It all started with an email from Noel in mid-January when “new year” was already not “new” anymore. His cheerful email before the start of Hilary term reminded us that there would still be a “new year” to celebrate. Thus, a group of scholars who would have celebrated the Lunar New Year in their home countries decided to celebrate it with the rest of the House this year. We agreed upon the 1994 film Eat Drink Man Woman by Ang Lee and a takeaway dinner from Zheng Restaurant as the programme for the Ertegun House’s Lunar New Year celebration, which fell on the Saturday of Week 1, January 25th.
Having watched Eat Drink Man Woman quite a few times, I was familiar with the story—an old Chinese chef, Mr. Chu, who made it a rule for his three daughters to attend the family banquet every Sunday, eventually saw his daughters leave him, one by one, as they grew up and got married. The change of the family is represented by the changes on the dinner table. In short, it was a story about the Chinese family and food. In fact, the stunning opening sequence of the protagonist Mr. Chu preparing for the Sunday family banquet was my initial reason for choosing this film, even though it is not necessarily directly related to the new year celebration. When I thought about the essence of a lunar new year celebration back home, family and food were two words that came to mind immediately. And Lee’s film provides a brilliant perspective for viewers to understand and empathize with a Chinese family through food.
Lee told the story slowly and delicately. A substantial part of the film was about the preparation of food and the scenes of family banquets. In traditional Chinese thinking, food stands for desire as well as being necessary for a human being’s survival. Entangled with the idea of family, food becomes an expression of familial kinship and affection. In the film, Mr. Chu is not a talkative person and he interacts with his family members and friends through the food he cooks. The family banquet, likewise, is more than a meal; it is an occasion simultaneously charged with love, caring, tensions, conflicts, and understanding between siblings and those between parent and children.
Although the film is not really a comedy, it still brought us many waves of laughter when we watched how the eldest sister Jia-Jen dealt with a group of naughty middle school students or how the little girl Shan-Shan showed off her enticing lunchbox with food made by Mr. Chu to her classmates. When we were drooling in front of the screen just like Shan-Shan’s classmates were doing, the doorbell announced that our own banquet finally arrived. Yet, accidentally, the restaurant forgot to put the name of the dish on each box and therefore, we were all confused and could not recognize what had been ordered by whom. In the end, dozens of boxes were laid on the tables, the seminar room was transformed into a mini cafeteria with scholars and alumni sitting together, sharing food (either using chopsticks or forks) and talking about all kinds of things, from the food to the film. After being happily sated, we resumed watching the film and spent the rest of the night in games and chats.
As a Chinese person who celebrates lunar new year every year, I found this celebration the most special one that I have ever had. If new year is a time to enjoy with food and family, for this year, it was a time spent with food and friends at Oxford; more precisely, at the Ertegun House, a place which is thousands of miles away from home yet feels like home.