Feng-Feng Yeh is waiting for pork back fat.
She sits in her car in the early autumn sunlight. A food distributor will soon bring her a tray full of raw meat that she bought for this special purpose.
Yeh will spend the rest of the day in “production” — in other words, making a portion of the approximately 1,200 pounds of Chinese chorizo that she will donate to various restaurants throughout Tucson and Phoenix during the month of October.
Yeh is the creator of the Tucson Chinese Chorizo Festival, which enters its second year this month. The festival honors the historic sausage, which was made by Chinese grocery store owners in Tucson in the mid-1900s. Chinese chorizo represents a “symbol of Chinese Mexican immigrant solidarity,” according to the Chinese Chorizo Project, which hosts the festival and was also founded by Yeh.
How to take action
Chinese Chorizo Festival events
- Friday, Oct. 6: MOCA Tucson Chorizo Dancehall Fall Fundraiser
- Oct. 6-8: Participating Tucson restaurants
- Sunday, Oct. 8: Tucson Museum of Art 2nd SundAZe
- Oct. 13-15: Participating Tucson Restaurants
- Saturday, Oct. 14: Activism in Motion (AIM) talk/workshop w/ Chinese Chorizo Project founder Feng-Feng Yeh at the Center for Creative Photography
- Oct. 20-21: Asian Chamber of Commerce Night Market at Desert Diamond Casino West Valley in Glendale
- Oct. 20-22: Participating Phoenix restaurants
- Oct. 27-29: Participating Tucson restaurants
- Oct. 28: Queer AF American Horror Story Halloween Dance Party at the Owls Club in Tucson
- Nov. 7: VIP After-party
For more information and the full list of participating restaurants, food vendors, and events, visit chinesechorizoproject.com.
The original Chinese chorizo was made “from scraps, from end cuts, things that were going to go to waste, and then taking those scraps and reviving them with Mexican spices, chilies and red wine,” Yeh said.
Last year, to develop the recipes that she uses to make the Chinese chorizo, Yeh collaborated with Maria Mazon, chef and owner of Boca Tacos, and Jackie Tran, a food-writer and owner of the food truck Tran’s Fats. They came up with two recipes: one for a vegan, mushroom-based Chinese chorizo, and one made with pork.
Because there was never one exact way to make the sausage, Yeh said she views her current recipe as a “conceptual recipe” because it builds on the original method, but applies modern cooking techniques.
“I’m modernizing the story because I want to build a link from the past to the present,” Yeh said.
Yeh said the festival wouldn’t be possible without the support of the community.
“A lot of the product is donated from the community, my workspace is donated,” Yeh said. “It’s the scraps, these things that I have on hand [that] makes this chorizo.”
Yeh said she is often asked why the festival isn’t just a single event.
“The intention to have it at these different locations is to make it kind of like a beer crawl,” Yeh said. “It’s a month long, for that reason, so you have time to marinate on really going into your community.”
On queer food and joy
Yeh thinks food is one of the best ways to spark deeper conversations about identity because, as she put it, “people want to eat good stuff.”
She wasn’t always involved in the food industry, though.
Yeh, who grew up in Tucson, briefly attended the University of Arizona before she had a moment of self-realization.
“I was like, ‘What am I doing? Because I want to be a fashion designer,” she said with a laugh.
She moved to New York City to study fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She stayed in the fashion industry for 15 years, releasing a collection for women called Savant in 2009 that was featured in Vogue.
Despite the glamor, Yeh started to feel stagnant in the industry.
“I’d been working in the luxury industry for a really long time,” she said. “It’s catering to a certain class of people, which is fine, but I wanted to do something different.”
So she pivoted, entering the food and wellness industry. She started working at a vegan Sichuan restaurant and launched Ciao Downtown, with the tagline “healthy food porn & cooking videos for hedonists.”
Yeh identifies as queer and says her queerness has influenced all of her work.
“Queerness is the audacity to defy normative narratives that dominate our culture,” Yeh said. “That’s basically everything that I’ve done as an artist.”
She had to work hard to survive in a food industry that felt like it didn’t want her around.
“When you’re someone that’s outside of the norm, you have so much to prove,” she said.
Luckily, she found a vibrant queer food community in NYC that mentored her.
She cited chef Eric See as one of her main inspirations. Nominated twice for a James Beard Award, See runs a queer New Mexican cafe in Brooklyn.
Yeh also gets inspired by Mavis-Jay, a James Beard Award winning chef who advocates for food justice in Black and low-income communities, and Woldy Reyes, a deaf, queer, first-generation Filipino American chef.
During the pandemic, Yeh noticed how these chefs were providing meals for their communities, which pushed her to do something for a cause outside herself.
Participating in the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 also made her reflect on the racism she’d experienced growing up in Tucson.
Yeh is the child of Taiwanese immigrants. She went to Sabino high school, where she was one of the few Asians at the time.
“I felt really alienated growing up here,” Yeh said.
She remembered her group of friends in high school thought it was a compliment to tell her that they didn’t see her as Asian, they saw her as White.
“And I was like ‘Cool. Thank you,’” Yeh said. “Thinking back on that, when I was making the proposal [for the Chinese Chorizo Project], I was like, Wow. That’s really messed up.”
Yeh struggled with feeling connected to her parents’ motherland because of the language barrier. She spoke a mix of Mandarin and English at home, but was never fully fluent in Chinese.
“And so you have this displaced identity that I think a lot of Americans actually have, because a lot of Americans are mixed race [or] products of immigration,” Yeh said.
Yeh came up with the idea for the Chinese Chorizo Project during the pandemic when she watched a video about the history of Chinese-owned grocery stores in Tucson. Last year, she applied for a grant from Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts and MoCA Tucson, which she received.
The festival is one part of the Chinese Chorizo Project and is meant to lead up to the creation of a public, large-scale mosaic sculpture of two-linked sausages, and Yeh is raising money to build it.
For Yeh, celebrating Chinese chorizo and educating Tucson and Arizona about the sausage is a way of both recognizing the “unsavory moments in history” and “reclaiming what American is.”
“I think what I’ve learned is that joy and celebration is a huge way to resist that and not let White supremacy [and] heteronormative, capitalist culture confine your happiness and joy as a person,” Yeh said.
And the long-term goal of the Chinese Chorizo Festival?
“Continue the celebrations,” Yeh said, grinning.