An Interview with Cynthia Cheng, the Co-Organizer of Family Style Zine: An AAPI Food Anthology


Our own Andrea “Chuey” Chu, co-editor of and Chrysanthemum: Voices of the Taiwanese Diaspora, interviews Cynthia Cheng, co-organizer of Family Style Zine and contributor for Chrysanthemum. Family Style Zine: An AAPI Food Anthology is an anthology promoting education on the diverse histories of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) food. The zine features illustration and writings from 31 AAPI creators sharing the stories behind 20 dishes that shed light on the AAPI community’s history and diaspora, such as Filipinx kare-kare, Chinese-Korean jajangmyeon, Hawaiian kalo, and many more. Both organizers, Cynthia Cheng and Farrah Su are Taiwanese American women creatives passionate about art and activism! A number of the artists and writers included in the zine are also of Taiwanese heritage. The zine also features the history behind both Taiwanese breakfast foods and Taiwanese beef noodle soup.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


AC: This is such an awesome project and I’m very excited to see it! Tell me a little about it.

CC: First of all, thank you for the kind words! When I was working on a series of illustrations about Asian American issues I learned a bit about the history behind spam, which expanded my mind to other, hidden histories behind Asian/Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) food and all these different influences that have affected those respective countries. At the core of this project is a personal motive to continue learning about those histories. It’s really like a pursuit of knowledge, and by making it a group project I want to invite both our contributors and our audience to join us in that journey of understanding. And of course that knowledge is the history of colonialism, of immigration, all these different experiences that our ancestors have undergone and how it impacts food, which is such a central part of anyone’s culture, and what has changed it to become the food we now know.

As you know, I have also done something similar, in terms of curating a larger body of work with Chrysanthemum. How has the process been for you in getting contributors and working with Farrah?

Farrah is a good friend of mine that I’ve known since I was a lot younger. She’s also been very involved in Asian American activism and those spaces that promote Asian American stories, so it just felt natural to reach out to her and work with her as a co-organizer for this project. Curating has been a good experience. I think that it was interesting because it’s kind of based off of an editorial illustration assignment that you might see out in the professional field, except we asked artists to pitch their ideas and the dishes that were significant to them that they wanted to explore, and then we asked writers to then join on. In many situations it starts with writing and then the artwork is created afterward. So that was a unique situation that I hope presented a good challenge for writers, that they had to work with the dish, and some of the guidelines, and the artists’ work in progress to create the abridged history of the respective dishes. It’s been a good experience for sure, and I haven’t worked closely with so many writers before so this was a good chance to get to experience that too.

What have been your inspirations?

Well the spam piece was based on Hyphen Magazine’s deep dive into the history of spam, and after learning that I felt like I couldn’t stop noticing the different nuggets of history around me. Specifically around AAPI foods, I felt it was such an interesting and accessible way of learning about our history, that I felt compelled to make a project on it. Well also, a good excuse to make it a group project, I’ve always appreciated collaborative projects. There are lots of curators that I admire, in terms of illustration galleries and group projects, and I feel like it makes sense for this project because it’s about sharing history, it’s very community focused and wanting to benefit the community. We really wanted to make sure this project would compensate our contributors, because if we want to benefit the community through knowledge, then benefiting our AAPI creators by providing financial support and compensation was an important point for us as well.

We were also thinking about that a lot with Chrysanthemum. It took us a lot of trial and error to figure out the best way to do that for folks. So what is the most exciting thing that’s happened so far?

I would definitely say something that I did not even consider to become as big of a scale as it has, was when we began planning a launch event for the project. In my mind it was something small scale, maybe like find a local restaurant and ask if we can host our launch event there. Luckily we have partners through the San Francisco Public Library and I spoke to them about making workshops based off our work with Family Style Zine, which led to workshops called Artivism, art plus activism, that we’ll be sharing with teens and a workshop with adults. And the workshops for adults will be at the SFMOMA, in their Public Knowledge space. And because of that relationship, we asked if we could host the launch event there. It felt like a very visible place to bring the AAPI community. We wanted to be a little mischievous in inviting marginalized Asian community friends into this space, a space that is very white-centered / more so elitist kind of space and kind of make it more accessible. A space for the AAPI community to come together and celebrate our history and ourselves. So that was really special that we were able to host it in SFMOMA’s Public Knowledge. We’re really excited to host that for the Bay Area AAPI community to have a chance to come together.

