Chicken feet with a side of racism

ABC Radio National’s video stood out among all the news items on my Facebook last weekend because of its timely caption: ‘Happy Lunar New Year! Welcome to the Year of the Rooster!’ I clicked on the video, thinking that it was neat that the ABC was marking an important occasion for so many people around the world and in Australia.

That initial enthusiasm gave way to apprehension and dismay as the video played. Styled on the Buzzfeed genre of Hip and Young Staff Trying New Things (think Guys Experience Periods For the First Time or Regular People Get Tricked Into Olympic High Diving), ABC RN’s video showcases a group of people trying chicken feet for the first time. The presenter, a young white man, tells the viewer that since it’s the year of the rooster and it’s traditional to celebrate the Lunar New Year with food, ‘we thought we’d get some CHICKEN FEET!’ That witty segue also marks the end of the informational part of the video, which lasted all of ten seconds.

Watching the video felt like rubbernecking: I couldn’t stop watching when the white male presenter butchered the Cantonese pronunciation of ‘yum cha’, not even when another white man gave his sharp and incisive commentary – ‘It looks a bit like a baby’s hand. If the baby’s dad was a lizard’ – nor when one of the white women made strangled ‘ugh’ noises. I guess it was a nod to diversity that the group included a mix of gender and ethnic backgrounds, but the ABC Radio National team either couldn’t or didn’t want to find even one person of Chinese heritage to explain to viewers what phoenix talons are and how to eat them. Instead, they went with the cheap way of generating social media engagement by creating a sensationalist video about Chinese culture for an audience that markedly excluded the very community it was talking about.

The video follows with spliced shots of food tasters and their initial shock when they take the lid off the steamers and clumsily grapple with their chopsticks, with soft reggae music underscoring their adventurous foray into real ethnic food. What I see playing out is the embodiment of white privilege by a powerful media institution in having the ability to pass judgements on the palatability of other people’s cuisines and culture, to define what is ‘normal,’ and to have a national platform to broadcast these pronouncements. Being able to pick and choose which parts of other cultures are acceptable is a distinct exercise of white privilege in Australia. Specifically for Chinese Australians, whose experience has long been characterised by racist and discriminatory treatment dating back to the gold rush days, it reinforces the idea that it’s okay for white Australia to say ‘we’ll take your fried rice, sweet and sour pork, and lemon chicken, but we don’t want you nor your cultural complexities here.’

As you might expect, the taste-testers either like the chicken feet or don’t, and the video leaves no room for context or alternative narratives that facilitate a meaningful understanding of cultural difference. Radio National producers may protest that they’ve largely included only positive judgements, like the ‘five out of five’ at the end of the video. A pat on the back for them then, but exposing what you know to be a polarising element of a minority group’s culture to simplistic judgement on social media doesn’t make you edgy or cool, it just highlights a profound lack of cultural awareness.

For those of us who have ever been mocked for eating ‘weird’ or ‘smelly’ foods, the implications of such a palatability test by a majority group have some real and unexpected consequences. A few years ago, my family and I decided to go to yum cha in the Chinatown in Melbourne to celebrate the Lunar New Year. The restaurant we chose was an old favourite, but when we were seated, none of the usual plates that we liked to eat were being carted around. All that was on offer were the easy-on-the-eye, easy-to-eat, Yum Cha 101 dishes that perhaps the management thought would be popular with the large number of non-Chinese patrons that day. We still managed to eat what we wanted to by waving down a waiter to order a la carte, and then waited and waited for dishes that would usually have been in every second or third cart. It was largely an inconvenience, something you can only really laugh off, but the irony was not lost on us – that during the most important time of the year in Chinese culture, in a Chinese restaurant in one of the world’s oldest Chinatowns, what we could eat was subject to the delicate palates of white Australians.

The lack of ethnic representation in the Australian media, politics – public life in general – has long been a sore spot, and this video feels like yet another act of microaggression in a long list of indignations for Chinese Australians. I can tell the video is meant to be fun and quirky, but it’s also clear that there wasn’t much critical thinking involved. Such content doesn’t count as diverse programming when its content reinforces old tropes and stereotypes about minority communities being weird or alien, even when you’ve roped in brown people to be complicit with you. If anything, the video serves as a good argument for why institutions like the ABC urgently need to implement robust diversity hiring policies.


Image: ‘Hong Kong: Chicken Feet’ / Yi Chen

Diana Tung

Diana Tung is an anthropologist born and raised in Melbourne and the United States.

