Viewpoints from Aussie Cuisine
- Chinese restaurants unwittingly promoted the eating-out scene in Australia very early in our culinary evolution.
- The comfortable, clean restaurants offered easy and light food at very reasonable prices. The share dishes with the “lazy Susan” in the middle of the table were ideal for special occasions like birthday parties and family dinners and well suited for the informal Australian lifestyle.
- Most restaurants would also offer take-away and this most likely represented the beginning of the fast food business in Australia.
- The food in the Chinese restaurants in Australia is probably more authentic than in many other countries because of our extensive Chinese population.
by Fritz Gubler
Some of the earliest – and longest lasting – influences on our cuisine, are those brought by Chinese immigrants who worked hard in their new home land.
Australia’s earliest documented Chinese settler was Mak Sai Ying who arrived in 1818. He married English woman Sarah Thompson in 1823 and changed his name to John Shying and by 1829 had acquired the license for a Parramatta public house, The Lion, which was likely the first restaurant serving Chinese food in Australia.
Having immigrated with his uncle to Australia as a young boy in 1859, Mei Quong Tart grew up to become a leading nineteenth-century Sydney merchant. He was one of Sydney’s most famous and well-loved personalities and made a significant impact on the social and political scene of Sydney.
He established a chain of silk stores and tea shops which were intended to provide customers with samples of tea from China. However, they became so successful that he turned his shops into tea rooms and the tea rooms into social meeting places.
The gold rush
The wider influence of Chinese food began with the influx of Chinese in search of gold during the gold rush in the 1850s and 1860s, with many staying on after the rush was over, finding work on outback stations as laborers or as cooks.
Some of these immigrants opened restaurants – first to cater for the fast growing Chinese community – but gradually also for the locals who appreciated a change from the colonial meat and two veggies.
By the end of the century most towns had a Chinese restaurant serving basic Chinese food. Fortunately, over time the cooking grew more professional and the food served in their restaurants offered a wider array of authenticity and choice.
To serve and comfort the considerable Chinese community many cities and smaller towns established Chinatowns. Some of the early Chinatowns were established in Queensland in Cooktown, Cairns, and Croydon as early as the 1870s. Simple food was served in Chinese restaurants and from the “take-away” shops. Often non-Chinese clients would frequent these restaurants and their take-away shops given birth to the “fast food” trend.
Introduced in 1901, the White Australia policy brought the immigration of Chinese nationals to a halt and subsequently the expansion of the Chines restaurant business slowed.
However, things would change in 1934 as established business could begin to apply to bring workers in from China allowing many Chinese restaurants to solve the shortage of skilled cooking staff.
Chinese food provided an exotic variation to the simple colonial home cooking at a very reasonable price. It launched the start of the Australian eating-out scene with reasonably priced food, fast service and a simple restaurant environment; quite possibly the forerunner to the fast food business in Australia.
Traditionally these restaurants were owned by hard-working Chinese families that provided a reliable service to their local communities often by the same family over several generations.
With respect and gratitude, we should recognize the contribution from individuals and from whole families towards the culinary evolution of Australian by bringing their passion for food and their commitment to hard work.
A lasting legacy
At the Wing Lee restaurant in Melbourne in 1945, owner William Chen Wing Young invented the now famous Dim Sim. He and his family contributed significantly to the introduction of the Chinese food to Australia. His daughter, Elizabeth Chong established a reputable cooking school and became a renowned celebrity chef.
A young Chinese chef from Guangzhou, Gilbert Lau, worked at the Golden Phoenix restaurant for a few years under the guidance and mentorship of William Young.
In 1975 Gilbert Lau opened his own restaurant the Flower Drum in Chinatown to serve good Cantonese food. Soon it became a very popular place and a decade later he had to move to bigger premises at Market Lane and a new Executive Chef, Anthony Lui, took over the charge of the kitchen, 30 years later he still is.
For his exceptional Services to Hospitality Gilbert Lau was awarded with an AM in 2015.
Ho Choi restaurant at Moorooka in Brisbane’s south has been in the same location since the 1960s, it is one of the longest-running Chinese restaurant in Queensland. Brothers Edmund, Alex and Eddie Liu inherited the restaurant from their uncle Tim Chung. Tim started serving fried rice, chicken chow mein and of course sweet and sour pork. Now there are over 100 items on the menu and the restaurant serves its loyal clientele seven days a week as they did for the last half a century.
More than 1000km west, among the red dust and endless stream of mining trucks, stands the Red Lantern in Mount Isa, just as it has for over 40 years. According to current owner Lee Li, who took it over in 2006, the restaurant has been serving tourists and locals a combination of hot pots and garlic king prawns for 40-plus years.
Happy’s Restaurant opened in 1962 in Canberra and is still owned and operated by the same family. Gavin Chan, from the third generations, took over the management in 2008. The range of dishes offered at Happy’s has changed over the years, at the time lots of sweet and sour pork, beef and black bean and fried rice were served.
Cheong Liew was born in Malaysia and came to Australia in 1969, became one of South Australia’s best known chefs. In Adelaide he opened the popular Neddy’s restaurant with Malaysian and Chinese dishes. It made a huge impact in the restaurant evolution and eating out scene in Adelaide. It closed in 1988 and for a while Cheong shared his passion for food as a cookery teacher before opening The Grange restaurant at the Hilton. At The Grange he continued to demonstrate his skills and knowledge and sometimes stretching the boundaries of the Asian cuisine. After 15 years on the stove he closed the restaurant in 2009 but continues to contribute to the culinary development in Australia.
In the early 60s a young Mathew Chan worked as a waiter at the Nanking Restaurant in Campbell Street, Sydney, and the Golden Pagoda in Kings Cross before moving to the Mandarin Club in 1966.
Mathew’s first restaurant was the popular Pagewood Kitchen Take-Away in 1974. In 1975 Mathew Chan opened the Peacock Gardens Restaurant in Sydney’s lower shore suburb Crows Nest and for over 40 years he has personally hosted VIP’s and loyal neighborhood guests. He operates a first-class restaurant with professional service and an unusual extensive wine list, a standard and style not previously experienced in Chinese restaurants in Australia.
Many more Chinese chefs – and indeed whole families – contributed to the spread of their cuisine in Australia. Indeed, there are not many suburbs or towns without a Chinese restaurant which makes it probably the most represented foreign cuisine in Australia.