Compromising my Values as a Food Writer in Shanghai

Actually, I was just an intern. But that doesn’t detract from what I’m about to tell you…

Frank Zhang, Unsplash

In 2018, I started one of the most exciting ventures of my young adult life: an internship at Shanghai’s biggest lifestyle magazine. As someone with a huge passion for food and cooking, it was a dream come true.

China is known all over the world for its centuries, if not millennia of civilised cooking and eating habits. Really, when I try to compare it to what I know of British food culture, it’s humiliating.

And so, interning in the world’s biggest, and perhaps most rapidly developing city ought to have been one of the best places possible to write about food and drink. Asian capitals are known for being more homogenous than those of western Europe, but Shanghai is quickly becoming a cosmopolitan metropolis to rival London or Paris.

The city’s iconic, colonial architecture has always set it apart in the eyes of foreigners from other Chinese cities. At the conclusion of the First Opium War, the Daoguang Emperor and Queen Victoria signed the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), which resulted in Shanghai becoming a trading outpost for the western powers. Hong Kong was the main part of these reparations, but Shanghai also saw thousands of foreigners dock on its shores as a result of losing this devastating war of greed.

At the time, Chinese people in Shanghai suffered a precarious existence, often being treated as outsiders or second-class in their own home. But the legacy of this historic convergence of westerners and Chinese endures to this day. Shanghai teems with bougie French bakeries, authentic Italian pizza and pasta and German breweries. The rest of mainland China can’t compare.

Not only is it a hub of European fine-dining, but Shanghai is also proving that it has what it takes to compete with the likes of Singapore and Hong Kong and overtake them as the epicentre of Asian fine-dining. These are all exciting things to bear in mind, unless you’re vegan.

That was my particular predicament. Not long before moving to Shanghai, I’d made the decision to change my diet, as well as amend my global perspective on how food is sourced and its quality. A part of me was still in Manchester, where I travelled from, which is known for being uber vegan-friendly, to a city that has barely a handful of exclusively vegan eateries.

It didn’t seem possible to do my job, which was to write and review bars and restaurants on a weekly basis, and remain vegan. Within a week of arriving, I was back to eating eggs, meat and fish. I was eager to please, so naturally, I didn’t make a fuss about it. I didn’t have the self-confidence or passion to say that I wanted to remain vegan.

So I ended up going back to the life that I’d always known. For most people, that wouldn’t be a big deal, but as someone with a history of eating disorders, it did bother me. Veganism was a big part of my healing process, so losing it affected me viscerally.

At first eating meat felt sinful, but then it just became normal. I did try to circumvent this a little bit and do a vegetarian feature every couple of weeks, but it didn’t have much of an impact. Those articles always flopped.

What I then realised was the huge difference in food trends between Manchester and Shanghai. In a sense, we can think of them both as microcosms for British and Chinese food culture writ large. In my home, food was changing to become more inclusive, more accessible and more sustainable.

Shanghai was witnessing the opposite trend in my opinion. Restaurant prices were escalating rapidly, food was becoming more niche and luxurious items were growing in popularity, and there never seemed much mention of sustainability, food ethics, nor a demand for vegan/vegetarian eateries.

Food culture was never discussed during my MSc in Chinese Studies, but it can still highlight some interesting things. The steady growth of China’s middle-class, previously denied access to certain products before the ‘reform and opening up’ policies that began in 1978, wanted to have all the same luxuries available in other countries.

And they do now. The idea of travelling to Hong Kong was once a huge deal for many mainlanders, but now, there’s simply less need. Even this alludes to Shanghai’s huge financial development over the years.

The city’s trajectory is exciting for anyone in the F&B industry because it shows how fertile the city is to new ideas, especially fine-dining and luxury experiences. But I also think that it’s important to develop our consciousness when it comes to what we eat. Plant-based eating culture won’t gather traction everywhere just yet, and I think this is especially true in a fairly secular country like China, where vegetarianism is something only thought of as part of a monastic life. Quite the opposite to what a burgeoning middle-class wants.

Being in a situation where your values are compromised is something that many of us have experienced. Clearly, my vegan values weren’t that dear to me at the time, since I dropped them in a matter of days. That isn’t something that I feel ashamed about now either. As humans, we often like to work within fixed time schedules and set ourselves challenges. For example, I’ll stop drinking for a month, I’ll quit smoking next month, I won’t eat red meat for the next few weeks etc.

Often, we return to our old bad habits. In my case, I renounced a good habit. It’s great to want to make transformations, but I think that for values to really have any impactful change, we need to know why we actually stand for something. Why do we want to change? Why is one path better than the other for you as an individual? Foregoing this thinking, it becomes a lot harder to improve.

When I made a real effort to go vegan in 2019, I knew why I wanted to do it. I was looking out for my mental health. Moreover, I immersed myself in literature on animal welfare, sustainability, environmental ethics, and simply had changed on an individual level. My feelings had magnified so much more and I knew that I was ready to make a long-lasting change. A change that I wouldn’t compromise for anything.

Linguist with an MSc in Chinese Studies. I live in North London, where I am writing a fantasy series and managing my vegan food Instagram.

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