To commemorate the beauty of his hometown, Xi’an, China, East Asian Languages and Cultures lecturer Changchun Zhang curated a new exhibition of his own photography, A Look at Diverse Cuisine in China. The exhibit, which opened on the VCAM exhibition wall on Jan. 28, will be on view until March. 4. A Look at Diverse Cuisine in China captures the bright and savory sights from Muslim Food Street, a 1,100 meter-long walkway that runs through the main Muslim neighborhood of the city.
The city of Xi’an has been the site of cultural connection for centuries. As the terminus of the Silk Road, the city linked China to traders, envoys, and students from the Middle East and Western world. The photographs in the exhibition showcase the vibrant signs of Muslim Food Street, known as Huimin Jie in Chinese, and the everyday lives of Chinese cooks, bakers, and customers alike. The street is home to gourmet shops and restaurants, outdoor vendors, illuminated stalls, and endless food and snack options. “There are nearly 300 kinds of specialty snacks at Xi’an’s Muslim Street, where people can smell the aroma of mutton skewers and pastry desserts wherever they go,” said Zhang.
After leaving Xi’an 30 years ago, Zhang turned to food as the cure for homesickness. When he visits home, he always heads to Muslim Food Street to enjoy his favorite dishes: paomo, or pita bread soaked in spiced lamb or beef broth, and huang gui persimmon cake, made with persimmons, rose, flour, nuts, sugar, spices, and cinnamon. “The surface turns golden yellow, soft, and sweet; the cinnamon and osmanthus make it fragrant and delicious,” Zhang explained. When he is back in the United States, Zhang is able to enjoy authentic food at Xi’an Sizzling Woks, a restaurant in Philadelphia’s Chinatown.
Zhang’s interest in art developed at a young age. “I enjoyed writing poetry, and I often went to mountains and rivers to seek inspiration,” he said. “Later, as I got older and became busier with work, I barely had time for literary creations. But every time I saw interesting things, I wanted to record them. In February 2016, I bought a Canon 5D Mark III. The camera gave me a different experience with photography.” Zhang recently won an award in the American Chinese Language Educators Photography Contest in 2021. For the exhibition, he selected 20 out of nearly 100 photos he took of the Muslim Food Street using a Canon EOS R and Canon 24-70 F2.8 lens.
The exhibition is part of a larger project that explores the experience and culture of Chinese Americans. “I visited restaurants, interviewed business owners, took photos, and researched the history of Chinese food in America,” said Zhang. “Carlos Muniz and Sarah Brown, two students from my ‘Third-Year Chinese’ class, funded by the Digital Bryn Mawr Grant from LITS, helped me create a video of Chinese food in America. Both the video and the exhibition will help people get a deeper understanding of Chinese culture.”
A look At Diverse Cuisine in China introduces a unique cultural experience to the Bi-Co. “We’ve had a number of faculty-curated or faculty-originated exhibitions in VCAM, but not as many exhibitions of work created by Bi-College faculty themselves,” said James Weissinger, the associate director of HCAH and operations manager of VCAM. “Changchun’s photographs give the viewer a hyperlocal insider’s focus on the culture of his hometown of Xi’an—this seemed like an exciting perspective to add to the spring roster of VCAM exhibition projects.”
Students who attended the exhibition were thrilled to be immersed in an unfamiliar culture through a very familiar medium. “I really like that it’s a specific global place,” said Avi Serebrenik ’23. “From a Western perspective, I think we often separate Islam and China, but this shows that it’s a very real identity. The exhibition also makes me very hungry. I like the specificity about the uses of food and the different ingredients through the historical background as well. I definitely would love to visit.”
Zhang is grateful for the support he has received. “I want to thank Matthew Callinan, James Wessinger, and Henry Morales for their tremendous efforts to make the exhibition happen,” he said.