Tell me about you and what experiences you had that helped you come to this point in your life where you want to be doing this project?

I’m a recent grad from Maryland Institute College of Art, an art school in Baltimore, Maryland. During my time there I did a lot of student leadership with both the illustration community and the Asian/Asian American community in school. My passions have always been some form of overlap between the two. And I’ve always been trying to seek an opportunity to create a project that can bring those two together. So I focused on postgrad and it felt like the right time to focus on this project that focused on AAPI creators and using art to share knowledge, illustration specifically. So those two elements were the core of the project and definitely things I wanted to see through to the end. And also now that I am working and out of school I feel like keying into those passions is my way to stay in touch with the community. I moved out to the Bay Area after school and so it’s like a different area, different community and I’ve been feeling disconnected from the AAPI community that I care about. I feel like this project was my way of staying in touch and trying to benefit in a way that I know how.

Our younger readers often ask about is how is it working in what some Asian Americans would see as a non-traditional field, in terms of pursuing art, and also on this project that is maybe outside the comfort zone of certain Taiwanese parents? Is that something that resonates with you?

I’m very lucky that my mom is an art teacher. So she is more understanding than I think most Taiwanese parents would be in me going into the arts. I mean she definitely had her anxieties, but she at least let me go to art school, which I think is a big step compared to some stories I’ve heard. I’m also very fortunate to be working with the Google Doodles team, which provides me the financial stability to be working on a project like this outside of work and makes it easier to be an artist. I think there are projects down the road that I want to do that will have less financial stability, different career aspirations that I want to take on. But I think it definitely helps to have one of those kind of “brand name jobs” that are rather popular/accepted amongst parents. And definitely reassures their anxieties. And I think hopefully even if my career aspirations down the road are less steady, I hope that this experience can still appease my family’s concerns, knowing that I have at some point done something that could potentially be less stressful for them. But that’s just an assumption [laughs].

My last question is around what you see for the community and where you see the community going, and how we can build with different kinds of storytelling and representation, and opening up these spaces where we can learn our histories and find ourselves. What are you hoping to see or what are you seeing that’s exciting?

Yeah, so we knew that we never intended Family Style Zine to be a professional go-to definite source of education, not something you would cite in your academic papers. I wanted it to be a sort of jumping off point for people, because food is so accessible, it’s a great entry point into more complicated, complex conversations, such as history and identity. We wanted it to be something that anyone in the community could pick up and read and not be intimidated. Something to make them think and to challenge them, but to be a safe place to do that. We wanted that to encourage them to do further research on their own, just as I did when I did that project on spam, to be able to identify these things out in the wild and recognize the journey those dishes have come to this point. Something that has been rewarding too, is that not all the contributors for the zine that have really done pieces in their medium that explore their identity and the history of their heritage. And one of my friends who was an artist on the zine told me it really got her to start thinking about how she can further explore these themes through her artwork and that to me was one best things I could hear, because I personally create a lot of identity-based artwork, whether through autobiographical comics or illustrations about Asian American or Taiwanese American identity. So knowing that this project allowed them, and funded them, to try something new, that it made something click for them in their artwork and what they wanted to pursue with the art that they create was really meaningful. I hope that the artists and creators that look at our zine can be inspired to create similar projects, as well as people who aren’t really a part of the creative community, or don’t think too often about identity and history in terms of the AAPI community, can start to think about those things and it can help them change their perspectives a little bit.

Anything else you want to add?

I’d just like to boost the IndieGoGo and our upcoming events in the Bay Area, we’d love to get the word out on those. And I also want to thank you for putting together a great project like Chrysanthemum, it really helped Family Style Zine feel possible and that we could accomplish it, and the book itself is really gorgeous.

Thanks so much for that! I can’t wait to back this project!



See the links below to support Family Style Zine:

IndieGoGo Campaign
Facebook Events for:
Artivism (Art + Activism): Turning Passions into Actions (5/17) – for adults
Artivism (Art + Activism): Turning Passions into Actions (5/18) – for teens and tweens
Launch Event (5/19)



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