More by Diana Tung ›

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  1. I think the writer has missed the point of the video. I enjoyed seeing the reaction from a group of diverse people to eating chicken feet. Comments on the actual video are fun. Fact that a white guy was demonstrating how to eat them is a good example of how food bridges cultural differences. And, not that it should matter so much, but I’m Asian.

    1. Guys
      Having heard the original RADIO feature twice, I’m shocked that a) the ABC ran a video that was so unrepresentative of the original, which included a lengthy description of cooking and eating delicious chook foot from a Chinese chef! and b) that your anthropologist writer should not have researched a little deeper than Facebook to discover where the balance lay!
      Clearly “digital and diversity”, the ABC boss’ watchwords according to the equally slack ‘Guardian’ reporting that lead me to ‘Overland’ should not be an excuse for going off half-cock (pun intended) on video or online.

  2. I’m a little confused about how it is the fault of the white restaurant patrons that you didn’t get your chicken feet. Wouldn’t it be up to the owners and chefs (who are probably Chinese) to decide what was served? And frankly, I don’t know where you are going in Chinatown that most of the patrons are white – if this really was the case, then no wonder the chefs might have tailored their offerings to the crowd that they were serving, which is fair enough – they are running a business, not a cultural foundation. It’s not fair to lump that kind of responsibility on every single Asian chef, that they have to represent every aspect of our culture. If everybody was as isolationist and holier-than-thou as you, the world would have never seen such delicious cultural mix-ups like the sushi burger.

    Anyway, it’s not white Australians’ fault that they are not intimately acquainted with the intricacies of our cuisine, and it’s not a business’s fault that they want to make money and serve what their customers like. Stop trying to make this into a racist issue, there are so many things that are legitimately harmful and this is so far down the list that it’s a ridiculous petty thing to be getting so infuriated about. And what is the alternative – that white Australians don’t eat Chinese food at all, out of fear that some Chinese person is going to roll their eyes about them doing it ‘the wrong way’ and write disparagingly about them on the internet?

    Shouldn’t you be proud that white Australians want to participate in our food culture? There is no rule that anybody has to like chicken feet, not even for us. I don’t like chicken feet, never have, does that mean I should renounce my cultural identity? There is no one way to be Chinese or eat Chinese food – would you have been similarly infuriated if it was a room full of Chinese people who weren’t into chicken feet? Just because white people can’t BE Chinese in the exact way that you are, doesn’t mean that they aren’t appreciative of our culture. Attitudes like yours just divide people and makes cultures exclusive and unfriendly. The world is a hateful place if it’s full of people like you rolling your eyes at anybody who dares participate in a culture that is not their own.

  3. I found Diana Tung’s comments on the ABC chicken feet video pretty interesting and insightful. It addresses the unspoken, unrecognised and unacknowledged assumptions that we all live with every day in Australia. (BTW I am Anglo background not Asian, so I can see my own assumptions articulated in this.) I can see Diana’s point that it is disappointing that no Chinese person was in the video actually explaining how to eat the chicken feet, why they are called ‘Phoenix talons’, what part of the culture this reflects and so on. This would have made the video less like a fun demonstration of an ‘exotic’ ‘alien’ dish, and more like a fun way to actually know a bit more about. As for the ABC spending money on this, I say – bring back the short wave service you closed this week and don’t spend money on being hip. We need to ABC to provide non-commercial services that the population needs.

  4. collective foo-in-mouth disease – all missed opportunities to explain the BASIC media of what, where from, why, how in whatever whimsical way if they chose. Instead we got self-conscious, self-referential.

  5. Sorry, you lost me when you started going on about the ‘white man’ and ‘white privilege’ thing… I get a sense that you still wouldn’t be happy even if there was a Chinese person explaining the intricacies and delights of eating chicken feet. How about redirecting that permanent sense of injustice to something more, you know, interesting and useful. Like poverty or homelessness. The whole ‘white man’ thing – so 1990’s.

  6. I’m Chinese and think it’s good for my different friends to try different foods. Some white friends eating foods from China that I don’t eat too. I don’t know why she seem upset that white people want to go to her favourite restaurant – it’s good to share! She just having to ask to get her food anyway.

  7. Article makes a good point – the clip should’ve explained the significance of Phoenix talons…but in a nation where 30% of people were not born here and half have a parent not born here, this essay fails to leave room for context or alternative narratives that facilitate a meaningful understanding of cultural differences, instead dismissing all (including patrons at a Chinese restaurant) as “white Australians”.

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