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Noodle and the Pandemic

  • Cheering for Noodle

In the beginning of April 2020, the slogans #Welcome back! Sesame hot noodles# (#欢迎回来热干面#), #Carry on! Sesame hot noodles# (#热干面加油#) became common on China’s top social media platform. Why was a noodle dish trending now? Why did the noodle dish need all this encouragement? And why was support for one specific noodle dish trending at the same moment as news of Wuhan’s official reemergence after lockdown triggered by the COVID-19 outbreak? The slogans, and comic illustrations of sesame noodles by talented netizens, present an interesting aspect of the ways contemporary Chinese social media name and engage with regional identities. Sesame hot noodle is Wuhan, and cheering for noodle is a way to cheer for a community many know only from the recent news. In this moment, not only talking about, but also drawing and even eating a specific noodle dish become a way to engage with crisis. 

#Cheer for sesame hot noodles              

People’s Daily: “Starting from March. 25th, Wuhan’s public transportation partly resumed. With the epidemic situation increasingly under control, Wuhan has been gradually regaining its vitality.

#After seventy days people finally lined up for sesame hot noodles in Wuhan

Although nothing can really be considered peculiar during this surreal time of unprecedented global public health challenges, the cheerful embrace of a dish found in street stalls and even my cafeteria at Beijing Foreign Studies University  seems incompatible with gloomy headlines and mass mortalities. Pastel images of anthropomorphized bowls of noodles seem even less appropriate to this global moment so it may seem at first glance. Are these signs of people escaping the harsh reality, and indulging themselves in the realm of cuisine? Are they calling out for comfort food? Are people, so desperate to get their minds off the virus for one second, creating a  food craze? None of these are true.. The sudden explosion of the sesame hot noodles food talk is in fact not a manifestation of people departing the pandemic reality, but instead, a mediated way in which they embrace it. This would all make more sense when taken under a linguistic context of metonymic usage of language.  Cheering for sesame noodle is cheering for Wuhan.  

Although it is not at all an ideal way to become famous the city of Wuhan in Hubei province, China, has been thrust into the global spotlight as the early center of the COVID-19 outbreak. Wuhan has never before received this degree of media exposure and attention in the Chinese national consciousness, let alone the universal attention it now receives. As one of the initial hotspots during this outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city has been at the center of media coverage and other means of information circulation in China.The popular depiction of Wuhan in the Chinese media draws on the common cultural heritage of the Chinese people as a whole. 

热干面, or Wuhan hot noodles with sesame paste is a traditional dish of Wuhan. Just like New York style pizza is known, produced, and eaten across the US,  Wuhan sesame hot noodle is known nationally as a representative of a specific local cuisine. It has a history in Chinese food culture for 80 years. The dish is distinguished by its unique texture:  the noodles are “dry,” not in a broth like most other Asian-style hot noodle dishes. Many cities in China have emblematic dishes, known locally and even internationally: peking duck in Beijing, hot-pot in Chengdu, and broth dumpling in Shanghai. Most cities and regions have well-known local culinary specialties, and regional food can be one of the most straight-forward cultural symbols.. Though Wuhan’s sesame hot noodle is not as well known outside the country as Beijing’s peking duck, like other regional specialties it is both a delicious food and a means for people who have never been to Wuhan to experience the place. As such it, like other regional foods, is also a way of representing and talking about the region and its people. 

Photo credited to internet

While talk about sesame noodles exploded on the internet in April, and celebrities ate sesame noodles on camera, perhaps as a show of solidarity, a series of soft comic strip illustrations had been developing a cult following since late January. These pastel images, by the artist 陈小桃momo have become one of the most visible and widely circulated examples of the role of sesame hot noodle in discussions of Wuhan’s crisis and recovery.The first of the series of images was initially posted on January 30th on Weibo, one of the biggest social media platforms in China when the COVID-19 situation in Wuhan was most severe. 

All of the images center on an anthropomorphized bowl of sesame noodles, a little human figure with a bowl of sesame noodles in place of a head. In the first image, the little bowl of sesame noodles sits in a hospital bed, masked and with tears swelling up in its eyes. It looks out the window of the hospital room. Outside the window, similar anthropomorphic depictions of foods around the country, each representing a different city or region, cheer for the noodles, holding signs saying “sesame noodles, carry on.” 

The second image was released on March 25th, when the lockdown in the rest of Hubei province was lifted except for Wuhan. In this image, the condition of little sesame noodles has clearly improved.It has gotten back on its feet, leaning towards the window and waving back at the crowd of “food delegates” who appear to have been supporting it this whole time. The cherry blossoms blooming by the window  refer not only to the passage of time during the ciris (winter has passed, and spring has truly come) but also to Wuhan itself, the campus of Wuhan university is famous for its spring cherry blossoms. 

Finally a third image appeared on April 8th, when the lockdown of Wuhan finally terminated. In this image,  the bowl of sesame noodles is finally out of the hospital, now surrounded in a heart-shape circle by all the culinary emissaries   and essential workers who had cared for the noodles during their period of isolation. 

These three images form  a complete narrative, a relationship that is reinforced with  delicate details of meta-images in the second and third entries. A miniature of the first image is placed as a poster on the cubicle’s door in the second drawing; similarly, the second image is contracted on a board that is held up in the third picture by a string of meatballs and a scallion in the back.

“Sesame hot noodles, carry on!”                 “Hubei restarts”                       “Long time no see”

Images credited to 陈小桃momo

Clearly, sesame hot noodles are serving in these images, and in other sites of Chinese popular and social media as a means of representing Wuhan during the crisis. But why? Why not represent Wuhan during this time with cherry blossoms, or renowned local architectures like the yellow Crane Tower (黄鹤楼)? Why not just use its name? What political, economic, or even cultural forces have led this language of noodles to be so readily accepted as the best way to show support for the capital city of Hubei? I will discuss these in subsequent posts.  

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