Unravelling Hong Kong Through ‘Kung Pao and Beyond’ With Famed Food Writer Susan Jung
August 09, 2022
Susan Jung arrives at a dark café shuffled into Peel Street on a moody Hong Kong day with a brightness that emanates and fills the space.
If it is not her infamous bob haircut, stature, or friendly tone that reveals the history behind her figure, it is her newspaper by-line, previously held by the South China Morning Post (SCMP), that holds the mystery behind Hong Kong’s irreverent leading voice for food and beverage in the city.
For nearly 25 years, Susan held the position of food and drinks editor at the SCMP, leading command for the newspaper and magazine, reviewing Hong Kong’s top independent restaurants, covering news of a rapidly changing food scene, and curating famed Asian recipes for readers.
The former food and drinks editor admits that she rarely is placed in the interviewee shoes in journalism, estimating that for every 20 interviews conducted in her career, she has an interview where she faces the questions.
“Meeting people was part of the enjoyment of this job [at the SCMP],” Susan says, referring to the paper that began her career in food journalism and writing about Hong Kong’s everchanging culinary landscape, with its expansive trends, dominating restaurant groups, thriving independent diners, and constant space for growth and expansion.
To appreciate the writer’s ineffable love for food, Hong Kong, and food journalism, Susan spoke to The Beat Asia in an exclusive interview on what her writing meant for the city, why food journalism is important, and her new book set for release in 2023, titled “Kung Pao and Beyond: Fried Chicken Recipes from East and Southeast Asia.”
Susan was born to Taishanese parents in California, spending her childhood in North California, before graduating with a degree in English Literature at the prestigious UC Berkley in the Bay Area.
“I decided after [graduation] I wanted to be a chef. I was always cooking for my friends. One of my friends asked, ‘Susan, if you like cooking so much, why don't you become a chef.’ It was a good idea, because I really love to cook, but I didn't want to go home smelling like garlic.”
The fresh graduate yearned to be a pastry chef in her early 20s, much to the disdain of her traditionally focused parents. “They turned really Chinese and gave me guilt when I said I wanted to be a chef. They said, ‘Susan, why do you want to be a chef? We worked hard, only for you to become a chef.’”
She realised her passion for desserts after university at a two-year apprenticeship with the Hyatt Hotel in San Francisco, before moving to New York with the Grand Hyatt and then at the Peninsula Hotel. “My choice after New York was to either travel to France or Hong Kong. Hong Kong was not known for pastry but I had relatives here so it would have been easier to live.”
Susan found her coveted position at the SCMP in classic Hong Kong “one-degree-of-separation" fashion. Arriving in Hong Kong to work at a restaurant called American Pie, famous for its desserts, to drive its pastry section, Susan spent four years running the sweet section, opening two restaurants, and a bakery in the city. However, journalism, which she practised in high school with her local newspaper and trained in university, was a calling to her.
“I began interviewing with financial publications [in Hong Kong], which would have been really boring, but a good way to get my foot in the door. My boyfriend at the time (in 1996) came home and told me, I met this person at a party, and I was telling him about you and he's really interested in meeting, you should call him up and have coffee with him.”
Susan met Hedly Thomas, SCMP’s then-deputy features editor, now a journalist working with The Australian, for a coffee and a job offer. “He said, ‘I'm really embarrassed to offer you this job, but it’s the only job we have open right now and you're totally overqualified, but would you like to be the office assistant for the SCMP?’”
At SCMP, she was initially offered a HK$8,000 monthly wage (an equivalent to roughly HK$15,800 in 2022), a measly wage compared to her editorial offer at a financial publication (HK$24,000 or HK$47,400 in 2022). She took the SCMP position in December 1996 with the promise that she would have chances to write and get published. “Within months, I was making more money writing than I was as an office assistant,” Susan recounted.
Six months later in June 1997, Susan accompanied Hedley and Charles Anderson, then-features editor of the SCMP magazine, to lunch. Running various errands, taking calls, and doing paperwork for six months, Hedley and Charles stunned Susan when they offered a role as the food editor, filling in a gap in the paper's editorial team. “I was totally flabbergasted. I was thinking this is probably the fastest promotion in the history of journalism.”
