Music, Food and Love – Guo Yue & Clare Farrow

Guo Yue was born in Beijing in 1958 so was eight years old when the Cultural Revolution began and this memoir is of a childhood through a period of turmoil as Chairman Mao ran his country into the ground from The Great Leap Forward in 1958 with the re-organisation of China into collectives dedicated to single products which largely failed and ignored the skilled workforce elsewhere who were now forced to do something different, usually badly, to the personality cult of the The Cultural Revolution. Yue was given this name as it means leap forward (Chinese names are family name first, then given name) to mark the year of his birth and the book largely follows his life from then until May 1982 when he left China to study music in London. As you can imagine because he was a child throughout most of the events this is not a usual book about China in those times, rather it is story of family life and survival in a period of extreme upheaval most of which made little sense to the small boy growing up in a two room home around a courtyard of an abandoned temple which was populated by various musicians who had been allocated rooms there in 1949 during another of Mao’s policies.

His overwhelming memories are of making music, cooking, eating and making what fun he could with his friends, politics only creeps in when it impacts his family, those also living in the courtyard or his school friends. His father died in 1964 and this obviously had a massive impact on the family not only emotionally but financially. His mother was a teacher and intellectual who spoke several languages which of course drew the ire of the People’s Army when the Cultural Revolution began and she was eventually bundled off into the countryside to work the land as a punishment for intelligence only reappearing for the occasional night to see how her six children were coping without parents and comfort her youngest, Yue. Eventually she was too exhausted and ill to continue to be in the fields and she was returned home but by then her health was broken.

Yue describes his neighbourhood and the various shops he would run errands to for his elder sisters to get the rationed ingredients they needed and cheap restaurants he would later gather at with friends in his teens before joining the army as a musician beautifully. The map at the start of the book helps you follow him around his local part of north eastern Beijing. You also register his bewilderment and things suddenly change at the whim of Chairman Mao and the changes again ten years after the start of the Cultural Revolution when Mao died and subsequent leaders unravelled the his immensely damaging policies. His fellow author is his wife Clare Farrow a writer and editor on various arts publications specialising in architecture.

One of the joys of the book is that it also includes recipes. At the end of most chapters there is a short list of dishes mentioned in the text and the final seventy pages consists of a quick guide to Chinese cookery and numerous recipes that have had minor tweaks to allow for the unavailability of some of the ingredients used in revolutionary China in London in 2006.

In September 2007 I was visiting my original home town of Nantwich in Cheshire, England to go to its excellent annual Food Festival where Guo Yue was one of the celebrity chefs doing a cookery demonstration, so I actually bought the book from him at the time and he signed it for me in both Pinyin Chinese and English. From memory he cooked two or three of the dishes featured in the book and as I had a front row seat I managed to try some. Sadly the festival has been cancelled again this year due to the uncertainties around what can and cannot be done done the pandemic but I hope to go again in 2022.

Yue also played one of his flutes at the end of the cooking demonstration. Apologies for the poor quality of the image but it was taken with only the natural light through a marquee roof using a mobile phone, which back in 2007 did not possess the camera quality of modern smart phones. In 2006 Guo Yue went back to Beijing to work on an album also called Music, Food and Love and you can see a video recorded then here.

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