Food & Culture

Michelle Law: how I eat

The writer and social commentator on Hong Kong hotpots, hair loss and being a Homecoming Queen.

By Lee Tran Lam
Michelle Law
Michelle Law

What are your stand-out memories of food from childhood?
My mother had this really great soup she'd make with tomato, chicken and sour greens. I was running around the house once and accidentally collided with her as she was holding a whole potful, and she tipped it right over me. I was maybe four and I had to be shoved into a cold shower for about half an hour. I just remember lying on my front on the bed for two hours, just sobbing. My mum was like, "This is why you shouldn't run in the house". Tragic.

Where was a place you often ate while growing up?
I grew up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. My mum was very protective, but luckily we lived right across the road from a shopping centre. So that was my haven. It sounds bogan, but my memory of food and growing up is of food courts: Chinese take-out, kebabs, McDonald's. I think, to this day, that's why I find shopping centres comforting, even though most people consider them purgatory.

Your play Single Asian Female is set in a Chinese restaurant. Is that an environment you're very familiar with?
My siblings, when I was growing up, had to work at most of my dad's restaurants. And I did for a bit, but I'm so terrible at hospitality that I just resigned, because I caused the business too much strife and was giving customers the wrong change.

What would you eat from your father's establishments?
When my dad had a Thai restaurant on the Sunshine Coast, my favourite dish was probably the tom yum soup with prawns. That was always the go-to for me. I'd always get the tom yum and prawns with a side of rice, and mix the rice into the soup. I never got sick of it. Even when I go to Thai restaurants now, I'll still get a tom yum. There's something comforting about a soup, even though I was literally burnt by one.

In your final year of high school, your work was published in the anthology Growing Up Asian in Australia. Had you always wanted to be a writer?
When I was younger, I always wanted to be an actor, and I remember my brother [Benjamin Law] saying, "Writing is the genesis of most forms of art, so it's a good tool to have in the future if you want to branch out into other things". I'm grateful he gave me that advice, because as a writer, I just have so much more control and agency over my projects – and I knew I wouldn't be getting acting work, because I was Asian-Australian. So it got to a point where I thought, "I'm just going to make my own work".

You did that with Homecoming Queens, the SBS show on which you co-wrote and featured. Your character is called Michelle and, like you, has alopecia. When did you realise this condition was going to dramatically change your life?
When I hit my 20s and lost my hair for the third time, I was like, "This is something that is going to stay for the rest of my life". I was going through long periods without hair, and it was quite a shock. It's been a gradual process coming to terms with that.

Are there some upsides, like getting to rock awesome wigs?
When I have wigs, I don't have to worry about bad hair days. And also I don't need to buy a lot of hair products, so I save a lot of money that way. And at the end of the day, taking off the wig is like taking off your bra. It's like, ah, the day's done!

Homecoming Queens also draws on your co-writer Chloë Reeson's experiences with cancer. What have been the responses to that?
A nurse at a children's hospital in Brisbane messaged me and was telling me about the young women on her ward, and that they all watched the show. She said they'd laughed for the first time in months. She said that even though it wasn't a huge thing, it meant a lot to them.

The show is up-front about your hair loss. Was it empowering to show this on-screen, or did you have to talk yourself into it?
I did a TEDx Talk about having alopecia, and it was a coming-out experience, for the lack of a better phrase. For me it's been empowering, because I've done it on my own terms. It's really tricky with interpersonal experiences, especially if you're hanging out with mates and they want to go to the beach, or you're starting a new relationship – there's always a point where you have to "come out". Talking about it so publicly is a constant process of putting it out there, so I don't have to keep explaining myself.

You were recently in Hong Kong with your family. What did you eat while you were there?
We had a great hotpot night with these huge vats of soup, which were about a metre deep and filled to the brim with seafood. I also love how McDonald's in different countries have different menus – in Hong Kong, they had a taro soft serve.

Does coffee or tea power your writing sessions?
I'm a massive tea person. I like the taste of coffee, but I can't really drink it because it gives me heart palpitations. In winter I like to have a proper English breakfast tea with milk and some bickies, and I'll use that to settle in when I'm reading.

Homecoming Queens is currently showing on SBS on Demand. The play Single Asian Female is published by Currency Press. For more Michelle Law, visit michelle-law.com

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  • Author: Lee Tran Lam