Susan began work on July 1, 1997, the day of the handover of Hong Kong from British hands to Chinese rule. A new life began in Hong Kong and electricity ran through the offices with the entrance of Susan to editorial.
As food editor, Susan manned eating and drinking operations of writing in the broadsheet newspaper, one page dedicated to city news in the F&B space and reviews, and six pages in the SCMP magazine. Developing her editorial style and structure, Susan wrote one feature article, covering trends and restaurant shake-ups in Hong Kong, and a restaurant review, featuring a venue deserved of press or critique, every week.
With features spotlighting changes and trends in Hong Kong’s food scene, Susan covered SoHo and its maturity from a neighbourhood of “porcelain shops, factories, dry cleaners, and greengrocers," an area Susan noted a legislator sought to call “Mid-Levels themed dining area,” into the food powerhouse it is today.
In her columns, she would cover the monthly changes seen in the area, experimentation and fusion of tastes unfamiliar with Hong Kongers, fads and trends, and the growth of foodie areas beyond the expatriate-heavy Central, with Tsim Sha Tsui, Tai Hang, North Point, and Mong Kok featuring heavily in Susan’s praise and reportage.
Recipes at the Post would entail her covering the minutiae and skills for preparing East Asian and Southeast Asian dishes for a readership concentrating in Hong Kong and surrounding territories.
Susan’s reviews enthralled the SCMP’s readership and friends and family the most. With a focus on independent restaurants without a group backing, Susan would devote extensive and detailed reviews to cuisines and restaurants hidden away from sight or deserved of attention in the noisy F&B space.
From the history of a restaurant and chef style to dishes that evoked emotions and the reactive tastes, Susan was methodical and critical in how she would eat and review a restaurant. "As a chef, I gave a little bit more credibility and authority over my analysis.”
Unlike The New York Times, whose writers, Susan referenced, would travel to eat at a restaurant six or seven times before penning a review, she travelled once and ordered ala carte, often with a friend or her partner to share a large spread of food and ensure a real customer experience. “The [SCMP] paid for me to eat and review as objective as it can be, because food is subjective. With a friend or my husband, we had to be objectively subjective.”
“If I could not be positive about a restaurant, I decided on my own that I am not going to review it and I would pay for the meal myself.” Susan told The Beat Asia that her anonymity and paying for the meal, as opposed to a complimentary tasting, ensured honest reviews.
“If you go to a restaurant and you have a really bad experience, that is the restaurant’s fault. Reviews should account for the customers’ perspective. If it’s bad the first time, they’ll never go back for a second.”
"Doing a restaurant review is a great responsibility. You cannot take it lightly. You need to be factually correct and thoughtful about what you're saying. If it's a positive review, people will go to the restaurant because of that review."
Speaking on the issue of anonymity, Susan was stalwart in maintaining privacy and her identity secret, to avoid special treatment. Until her March 2022 op-ed written in the SCMP recounting her near 25 years in her position, Susan previously never showed her face (and signature bob haircut) online or to the world. “For a long time, I could walk into restaurants, and nobody would recognise me.”
Her anonymity simply protected the integrity of her value of a restaurant. “I was trying to review a restaurant in the same way that any other person would review. But then I started getting recognised. When I go to a Chinese restaurant, nobody would recognise me because Chinese restaurants don't know you or care. If I were to walk into a Black Sheep [Restaurants venue] or a group restaurant, people would instantly know who I was.”
She would create email addresses specifically to fill in online restaurant bookings for restaurant tastings, buy SIM cards or burner phones to avoid having a record on her personal number, or book under an alias or a friend's name. However, as she confesses, it was her “very recognisable” haircut, a bob with an eyebrow-high cut fringe and draped neck-length buzzcut, that would often give her identity away.
Susan admits that she “never thought of myself as being a big name” at SCMP and within Hong Kong’s F&B space, until people would place her at parties and events, and one reader survey conducted in the mid-2010s.
