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Jennifer Tang Wing-lam’s “Feed Me” is an exhibition of messy food and beautiful faces. Photo: Jennifer Tang Wing-lam

‘I like to watch people eat’: photographer on the over-the-top food imagery in her debut solo show

  • Photographer Jennifer Tang Wing-lam’s debut exhibition at Soho House’s public gallery in Hong Kong is an expression of the joys of eating without guilt
  • Her images feature ‘messy’ foods like jelly and pomegranate, styled by food designer Alison Tan – and plus-size model Lezlie Chan as a cyberpunk 1950s housewife

“We had a lot of crazy ideas, but we were worried that they wouldn’t be edible,” says Jennifer Tang Wing-lam, a 26-year-old professional fashion and product photographer.

She is referring to a surreal arrangement of shiny “desserts” on cake stands, such as instant noodles, cocktail sausages and rounds of pineapple suspended in clear jelly, which feature alongside a more conventional ruby-coloured pudding in a coupe glass.

Sitting behind them is Lezlie Chan, a singer-songwriter and plus-sized model, dolled up like a vision of a cyberpunk 1950s housewife, with lime green tresses curled up in hot pink hair rollers, laughing as strands of noodles hang from her sharp-taloned hands.

It is one of the many shots that feature in Tang’s debut photography exhibition, “Feed Me”, which opens at the public gallery space on the ground floor of private members’ club Soho House Hong Kong, on Hong Kong Island, this month.

Lezlie Chan in one of the photos at Tang’s debut photography exhibition. Photo: Jennifer Tang Wing-lam

On November 4, guests attending the launch party will be able to see – and perhaps taste – for themselves the rather odd jelly sculptures that were created for one of the sets by food designer Alison Tan, who created all the foods seen in the series of images.

That includes the divisive spicy Korean ramen jelly cake, which is cosseted by lettuce leaves and topped off with devilled eggs. The concept was inspired by the odd dinner party trends of the mid-20th century.

“Alison suggested the idea of a retro housewife that got too drunk and turned everything into a jello,” Tang says. The addition of the noodles was a nod to Tang’s own obsession with watching mukbang, the craze popularised in South Korea for watching live-streams of people eating and commentating on food directly to the viewer.

Another image set came from Tang’s love of birthday cakes and sugary maraschino cherries.

“There’s a visual contrast between the cake and the person,” she says. “We have this really tough looking boy that has this soft spot for sweet stuff. That’s why he has a little face tattoo of ‘sugar’ on his cheek and he’s just going [wild] on the cake, with the whipped cream and sprinkles.”

One of the photos in Tang’s debut photography exhibition. This image set came from Tang’s love of birthday cakes and sugary maraschino cherries. Photo: Jennifer Tang Wing-lam
One of the photos at Tang’s exhibition. Photo: Jennifer Tang Wing-lam

What Tang wants to do is encapsulate pure, unadulterated joy in her images – the visceral thrill of being a glutton, eating without guilt.

“It’s not really a story that I want to bring to people. It’s more like the emotion,” she says. “I want people to feel when they see my photos because for me, I don’t like things that are too nice and clean.”

It is why some images are more provocative, like a set where Tan herself appears as a socialite-slash-dominatrix weighed down with pearls and precious stones, sucking on a whole raw octopus.

Food designer Alison Tan dressed as a socialite/dominatrix and sucking on a raw oyster in one of the photos in Tang’s exhibition. Photo: Jennifer Tang Wing-lam

“When I think of crazy eating, I remember that scene in [the South Korean thriller] Old Boy where he just swallows the whole octopus,” says Tang.

“I try not to make everything too polished. That’s why you see that in some images, like the one with the duck feet, there’s actually chewed up bone that Alison and I spit up after we finished eating,” she says, referring to another set of images where a young man dressed in typical Hong Kong dai pai dong worker garb – white tank, towel slung over the shoulder – sits down to a feast of duck feet and hot tea. “We just pull it up as part of the props.”

The seed of the idea for “Feed Me” really came from a seed – of a pomegranate, that is, which features in the most austere of all the images. Inspired by Tang’s favourite film, The Colour of Pomegranates, a woman wearing lace tears into pomegranate fruit with a passion.

A man dressed in typical Hong Kong dai pai dong worker garb in a photo from Tang’s exhibition. Photo: Jennifer Tang Wing-lam

“I’ve been watching [US television show] Hannibal a lot and I’m very inspired by the image of this innocent person with an ‘eat your heart out’ kind of vibe. We had three pomegranates on set and she was like a human juicer,” she laughs.

“I’ve had this idea for about two years,” she continues, explaining how the image came into her head after she found herself eating pomegranate at home with equally shameless abandon.

“Our faces were so dirty. Everything was stained, like our table, our hands. And I’m like, OK, maybe I should do a photo shoot of someone just smudging food on their face and just making a mess and just having fun.”

One of the photos in Tang’s photography exhibition. The seed of the idea for “Feed Me” came from the seed of a pomegranate. Photo: Jennifer Tang Wing-lam

“I like to watch people eat,” she confesses. “It’s a weird thing that I kind of have to admit, but the emotion of people and the joy when they put really nice food in their mouth and then you get that smile.

“That’s something that really fascinates me.”

Feed Me is on at G/F, Soho House Hong Kong, 33 Des Voeux Road West, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong Island, Hong Kong from 4-14 November

Ville Gourmande • Hong Kong #2 by Chongling at Ville Gourmand (Gourmet City). Photo: Chongling/art tu

Another serving

Do not miss the final days of Ville Gourmand (Gourmet City) by Hong Kong-based artist Chongling, who presents a whimsical series of food and transport paintings at the art tu: gallery on Wyndham Street in Central, on Hong Kong Island.

The artist is showcasing 10 works that encapsulate her love for local dishes such as dim sum, French toast and congee as well as iconic Hong Kong transport, from the Star Ferry to nostalgic “hot dog” buses.
Ville Gourmande • Hong Kong #7 by Chongling. Photo: Chongling/art tu
Ville Gourmande • Hong Kong #4 by Chongling. Photo: Chongling/art tu
In a dish of braised abalone with shiitake mushroom and a single stalk of broccoli drifts the now-defunct Jumbo Floating Restaurant; in another, the Peak tram crawls up the craggy surface of a steamed char siu bao. A looming tower of steamed ma lai go (brown sugar cake) resembles the tightly packed blocks of the long-demolished Kowloon Walled City.

Some pairings are more direct than others, such as the city’s signature red junk boat coasting through a bowl of sampan congee (a fisherman staple consisting of rice porridge with ingredients such as cuttlefish, shrimp and fish). Chongling’s humorous and instantly recognisable depictions will resonate with the people of the city.

Ville Gourmand (Gourmet City) is on until 6 November at Wyndham Social, G/F, 33 Wyndham Street, Central, Hong Kong Island, Hong Kong