China Beat Archive



Emily Hill

Date of this Version


Document Type



2011 in The China Beat


Copyright 2011. Used by permission.


Why is “eating in Canton” (shi zai Guangzhou) known as the best in China? Seung-joon Lee’s lively and original study examines the peculiarities and politics of eating in Canton (Guangzhou) from Qing times to 1937. Using a delectable range of materials in Chinese, Japanese, and English, the book offers an illuminating entrée to the culture and political correctness of eating in modern Chinese history. As the author points out, few historical studies focus on food supplies. Many narrative histories of China, for instance, include sections on the Canton-based events of the 1920s when the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party joined in the common cause of Nationalist Revolution. But no one asks: “Who fed the revolutionaries?” (p. 87) Tackling this question, Lee explores a transnational network of Cantonese millers, shippers, buyers, and brokers who together purveyed grain grown in Burma, Siam, and French Indochina to Canton’s most ordinary households. Flowing in the opposite direction, smaller shipments of special “brands” of rice grown in Guangdong reached customers in San Francisco and other locations throughout the Cantonese diaspora. In economic terms, Guangdong’s Pearl River Delta area was an integral part of Southeast Asia, and Canton’s food-processing industries were the most technologically advanced in China. Culturally, the area belonged to an extended transnational world of appreciation for the distinctive flavours of Cantonese cuisine.