Just a whole lot of waffle?
The real history of Time Out’s ‘freaky new ... dessert obsession’.
It’s not the first time that Western media have portrayed non-European foods tastelessly, but it’s never hit this close to home for me. Last week, footage by Buzzfeed and Time Out of so-called “bubbly waffles” appeared on my Facebook feed. I was taken aback by these gaudy abominations, laden with ice cream and sweets – but even more disturbed by the videos’ portrayal of their origins.
Egg waffles (Cantonese: 雞蛋仔, gai daan jai) are a popular Hong Kong street snack named for their little egg-shaped puffs. A good egg waffle is crispy on the outside, and soft and chewy in the middle of each “egg”. They are usually served plain to adhere to this gustatory ideal; toppings make it soggy.
For me, this snack is a metonym of personal and cultural identity: a distinctive feature of Hong Kong, where I spent my childhood. These self-branded “progressive” institutions’ blatant lack of research about, and dialogue with, the waffles’ cultural owners was a blow.
The videos depict the dessert-laden waffles as a newfangled white discovery. Time Out portrays them as a “freaky new … dessert obsession”, failing to even mention their heritage. Buzzfeed makes more effort, stating, “They’re originally from Hong Kong, where they’re eaten plain.” However, Buzzfeed quickly glosses over this statement, paying more attention to the toppings, which they describe as a London innovation.
The notion that dessert egg waffles are new, or were invented in London is inaccurate. Toppings have been in Hong Kong for at least a decade, and the London store they were promoting, Bubblewrap Waffle, has been there for five years. And the fact that Buzzfeed and Time Out show only the “fusionised” variety of egg waffle undervalues the simple and uniquely cultural pleasures of the original.
The videos couldn’t get the name right either – the misnomer “bubbly waffles” raised Hongkonger eyebrows. It’s like saying “chai tea” (tea tea) or calling Uluru “Ayers Rock” — it disregards the original word’s meaning. Although there’s no standard English name for egg waffles, most people agree that the word “egg” should feature somewhere because the Cantonese literally means “little chicken egg”. Even Bubblewrap’s website calls them “egg waffles”.
Both videos are obsessed with showing clips of Caucasian customers biting into the egg waffles too. Not only do they fail to engage with any Hongkonger perspectives, six out of seven clips depict the incorrect way to eat egg waffles – you’re meant to tear each “egg” off by hand. Where is the relish in stuffing the whole thing into your gob?
But the failure of these videos to respect Hong Kong culture has a flow-on effect on its viewers. Most Hongkongers’ concerns were met by largely-white dismissal. One comment, “lol at white people thinking they yet again found something magical that existed all along in HK,” is met with a racial slur: “we don’t live in Hong Kong do we ling ling you fucking twat”. One Hongkonger’s pride for the plain sort is met by a derisive, “[The video’s] look better…and we have health and hygiene certificates,” buying into a racist assumption that Asian vendors are necessarily dirty.
Another comment, “the UK gave HK modern infrastructure and HK gives the UK egg waffles. Fair trade,” ignores the implications of British colonisation, just months before the twentieth anniversary of Hong Kong’s decolonisation. The British Consulate-General in Hong Kong similarly envisions a relationship of mutuality between the two states; this ideal is laughable given the UK’s failure to defend its former colony’s rapidly crumbling political autonomy.
And it’s this sort of reaction that worries me the most about cultural appropriation. We’re not unwilling to share the joys of the egg waffle. But if the media cannot model healthy cultural exchange in a video about food, how much respect can we, as cultural owners, expect from their audience? As it happens — not a lot.