds you that it's part of the game and you love music. Nonetheless, here's some tips on finding new music in the digital landscape.

01 July, 2011

Every Little Click

Charity begins at home. Doesn't it? What matters more, raising awareness or raising money? How do you really create change and does a Facebook Like count as a change?

17 January, 2011

A hundred shades of yellow

Writing a piece about being half-one-thing and half-something-else; mixed-race; ethnically diverse or half-caste is ridiculously tough. I have been part-this and part-that for all of my life, yet what that means in my life, what it means to me, constantly changes.

There are probably a plethora of reasons why it matters and why the implications change so much, but I'd place a fairly high emphasis on this: You don't fit into one neat box; you are internally contrasting; you are not normal.

Before I get too far, it's important to point out that there are probably many single-race people out there who feel similar to the way a mixed-race person feels – particularly when that single-race person is of an ethnic minority in a culturally different environment – because it equals this: You don't fit into one neat box; you are internally contrasting; you are not "normal" (for where you live).

When I was young, I never really thought about what I was, I was just proud because I was raised to be. As I grew, I started to realise that I perceived a lot of important-but-unspoken differences, like parental expectations, social etiquette and understanding. I questioned whether or not my friends really understood me, as they usually had to fence me in: "She is like me, white" or "don't pretend you're different to me". But the truth was, what would they know? They had only one main language in their lives, their families weren't spread half-way across the globe, their culture wasn't like two opposites melded into one. The older I got, the more I fought for just being who I am and not having to fit into either side perfectly.

I grew up in the UK and moved to Hong Kong in my twenties. Having experienced racism as both a child and adult in the UK (admittedly, nothing that bad) I had to learn all over again when I realised that now, I would be resented by Chinese people, especially those that disliked that I could understand their back-talk. According to most people, I "don't really look it", though I stand by the fact that I am who I am and we all "see" differently. This can often lead to scrutiny about where I'm from and what mix I am, why I speak Cantonese and why I'd care – because they think I look white, I am white. I battled with this for a long time and eventually a good friend (Hong Kong-Chinese/ American, I believe) said to me, "there are a hundred shades of yellow in this town. Don't try to fit in, you'll never be happy." If I'm honest, this phrase gives me great comfort.

Being mixed-race, particularly half-Chinese, matters a lot to me. I may have grown up in the UK with an English mother (mother Definition: Typical bestower of language and culinary skills – both vital in cultural identity, especially if Chinese) but I always felt different, I always experienced things differently and I always talked about these ideas and experiences with friends that could understand or relate to me. So, I was surprised to find that even in the huge melting pot of Hong Kong, friends laugh at my Cantonese or make comments that I look Western, feigning disbelief and inadvertently, insulting me.

While working on a series of paintings recently, I decided to finally read an academic study passed to me, about the identity of Chinese people growing up in Britain. I won't pretend that I have actually finished reading it yet, but what I have learned so far has not only made me feel less like the odd-one-out, but amazed me. Oh and did I mention, it also made me realise I was even more of a minority?

Unlike the majority of Chinese people in Britain, my father has no family in the country. We do not own a takeaway and I am only half Chinese (yes, growing up I was often greeted with "so, which takeaway is yours then?"). Of those interviewed for the study, 76% of the parents were in catering and 66% were takeaway proprietors or catering employees. 0-50% of families spoke Chinese 11.3% of the time.* We spoke Cantonese about 1% of the time and I am the only offspring that learned it. My father, however, speaks better English than I do – albeit with a slight accent – and I have never had to translate for him.

// But some things are exactly the same:

"Hybridity could be described as the co-existence of various forms of partial identification with none overriding the others."*
“British people like to stereotype Chinese people, things like saying Chinese people eat dog meat.”*

"It is not a fixed origin to which we can make some final and absolute Return… it is always constructed through memory, fantasy, narrative and myth."* //

A book called The Eurasian Face (Kirsteen Zimmern) containing photographs of a range of mixed-race Chinese people, was recently published in Hong Kong. Each subject wrote their own entry about their feelings and experiences of being mixed-race emphasising the point that we are all so different-looking; we have had such different experiences; it means something to be half-Chinese. In fact, there were people who refused to be in the book, so bad were their experiences (during the '50s-'60s particularly) of being the truest "under scum" of society – something which I understand, but shocks me nonetheless, even though I grew up half-Chinese in a Muslim neighbourhood on the wrong side of town.

Over the years I have mused over a number of things with my ethnically-like-me friends. Questions like "have you ever seen a really old Eurasian person? What will we look like when we're older?" and "Man, I used to feel special being half-Chinese, but these days, we're everywhere!" Perhaps one day we will be our own race of different looking people with all kinds of blood – from the red-headed, white-skinned Miss Wong (黃小姐) in Lincoln and the guy who looks so Chinese, he can't get the right kind of job – to the girl who looks so little Chinese, she can't access her own bank account because she "doesn't look like a Chan" to the Indian woman behind the counter in England (true story).

*[Statistics and quotes from Through Different Eyes: The Cultural Identities of Young Chinese People in Britain – David Parker]

This is how we brand it

Branding, and what that is, is a mystery to a lot of people (sometimes, even those in the industry).

Branding in Asia

While I have my ideas and opinions on this matter, I'm much more interested in sharing some of the branding I've come across in Asia, home of the master copier, creating billions of fake or knock-off goods year-round. And don't get me wrong, I'm not actually knocking this activity because sometimes I don't personally believe in the monetary value of a brand when I know the actual production costs (another advantage of being based in Asia).

Fakes in Asia

One thing's for sure – sometimes you really can't tell when you're picking up a fake. I had a Nokia cellphone for a full year – with constant glitches, which I put down to cheap, modern technology ("nothing is made to last nowadays, not like in the good old days"). It was only when I was trying to sell it on in Sham Shui Po (深水埗) that I learned it was actually a fake. I guess I should've noticed the slightly wonky Nokia logo on the back and the fact that the megapixel label by the camera lens was a little different to my old phone. Or, you know, that the shiny black peeled off in about a week to reveal a dull black underneath and that the phone never really worked properly.

Shopping for fakes

One thing to look out for if you think you're buying a fake, is whether or not it's worth the money. Ok, this might sound obvious, but if you're buying a pair of New Balance for your eight-year-old and you think they might be fake, you might also be in luck – because they might have been made at the same factory, making them more of a "knock-off" or "back-of-a-van" purchase. But if you're buying a tech device and you're paying full price, you can pretty much guarantee that they've saved somewhere, and that the device won't work as well as you'd expect.

An even bigger problem with shopping in Asia, is that sometimes even a shop can be a fake. For example, Mongkok (旺角) is scattered with Nike, Reebok, Adidas and Converse shops. But for the most part, these are just shops with logos pasted on the front – not official stores – which doesn't make it any easier when you're trying to figure out if what you're buying is real or not.

So, if you're thinking of buying something (and especially if you don't want anyone to know it's a fake), make sure you intimately know every detail of the original, the finish, the combination of colours available, which logo goes where, what trimmings there are. Be prepared to sometimes pay quite a lot, but do yourself a favour and avoid paying the asking price of the real item – oh, and if you're feeling paranoid, check the branding of the store.

One of my favourite's is this New Balance store, complete with a cockerel sign.


And it's not just stores you should check the branding on – I love this Snoopy/ Mickey Mouse bag too:


At least you can get all your favourite characters on one item.

But this is probably one of my true favourites – a fake pretending to be nothing other than a fake, no questions asked.