Shellie Zhang

May 20 – June 10, 2017

Saturday, May 20 from 7-10PM*

Saturday, June 3 from 12-2PM

* There will be a FREE shuttle bus departing St. George Station in Toronto at 7PM for the opening reception. For more details and to reserve your spot on the bus, visit

[The] Chinese restaurant syndrome was, at its core, a product of a racialized discourse that framed much of the scientific, medical and popular discussion surrounding the condition. This particular debate brought to the surface a number of widely held assumptions about the strangely ‘exotic’, ‘bizarre’ and ‘excessive’ practices associated with Chinese cooking which, ultimately, meant that few of those studying the Chinese restaurant syndrome would question the ethnic origins of the condition.

  Ian Mosby, ‘That Won-Ton Soup Headache’:The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968–1980
Social History of Medicine Vol. 22, No. 1 pp. 133–151

In 1968, the New England Journal of Medicine published a letter to the editor from one reader describing radiating pain in his arms, weakness and heart palpitations after eating at Chinese restaurants. The reader mused that a combination of cooking wine, monosodium glutamate (MSG) or excessive sodium might have spurred these reactions. Reader responses poured in with similar complaints, and scientists jumped to research the phenomenon, centering on the glutamic salt, MSG. Not long after, the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was born.

Since this claim, numerous double-blind studies have been conducted and proven that rigorous and realistic scientific evidence linking the syndrome to MSG could not be found. To date, no governmental entities have banned or placed limits on MSG consumption. It is also worth nothing that glutamic acid is naturally present in mushrooms, tomatoes, soy sauce, and Parmesan cheese.

When first introduced, MSG was not the antagonized evil that it is often know as today. From the 1930s to late 1960s, MSG was commonly used in North America, often marketed under the brand “Accent” and advised to be used as another seasoning in addition to salt and pepper. As more paranoia came to surround MSG, Western attitudes shifted, assigning the negative connotations of MSG solely on Chinese cuisine. To this day, it is frequently only Chinese and East-Asian restaurants that are forced to attest that they do not use the seasoning in their establishment to assure customers that their business is safe.

Visceral and often communal, food is one of the most accessible ways to engage with a culture. Through its consumption, creation and interpretation, food possesses the unique capability to extend beyond its corporeal restrictions to reflect individual and shared stories, and historical and political climates. Combining a history of product marketing alongside archival materials from the Toronto Star and the University of Toronto Scarborough’s Harley J. Spiller Collection, Accent presents a case study of the nuanced and racialized undertones within the everyday.

The artist would like to acknowledge the support of the Toronto Arts Council, and the Ontario Arts Council.

With text by Lauren Lavery.

Download exhibition text (PDF)

Saturday, June 3, from 12-2PM

Join artist Shellie Zhang as she shares her research as part of Accent. Zhang will discuss the history of MSG, its antagonization and parallels to Yellow Peril, the flawed science behind this antagonization, how Chinese restaurants prevailed, cases of contemporary chefs revisiting the substance, how to cook with MSG, and advice for using the enhancer.

The talk will conclude with a provided lunch, where participants can share stories surrounding food, food resources, and the reclaiming of culture through food. The menu will be comprised of local Chinese cuisine. Potluck contributions are also welcome.If you have any dietary restrictions, please contact us to arrange accomodations.

Due to the nature of this event, seating is limited. To reserve a spot, RSVP at

Programming support for Accent has been provided by the City of Toronto through the Toronto Arts Council and ArtReach Toronto, the Doris McCarthy Gallery, and the Office of the Vice-President and Principal, University of Toronto Scarborough.

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Shellie Zhang is a Toronto-based artist, born in Beijing and raised in various parts of China, the United States, and Canada. She has exhibited at venues including WORKJAM (Beijing), Scope Art Fair (Switzerland) and Public House of Art (Netherlands). She is a recipient of grants such as the RBC Museum Emerging Professional Grant, the Toronto Arts Council’s Visual Projects grant, and the Canada Council’s Project Grant to Visual Artists. Upcoming projects include a residency at the Art Gallery of Ontario with EMILIA-AMALIA, and an ongoing year long peer mentorship program with Whippersnapper Gallery.

By uniting both past and present iconography with the techniques of mass communication, language and sign, Zhang’s work deconstructs notions of tradition, gender, identity, the body, and popular culture while calling attention to these subjects in the context and construction of a multicultural society. She is interested in exploring how multiculturalism, diversity and assimilation is implemented, how this relates to lived experiences, and how culture is learned/relearned.