To some people, food is nothing more than fuel to keep moving. To them, eating is a mundane, matter of fact ordeal that you have rather than want to partake in. But there are those who hold food up to much higher altars. For some people, to eat is to peek into worlds, cultures, and traditions far beyond their own.
For Mike Souvanthalisith and Muriel-Ann Ricafrente, senior designers at Sydney-based design agency Frost* Collective, food is an agent of change and an act of defiance against discrimination.
It all started when the coronavirus outbreak hit Australia in February. Mike and Muriel noticed an increase in racially-motivated attacks against Asians in their country, and being Asian themselves, were concerned.
“In February, the big thing that stuck out to us was the stigma towards the Asian community,” Mike said. “It was racial bias, xenophobia, and the air around the topic stunk of the Pauline Hanson-era 'yellow peril'.”
Pauline Hanson is an Australian politician who is notorious for her anti-immigration policies, once proclaiming that Australia was in danger of being “swamped by Asians,” and who more recently declared that she “doesn’t trust the Chinese.”
“The hard thing to witness was how much the community was suffering,” Muriel continued.
That suffering came in the form of fear-induced boycotting of Asian restaurants. In the early stages of the outbreak, most cases of COVID-19 were coming from China, an outcome of the coronavirus originating in Wuhan. Many people took this as an implication that all Asians were carriers, an exceedingly false sentiment that unfortunately led to a rise in racism against those in Asian communities.
“We have a few friends in the hospitality industry, so we started to see just how much the fear-mongering and media hysteria was affecting their businesses.” Mike continued, “Places that we loved in Chinatown and Asian suburbs were taking huge hits to their profits — dropping 50 to 70 percent in a matter of weeks.”
The last straw was a list on Wikipedia documenting racist incidents from around the world since the coronavirus pandemic began. After seeing that, the couple's apprehension turned to resolve.
They started More Of Something Good, or MSG, an illustrated food directory dedicated to plugging Asian eateries and restaurants around Australia. Enlisting the help of artists, friends, and fellow creatives, they gathered illustrations of their favourite Asian eateries and compiled them into an Asian food guide. Supporting Asian artists and the Asian restaurants they enjoy, the platform is a double whammy that brings Asian representation into the forefront.
“A&F (art and food) touches each person differently, but when it's good, it hits them on a very deep level; touching on multiple senses, emotions, and memories,” Muriel said.
“We've seen people cry after looking at art and lose their minds over a bowl of ramen. Isn't that incredible? They help to bridge the gap between communities and bring them into the fold. There's nothing more honest, or perhaps primitive, than gathering around a table of food or looking at an artwork.”
The project came out of Studio MIMU, the couples’ design alter ego. The Instagram page features art and design passion projects that they squeeze in between their full time jobs. MSG, being their latest endeavour.
More than just a cheeky nod to the condiment, the name MSG also signifies how their struggle mirrors the unjustified bad rep that it gets.
“It seemed fitting for this project as the misconception of Asian restaurants amidst COVID-19 mirrored the same stigmas around MSG and the 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome'.”
‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ is a feeling of lethargy, dizziness, and palpitations, allegedly caused by eating too much monosodium glutamate (MSG), a naturally occurring flavouring agent present in many foods, not restricted to just Asian cooking. To this day no conclusive scientific studies have found that MSG leads to adverse health effects.
Refusing to let yet another misconception define them, they felt that they had to play to their strengths and make a difference in the way they knew how. Their zealousness was far from unfounded. Both Mike and Muriel grew up as outliers in their community. Mike, whose parents are a mix of Lao, Thai, and Chinese, grew up in Springvale, a Melbourne suburb with a high concentration of immigrants. While Muriel, who was born in the Philippines, moved to the predominantly white neighbourhood of Penrith in New South Wales, when she was 3 years old.
“You're always second-guessing whether you deserve where you're at or if you're a token metric. Even when you think you've assimilated, be it through some great project you've worked on or how well you 'get' the Australian lifestyle, a casual 'ni hao' (hello in Mandarin Chinese) from a stranger, or the occasional racial outburst from kids with rat tails, immediately brings you back to the suburbs, but at least there's more visibility for people and places online that are advocating for change,” Mike said.
In gunning for change, Mike and Muriel’s weapons of choice — art and food — transcend boundaries and resonate at people's emotional cores. Like a bowl of steaming broth, it’s guaranteed to warm even the coldest hearts.
“It's easy to drown in the fear of the unknown, resort to hate, and point fingers. However, it's just as easy to reframe our perspective and focus on what's really important right now,” Muriel said.
“With everything seeming so grim, we wanted to use people's universal love of food and art and marry it to the communities who make it all happen.”
We believe in… doing good work and sleeping-in.
Our friends say we are… always too busy to hang out with them.
But we like to think we are… ”practicing social distancing.”
We are inspired by… our moms, our friends, Ai Wei Wei, and our future dog, Toyota Suntory.
Recently we've been really into… inspiring people, food, and artists. We love RuPaul, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Salted Egg Eggplant from Malacca Straits, Hot & Sour Noodle Soup from Duoway Chinese Noodle Hub, and artists like Andrew Yee and those from the studio Creature Creature.
You can usually find us at… the studio working late hours, at home watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, or in Chinatown.
On bad days, we… eat KFC.
We live for… meaningful projects and our future dog, Toyota Suntory.
In five years…we'll still be doing what we love but with our new dog, Toyota Suntory.