Mandy Lee’s Confessions of an Escapist Cook in Hong Kong


I stood for a while looking down on my hands encrusted with dried dough, mildly confused about what had just happened. I felt consoled, and my anger had subsided.

Two weeks later, after a staggering number of dough casualties—as well as RMBs spent on imported Italian flours and enough egg-white omelets for dinner to threaten my marriage—I finally emerged from the kitchen bearing a bowl of perfect, fresh tonnarelli. The quintessence of cacio e pepe. It was the first time in my almost 20 years of cooking, and three-plus decades as a quitter of most things I didn’t immediately succeed at, that I had refined a recipe to perfection. Something exactly as I wanted it to be.

I had become what I now like to call an escapist cook.

Two years after moving to Beijing and not too long after my perfect tonnarelli, I started a food blog. It became a sanctuary as well as a sentence, where I retreated in desperate, sheepish, and self-loathing isolation: cooking, whisking, and documenting as I felt the fight inside me slowly dribble away.

Then in 2016, not driven by a resurgence of moral commitment but instead crushed by the deaths of my “son” and “daughter—a 15-year-old toy cup Maltese and nine-year-old brindle French bulldog—I finally fled Beijing. I simply couldn’t accommodate it anymore. My husband and I moved back to Hong Kong as emotional refugees. I even wrote a cookbook about it.

Although often projected as city of modernity, Hong Kong was never a democracy. After its return to China in 1997, Hong Kong, a former British colony, was granted a semi-autonomous status, allowed to retain a separate governing and judiciary system with freedom of speech and press that is otherwise an impossibility in mainland China. People are allowed to roam free on the internet, retain rights to information, and Netflix and chill. And yet, Hong Kong does not grant universal suffrage.

Call it a gluten-free bread; it’s something, just not the best part.

China has slowly kneaded this island to fit its authoritarian model, attempting to introduce “patriotic education” in public schools and eroding Hong Kong’s judicial independence, readying it for the steel jaws of mainland life.

I had watched from afar as a resistant, pro-democracy movement arose, highlighted by the yellow umbrella movement in 2014. And in the spring of 2019, a million people in this city of only seven million took to the streets.

At the time China had made its boldest advancement yet on the erosion of freedom in Hong Kong: A proposed bill that would allow extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China, something China was in fact already doing illegally. A few years ago, for example, five anti-China book publishers in Hong Kong vanished overnight only to resurface three months later in Chinese custody, “apologizing” for their misconduct. The new bill would only make these kinds of arrests easier.

The protests started as peaceful rallies. But as the public voice fell on deaf ears, a small number of protestors eventually turned to violence, pushing back against the riot police and garnering international attention. After three months of unrest, the government agreed to withdraw the bill. Yet it has since become clear that the protesters will not be satisfied with anything less than real democracy. For those of us who remember (all too well) the bloody massacre in Tiananmen Square, this is a dangerous stance to take. If we die, well, we were going to die anyway.

Right or wrong, hopeful or disillusioned, in the sun, in the rain, through the teargas and the rubber bullets; under the batons of the police who have been thrown in the middle of this messy political sandwich, people keep marching.

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