The survey asked readers to name the column they read the most and their favourite, with Susan’s name and recipe column placing on the list. It was an oh-sh*t moment for the food editor, “oh wait, they have me as an own entity; it wasn’t ‘food,’ it was ‘Susan Jung’!”
“With the SCMP, I think of myself as just another worker who happened to have a popular section. You know, the arts editor took care of her stuff, but art isn't as universal as food, but she was just as important in my mind to the publication.”
“People knew my name, but they didn’t necessarily know my face. I do know that like when I sometimes introduce myself to people at parties or dinners, I would get stopped by strangers who I had met. They would ask, ‘oh you’re Susan Jung’! I don't know if there's any other Susan Jung. I guess my name was recognisable.”
With a name and a bob haircut highly recognisable to readers of the SCMP, so too is her writing that captured the attention of workers in the F&B, Hong Kongers who cared about food, and foodies attentive to what Hong Kong’s authoritative voice had to say about a restaurant.
In mid-May, Susan officially announced on her Instagram her job change and the writing of her new book. As a new food columnist for Vogue Hong Kong, Susan has the space to concentrate on food journalism for a leading paper, but also research and write for her cookbook, “Kung Pao and Beyond: Fried Chicken Recipes from East and Southeast Asia.”
Susan’s inspiration for creating a cookbook, featuring 60 recipes of fried chicken from the eastern and south-eastern regional corner of Asia, came from feedback from a Saturday newsletter published in 2019, titled “Doesn’t everyone like fried chicken?” Susan cited a familiarity and uber-popularity for the meal that influenced her to pursue writing the cookbook. “I love fried chicken. Everybody loves to buy chicken. Right?”
“After writing this newsletter and every time I would write a fried chicken recipe, I would get a lot of hits and feedback. The editors would ask, ‘Susan, can you write more recipes?’ It was spring 2021 when a subeditor suggested I write a cookbook on fried chicken.”
Seeking to extend her reach and popularity beyond Hong Kong, Susan decided to pursue the idea of writing the cookbook, not for SCMP’s publishing house, but for an international publisher.
In December 2021, she reached out to friend and writer Fuschia Dunlop to begin a conversation with Quadrille Publishing, a London-based international food-focused publisher, to write the cookbook. No one had written a similar cookbook on fried chicken in Asia, much to Susan’s surprise, which further persuaded her to begin the project. “I quit my job at SCMP the day I signed my contract with [Quadrille Publishing].”
The cookbook is set to explore the fried chicken dishes and specific recipes that dominate restaurants and homes scattering around Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and other territories. “The aim is to present East and Southeast Asian recipes for fried chicken to outside audiences and the variance of recipes and history.” The majority of recipes will consist of the familiar crunchy chicken known to many across the region and world.
Research and writing have been extensive for the cookbook. Susan says she and Nigel, her husband, have been eating fried chicken every day for the past three months: different recipes, styles, and adaptions. “He’s mostly quite passionate about it,” Susan says. “But every once in a while, he says, ‘no more fried chicken.’ I love fried chicken. Everybody loves fried chicken, right? But would you eat it for three months?” she laughed.
"I'm looking forward to not eating fried chicken for a while,” Susan says in the end of our interview. After quitting her SCMP role, starting work at Vogue, and writing her cookbook, Susan is elated that she will able “to eat whatever I want to eat without having to think of what I'm writing about.”
Reflecting over a lifetime of writing food and drinks features, interviews, reviews, and recipes for Hong Kong’s leading English-news publication cannot be summated in an hour conversation or 2,406 words.
Susan continues to curate special recipes for her friends and family on her colourful Instagram, pitch and publish feature articles for Vogue, and edit her cookbook.
Even though Susan Jung has left the institution that arguably made her, she perseveres to bring her brand to a personal level and an international standard beyond Hong Kong with her cookbook.
Kung Pao and Beyond: Fried Chicken Recipes from East and Southeast Asia is set to be published internationally early next year.
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