“Going with my gut and pursuing the unconventional — despite what everyone else might say — is my personal formula for success.”
Clarissa Wei is a Taiwanese American food and culture journalist currently based in Hong Kong as a reporter for Goldthread. Her work has appeared in Vice, Eater, LA Weekly, Village Voice, First We Feast, BBC, CNN, CBS and Food Network.
For Clarissa Wei, food writing is a form of activism with real-world impact, something she witnessed firsthand after her reporting on a Nicaraguan rum company’s sugar fields led to an industry-wide boycott and better working conditions for laborers.
Wei, who hails from San Gabriel Valley, is a Taiwanese American journalist who is currently based in Hong Kong as a reporter for Goldthread. Her stories have appeared in publications like Vice, Eater, LA Weekly, Village Voice and First We Feast, and on networks like BBC, CNN, CBS and Food Network.
Much of her work has focused on food and culture — she’s done food tours, been on televisions shows like Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, and she once even gave a speech about Chinese cuisine to NASA. “Food is relatable. And I use food and certain dishes as a stepping stone to tell a broader story of where things come from both physically and culturally,” Clarissa said. In other words, food is a good hook, and she’s been able use it to call attention to critical global issues and human rights travesties.
In 2015, Wei traveled to Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, to write for Vice about how conditions in sugar fields there were linked to an epidemic of kidney disease among the town’s residents. While others had covered this story before, Clarissa’s piece gained significant traction due to her decision to focus specifically on the popular liquor brand Flor de Cana, which as a result of her reporting was forced to work with an NGO to improve dismal working conditions.
Publishing the story was far from easy. She and her sources all faced countless threats to their lives from the multi-billion dollar rum company, especially as Flor de Cana was so intertwined with the government. “I began to become a bit paranoid. Many of my sources had requested anonymity in fears of backlash from the company,” Clarissa recalled. But she knew she couldn’t remain silent. The workers were underpaid, had little available water or shade and worked exhausting hours. They were also falling like flies, with many of Flor de Cana’s workers being diagnosed with the kidney disease as early as their late 20s. Seeing their pain and misery motivated Clarissa to persevere in her reporting, and in painting a comprehensive picture of a community suffering while a corporation profited.
“I have always seen journalism as a tool,” she said. “It’s a tool that I can use to give marginalized communities a voice, it’s a tool that I can use to voice my own opinions. It’s a tool I use to interview people who know a thing or two about a topic I’m interested in, and it’s a tool that constantly stimulates my sense of curiosity and adventure.”
She’s lived quite the nomadic life, having been a resident of New York, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and 12 out of 34 of China’s official provinces. After traveling all over the globe, she’s cultivated a self-sufficiency unparalleled by most. “I’ve lived off the grid, I’ve been in remote places where I had to depend solely on the kindness of strangers. I’ve been lost in the jungle before, and I’ve gotten robbed by knifepoint. These experiences have taught me that I am resilient, capable, and completely independent,” she said.
These days, she’s putting effort into learning about regenerative living, creating a closed-loop lifestyle where little is wasted. Her life of adventure thus far has come with beautiful travels, but also the unfortunate realization that today’s consumerism culture and globalization have brought destruction to all corners of the world. Currently living on a carless island, Clarissa goes to work every day by walking alongside a beach and then taking a ferry. “I wake up to the sound of birds. I am much happier this way. Sometimes it takes me a while, but I think going with my gut and pursuing the unconventional — despite what everyone else might say — is my personal formula for success.”