Planet Takeout Taps Into Street-Level Networks

WGBH eventLocalore producer Val Wang calls Auntie Helen her "ace in the hole." Wang had been struggling to recruit the Chinese restaurants to serve as story-gathering spots for her Planet Takeout project, when a friend in the documentary world introduced her to his sister, Helen Chin Schlichte. 

Schlichte and Wang aren't related—"Auntie" is a term of respect for older members of the community. Wang describes Schlichte as a powerbroker in the Chinese immigrant community, as well as being connected in the broader Boston community. Pictured at right next to Wang in this clip from the World JournalSchlichte is a member of the WGBH Overseers Advisory Board, and has a distinguished history of public service. 

"She's been really instrumental in connecting me to a network of restaurant owners and produce suppliers, and getting people to talk to other people they know" she says. "I feel like I'm on the receiving end of a tremendous amount of generosity."

Learning to plug into this human network has been the first challenge for Wang, who encountered initial resistance from restaurant owners when she proposed gathering stories from their customers and employees. "I realized that I had to come to them through people, rather than just walking in through the front door," she says. Her first broadcast piece for WGBH will explore the barriers she encountered, and the larger lessons the experience has taught her about the culture of Chinese immigrants in America.

Setting up Planet Takeout's social and digital networks is another pressing challenge. Wang got a chance to beta test her story-gathering tools last Thursday, at a celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month hosted by WGBH, where she was joined by chef Chris Chung, Christine Liu of America's Test Kitchen and Indian cooking teacher Shruti Mehta for a demo and discussion of the project. 

Wang began by prompting attendees to submit stories about Chinese food and takeouts via a call-in line. "It was harder than I thought," she said. "People didn't call on their own, so I was running around the lobby buttonholing them." Planet Takeout Field Producer Kelly Creedon curated the stories as they arrived, first posting them to SoundCloud, and then packaging them with related images in an an early version of the Zeega interface that will power Planet Takeout's multimedia site. By the time Wang was ready to present, the stories were ready to share with the crowd. 

Listen to one Chinese-Canadian man's memory of a food he particularly disliked growing up:

Fish tales from a Chinese family by Planet Takeout 

"It all came off really well," says Wang. "People seemed to appreciate seeing behind the scenes to how participatory media really works."

The success of the event has invigorated her for another round of restaurant visits. Next week, she'll be meeting with a takeout owner in Roxbury, and has high hopes.

Find out what happens next on the Planet Takeout site or follow the project on Facebook as it evolves.


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