It’s one of the joys of my life to edit the work of Christopher Cheung. The care and sensitivity with which he builds relationships with his sources is, to me, a model for how journalism can and should be done.
Four years ago, Cheung came up with the idea for “Fresh off the Shelf,” a Tyee series that explores the vital work of ethnocultural communities in our local food systems.
“A lot of food journalism on diasporas tends to focus on unearthing restaurants, but I was really curious about the staple products,” said Cheung. “What’s it like to start making tofu and paneer in a community that doesn’t sell them on shelves? If the makers want to scale up, where do they get the machinery? If a business can get it right, they’re helping reintroduce staple foods back into people’s diets.”
However, Cheung’s interview requests were met with silence or rejection when he phoned or showed up in person at numerous local businesses, from noodle factories to fish ball makers. Some had never engaged with English-language media before and showed guardedness and uncertainty.
The pandemic highlighted the importance of local food supply chains. About a year ago, Cheung decided to try again and gradually connected with four businesses across the region.
@the_tyee What foods do you love that have been left out of the conversation? Comment below 🍜🧆🫔 And check out Chris’s delicious series at the link in bio. 😋✨ #vancouverbc #paneer #pho #tortillas #beefballs #tofu #ethnic #foodtok #journalism #cdnmedia #chinafood #mexicanfood #vietnamesefood #indianfood ♬ Chopin Nocturne No. 2 Piano Mono - moshimo sound design
“I got to see how incredibly busy they were,” said Cheung. “My interviews were scheduled around plane trips, hospital visits and dropping off grandkids. One source had to take multiple business calls during our chat and another spoke to me while driving.”
I knew they were starting to bear fruit when Cheung ended up being the one to drive an 88-year-old grocer and tofu maker to work. And when Cheung was invited to a bedside interview at St. Paul’s Hospital in the last weeks of a source’s life, I could see that something had shifted in how we understood this series and its potential for impact across generations.
The Tyee published “Fresh off the Shelf” in April and May 2023. This fall at the 45th annual Canadian Ethnic Media Association’s Awards for Journalistic Excellence, Cheung’s series won the award for best online articles.
“People who cheer on local food talk about the importance of Canadian ingredients, face-to-face relationships and shortening supply chains,” said Cheung. “The businesses in my stories, and many others hustling to serve sorely-missed staples for their respective communities, do just that — but they’re not often celebrated. I hope this series shows readers the creativity and grit of diasporas who managed to feed a cultural demand that the ‘mainstream’ market could not.”
We at The Tyee are thrilled to celebrate Cheung’s win. And especially to see his series find resonance in the many communities that shaped his thinking.
The series continues to have ripple effects across those who see versions of themselves and their own families in the series and among the food systems educators who are using the journalism in their classes.
“Fresh off the Shelf” invites us to expand and challenge our understanding of local food, the realities of immigrant families and what it means to tie one’s livelihood to difficult yet necessary feats of sustenance. It’s a worthy read for anyone passionate about our local food landscape and the people at its heart.
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