As a young kitchen helper, I spent my childhood making sure cashew nuts were added to chicken stir-fries, tearing up lettuce to use as a bed for the sate chicken and lighting the small dish of flammable yellow lemon essence that accompanied it.
Old-school Chinese restaurants offering dishes such as sweet and sour pork, and honey chicken are slowly disappearing. Source: Supplied / Charis Chang
My parents emigrated to Australia from China and Hong Kong but most of their customers weren’t of Chinese heritage. Their restaurants weren’t located in Sydney’s Chinatown and weren’t the type where a pair of chopsticks was automatically placed on the table.
We served the Australian families who came out for birthdays, couples on dates, and for a time – the workers in a small NSW mining town where we lived for five years. In these regional areas, we were one of only a few Chinese families in the area.
My dad and me inside one of his Chinese restaurants, Jade Court. Source: Supplied / Charis Chang
As I got older, I interacted more with the customers, waiting on those who laughed at their own ‘fried lice’ jokes as I stood there awkwardly taking their order. Others came in wanting steak and chips off the ‘Australian menu’, slathered in the same pale gravy my dad used for his prawn omelette.
While many might see cooking as a noble vocation, for many Chinese who started restaurants in far-flung areas of Australia, it was simply a matter of survival. And just because my dad was Chinese, it didn’t mean he knew how to cook.
Just because my dad was Chinese, it didn’t mean he knew how to cook.
When he bought his first business in his early 30s – a takeaway called Chopsticks – his only experience was a summer spent as an assistant chef at a restaurant in the tiny fishing town of Bermagui on the NSW south coast. Just a few months spent peeling onions and chopping carrots gave him confidence enough to embark on a new career.
My dad painting a dragon outside his first Chinese takeaway business, Chopsticks. Source: Supplied / Charis Chang
The kitchen in Chopsticks was tiny, barely big enough for my dad to stand in, with everything at arm’s length around him: two woks, a deep fryer, pre-cut vegetables stored in ice cream tubs, his carefully prepared colourful sauces and a huge pot of chicken stock that had been nurtured all day.
The cooking was literally trial by fire as my dad lifted the heavy iron wok filled with vegetables and thinly-sliced marinated meat over and over again learning how to toss the vegetables until they were coated in a glistening gravy.
Sweet and sour pork has become a favourite dish among Australians. Source: Supplied / Charis Chang
Deep-fried pork cubes were smothered in bright red sweet and sour sauce; cubes of capsicum, onion and beef bathed in black bean, and curled-up prawn pieces were drenched in golden honey sauce.
They were open when many others weren’t, including on Christmas Day, and my dad often seemed surprised that others did not grasp this simple key to success; he was willing to work harder than others. They generally only had a few days off a year, including sometimes to celebrate Lunar New Year.
Australians have been eating Chinese food for 100 years
For many, it has been as much a part of Australian life as eating a pie at the footy. But Australians’ long-standing love of Chinese food has been obscured in the history books, with many not realising just how long people here have been savouring stir-fries.
My mum outside the first restaurant where my dad got his basic cooking training. Source: Supplied / Charis Chang
‘Chinese cafes’ were first after the “delicious aromas” attracted Europeans through “curiosity, hunger, or sheer desperation for something other than the interminable mutton and damper”. It’s believed the first Chinese restaurant opened in Ballarat, Victoria in 1854.
Historian Michael Williams of Western Sydney University tells me: “There’s a bit of a myth around that all Chinese food got introduced to Australia by the American soldiers during World War Two because they were more used to eating Chinese food in San Francisco – that’s all bullshit”.
The Pekin Cafe in Sydney offered both Chinese and English food. Source: Supplied / Michael Williams/NSW State Library
Dr Williams says the Pekin Cafe was nowhere near Chinatown and was obviously catering to a wide range of customers. English signage advertising another Chinese restaurant near Sydney’s Central Station also indicated these restaurants were attracting Australian customers.
He said the largely working-class clientele likely meant that the long history of Australians eating at Chinese restaurants was likely not written down.
A sign advertising a Chinese restaurant called the Cheong On Cafe in Sydney. Source: Supplied / State Library of NSW
Due to the White Australia Policy, Chinese-run businesses could not compete with white establishments so had to offer Chinese food, while also making the food palatable enough to the western population to remain profitable.
Even my dad had a range of these cookbooks.
My dad’s collection of Chinese cookbooks. Source: Supplied / Charis Chang
While Australian-Chinese food is sometimes dismissed for not being “authentic” Chinese, notes the food was cooked by Chinese chefs and was a clever response to the White Australia Policy.
“If that doesn’t make it Chinese, then I don’t know what does.”
Legacy of Chinese restaurants
In Sydney’s Chinatown the closure of landmark Cantonese restaurants amid the COVID-19 pandemic including Golden Century and Marigold also point to a changing of the guard, with spicy hot pot and Xi’an cuisine becoming more popular.
Many Cantonese restaurants in Sydney’s Chinatown have now closed. Source: SBS News
But Cantonese-style restaurants are also being revived by Australians including Sydney-based hospitality giant Merivale, which is tapping into fond childhood memories through venues such as Queen Chow in Manly. Dishes such as prawn toast are also being reinvented using ingredients such as foie gras at its CBD venue Mr Wong.
Nathan Lennon, the co-founder of the Bob Hawke Beer and Leisure Centre in Sydney’s Marrickville, says his decision to include a Canto-style bistro – Lucky Prawn – was inspired by his own experiences as a child.
“Our parents would take us to the local Chinese restaurant for Sunday, it felt really special, a bit of a rite of passage for many Australians,” he says.
Our parents would take us to the local Chinese restaurant … [it’s] a bit of a rite of passage for many Australians.
– Nathan Lennon
The kitchen is run by part-Chinese chef Nic Wong and the menu is a subtle spin-off of traditional Cantonese food. Another part of the appeal is the focus on larger groups and share plates.
Lucky Prawn has large tables with a Lazy Susan for sharing food. Source: Supplied / Nikki To/Hawke’s Brewing Co
“That’s one of the most magical components … really wacky innovations like the Lazy Susan – they almost feel like they’re more part of what you would call direct Australian culture than Chinese Australian culture,” Mr Lennon says.
Lucky Prawn’s retro decor pays homage to the old-style restaurants.
The Lucky Prawn taps into the nostalgia many Australians have for Cantonese-style Chinese restaurants. Source: Supplied / James Adams/Hawke’s Brewing Co
“There’s a hell of a lot of uncertainty these days and I think people respond to nostalgia more than they ever have,” Mr Lennon says.
The Chinese food of the future
“This day and age, the only way for tenants and businesses to survive is to have that sort of relevance to today’s flavours and tastes,” he said.
Burwood’s Chinatown offers many different types of Chinese cuisine. Source: AAP / Dean Lewins
But he says Chinese-Australian restaurants have left their mark, including making words such as ‘chicken chow mein’ and ‘yum cha’ a familiar part of our language.
Associate Professor Williams also warns about the truth of how we look back on our interactions with Australia’s Chinese community.
A Chinese restaurant in regional NSW. Source: Supplied / Charis Chang
“There’s a tendency to mythologise history … people will romanticise the Chinese Australian restaurant in these little towns,” he says.