Film: An Ode to Hong Kong Street Food and Family

YI NING WONG WRITES — The month of May marks Asian Pacific Heritage Month. Last week, I had the opportunity to chat with team members from a recent animation about street foods, culture, and family in Hong Kong: Front of the House. Director Sum Yi “Ashley” Ma and Sound Director Yi Ming Zhou tell us about their experiences in the creative industry, and what it’s like to work on a project that’s close to home.

Could you tell us a little bit about your journey to your creative work?

Sumyi: I really liked drawing as a child. Growing up, I had the most fun when I worked in a team, but especially in theater, drawing, and other creative mediums. I realized I didn’t like drawing by myself either. Animation, as a collaboration-based industry, was the perfect way to blend my passions together. I could draw something that was meaningful and valuable to other people.

Yiming: I played the guitar and I really enjoyed music, but I knew I wasn’t talented enough to be a musician. I actually started college as a business major, but I wasn’t finding much fulfillment there. When I was walking around campus one day I stumbled upon long lines of students outside of our film school. Turns out Hans Zimmer was going to give a talk that day. I attended for fun. Little did I know that it would pivot me into sound engineering, and that’s what I’m doing now. My interest in music has led me into film. It’s always a fun challenge for me to blend different sounds together to create the illusion of reality, and manipulate how audiences feel without them knowing. My fun party fact is that heavy rain sounds in a film are likely to be the sounds of sizzling bacon in reality.

What has informed the type of work that you do?

Sumyi: Before coming to the US, I did not have huge exposure to a wide range of animation. When I met my animation cohort and other American animators, I saw how passionate they are about their work, and that changed my approach to animation. I used to be more geared toward film, now I am more open to a lot more forms that animation can take. I am interested in working in TV animation because the stories are continuous, and its consistent airtimes really shape what people can watch at home.

My stories frequently draw from home. Being from Hong Kong, I think about what it means to be Chinese. Especially leaving my home-city, I’ve had the privilege to reflect on my identity. So many different countries have a strong animation industry, which forms a part of their identity and pride of their origins. Hong Kong doesn’t have a huge animation industry yet, which makes me hopeful that we can find a place for it in the near future. That’s where I see myself going with animation. I’d love to somehow give back to the place that’s started my creative inspirations.

Front of the House (2019) Prop designs

Yiming: Every year, I take on at least one animation project because they are the ones that give me the most creative freedom. Each project I’ve taken is also stylistically very different. Dreamweavers (2017) was heavily focused on fantasy and sleep time sounds, Xiao Xue Wu Lin (2018) is a three minute action-packed sequence full of punches and kicks, and this project immerses you into the streets of daily Hong Kong life.

I try to learn from how Pixar animations do their sound. They blend in layers of everyday sounds that make it feel like you’re watching a live-action film. It’s different than animations like Tom and Jerry, with springers and “cartoonish” sound effects. For the food scenes, I was inspired by the sound design from Miyazaki’s movies, where the food shots always look and sound delicious. 

Still from Xiao Xue Wu Lin (2018)

Your most recent project is “Front of the House”. What is the motivation and story behind it? Why did you decide to do it?

Sumyi: The story came from a very consistent feeling of being homesick, being abroad. Every time I go home, I find something new that I never took notice of. Now that I am older, I get to appreciate parts of Hong Kong that extends past what I was comfortable or grew up with. This time, it was food and the rich culture that it offers in Hong Kong.

I’ve also been trying to educate myself on not just the glamorous side of the food and spices but also how they relate to societal issues, like the wealth gap. I liked that street food is something that brought people together, no matter their economic status.

Family is a huge thing too. Different cultures have their own communication styles. Specifically in my personal experience, with Chinese families, a lot of the closeness and bonding is through having a meal together, I really wanted to explore that and how families can be broken and mended through communication in food.

Yiming: This story resonated with me because I also grew up with street food when I used to go back to China every summer. That’s something that’s always been in my childhood. Street food was something that brought me and my family together, including our extended family, so I have many memories of us having good times eating on the streets. However, we started going less and less because street food safety has gotten worse in China. Street food is something that’s being ripped away around the world. Street food, especially in the west, has a negative connotation to it. I wanted to work on this project because it manifests the beauty of street food.

My family embodies the classic Chinese family dynamic that Sumyi portrays, where families don’t verbally show emotional support, even though in reality they want the best for you — they just don’t know how to do express it. My family experiences this emotional constipation and I do too, so that’s something that’s personal to me as well.

Movie poster for Front of the House (2019)

What was your message to audiences?

Sumyi: I wanted to expose street food itself to western audiences. The whole idea of eating on the streets with foldable tables and stools. I also wanted to show the negative family connotation that revolves around Chinese parenting and nonverbal dynamics, and how words can be more harsh and blunt. I wanted to show that it comes from a place of love. I want to show that to both Western audiences and people back at home.

What’s unique about this animation?

Sumyi: Definitely the sound, not just because Yiming is here. I think it’s so special that he was in Hong Kong and recorded those sounds from there. It’s super meaningful. You’re making a film about Hong Kong, and you’re doing so through sound capturing the essence of these streets and putting it into this film. We also made a conscious decision to have the dialog in Cantonese. Having so many people help out with the translations also engaged the language in a way that was very meaningful.

Yiming: I mentioned Pixar earlier because I think Coco really inspired me. Coco also made a decision to go to Mexico and record all the ambiance from there. Just as how Coco did a phenomenal job in capturing the authenticity of Mexican landscapes, I wanted to do that for Hong Kong as well. Each city has its own sounds, such as the languages spoken in the background, type of cars, and in Hong Kong’s case, its unique traffic lights, trams tracks, and chopsticks clinging against the bowls. I think this film convinced me that I had to capture the sonic field of Hong Kong and make it as authentic as possible. It’s a movie that tries to expose Hong Kong culture and the beauty of the city. So I wanted to capture that as purely as possible.


Yiming recording at the street food alleyway in Hong Kong.

Background design for Front of the House (2019)

What’s next for you?

Sumyi: For the project, our SFX person, Mara wants to refine some shots. Yiming wants to redo some sounds and remix it again. Our composer also wants to add a little more and I want to refine visual some parts that aren’t as clean and submit to some festivals and share it with people. Personally, I want to get into visual development, but I’m also looking into freelance and design work.

Yiming: I look forward to continuing creating soundscapes for stories that need to be heard. Every project is a fresh experience and I look forward to seeing where it will take me next. Eventually, I would also like to start a podcast. Through this medium, I aspire to create stories that I think are important to be shared.

Front of the House (2019) premiered on May 6th, at Loyola Marymount University

Sum Yi “Ashley” Ma is a recent graduate of Loyola Marymount University with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Animation, graduating Summa Cum Laude as the recipient of the Program Scholar of Animation, as well as the SFTV Animation Award from the university. She is a 2018 Television Academy Foundation Intern, and has worked on many start-up animation projects as a visual development artist. Her most recent project is Front of the House (2019), a colorful ode to street food and family.

Yi Ming is a recent Recording Arts Graduate from Loyola Marymount University. He is the former sound intern at the Television Academy’s internship program and nominee at the MPSE’s 65th Golden Reel Awards. Currently, Yi Ming is a sound editor at Studiopolis, working on shows such Sailor Moon, Naruto Shippuden, Vampirina, The Walking Dead (game) and more.

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