Think about a classic Chinese restaurant and you can almost taste it; the lurid red sauces, the crunch of the spring rolls and the attention-grabbing sizzle of the Mongolian lamb.
It also brings me back to my own childhood; one spent navigating scorching hot black plates in the kitchen, sprinkling sesame seeds on molten portions of honey king prawns, preparing servings of prawn crackers and stealing maraschino cherries from a jar behind the bar.
My parents owned several of these Chinese restaurants in regional NSW from the 1980s to the 2000s. At one point it seemed that almost every Australian town had one of these Cantonese-style restaurants, which featured dishes including sweet and sour pork, catering to Australian tastes.

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.

A lazy susan with dishes including sweet and sour pork and honey chicken on 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.

A Chinese man and daughter standing in a Chinese restaurant

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.

A black and white photo of a Chinese man painting a dragon on the outside of a building

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.

There were no windows except for a tiny one on the opposite side of the room where my mum would take orders.
It was unbearably hot. There was no air conditioning and the exhaust fan was useless so Dad would come home every night blowing black soot out of his nose.

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.

A dish of chopped up fried pork, capsicum, onion and pineapple covered in a red sauce

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.

Mum says customers often complained about the food but together they made enough to live off because they were willing to work seven days a week.

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

It was from these humble beginnings that and where special occasions were celebrated. Whenever I tell people my mum and dad owned a Chinese restaurant, their faces light up and they share stories of their own local restaurant and their favourite dishes.

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.

 A black and white photo of a woman standing outside a Chinese restaurant.

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”.

One-third of all cooks in Australia were estimated to be of Chinese heritage by 1890, serving both Chinese and European-style dishes in places such as cookhouses, outdoor kitchens catering to those working in the goldfields.
The number of restaurants across Australia grew after many Chinese were driven out of goldfields, meaning they needed to find other employment, especially after the White Australia Policy was introduced in 1901, which limited immigration.
Working in a Chinese restaurant provided one of the few exceptions to the policy because of a loophole that allowed Chinese restaurants to bring in kitchen staff from overseas as cooking was considered a specialist skill that could not be performed by Anglo-Celtic people.
Some of the early Chinese restaurants were quite sophisticated, including one called Pekin Cafe in Sydney’s Pitt St, which featured a western and Chinese dining room. Chop suey was a popular dish thanks to its similarity to western stews. shows the dish could include “fried chicken and pork with soya bean sprouts, a sprinkling of finely-cut roast ham, mushrooms, onions, celery, water chestnuts, steak, lobsters, giblets and pineapples”.
Scan of a menu for Pekin Cafe in Sydney

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 black and white photo of an advertising sign for Cheong On Cafe in Sydney

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.

Dr Williams says a series of Chinese Australian cookbooks published in Australia in the 1950s may have been produced primarily to help Chinese chefs cook for Australians, using the limited range of ingredients available locally, rather than being aimed at teaching Australians how to cook Chinese food.

Even my dad had a range of these cookbooks.

Five Chinese 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.

“While the argument can be made that westernised Chinese food signifies a subservience to eurocentrism and white superiority … it is also a clever and adaptive response to racial discrimination by the Chinese community,” she has written.

“If that doesn’t make it Chinese, then I don’t know what does.”

Legacy of Chinese restaurants

My parents eventually opened a number of Chinese restaurants, ranging from a classic pub venue to a large restaurant with white tablecloths, red vinyl chairs, lantern-style lighting and a bar with a decorative pagoda-style roof.
Today though, Chinese Australian restaurants serving Cantonese-style dishes are slowly disappearing as other cuisines including Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese – and even other Chinese cuisines – become more common.

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.

A pagoda arch marks one of the entrances to Sydney's Chinatown

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.

Both he and the co-founder of the centre, David Gibson, grew up in the 1980s and shared stories about regular visits to local Chinese restaurants.

“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.

Bowls and plates of Chinese food sit on a table next to a Lazy Susan

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.

“It’s all centred around larger groups; it speaks to mateship, it speaks to family and it speaks to bringing people together.”

Lucky Prawn’s retro decor pays homage to the old-style restaurants.

A paper menu for the Lucky Prawn sits on a table

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

Australian tastes have changed and Basalt Studio director Anthony Ho, a precinct designer for the new Burwood Chinatown in Sydney, says they focused on attracting different flavours from China that may not yet have reached the mainstream.

“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.

Restaurants lit up with purple lights in Burwood's Chinatown

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 with green pagoda-style roof

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.

“[They will] remember the good memories of fried ice cream but they won’t remember the fact that maybe they never talked to that family … and maybe the kids got racially abused at school.
After years running his own restaurants, my dad was awarded a commendation in a regional hospitality award for his cooking, something that was judged by Australians, not Chinese. It was an achievement that made us all proud and was a testament to his hard work and willingness to keep improving.
Lunar New Year will be celebrated on Sunday 22 January.
Charis Chang is a senior journalist with SBS News.
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