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December 19th 2015 print

Ron Taft

When Chinese Food Was Exotic

In 1953, when the King and Queen of Thailand found themselves delayed in Perth, they were treated by Vice-Regal functionaries to what was deemed, in those days of unenlightened gastronomy, appropriate fare: the local Chinese eatery, complete with backyard dunny

hop singToday Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous, found wherever in the world the Chinese diaspora has spread—and, for all I know, even where it hasn’t, if there is anywhere on the globe where that applies. A variety of provincial styles are to be found, although Cantonese seems to be the most common. They range widely from quick-service eating houses to glamorous silver-service restaurants.

When I was a young adult in the later 1930s I knew of only one Chinese restaurant in Melbourne: the Chung Wah at 11 Heffernan Lane, off Little Bourke Street in the heart of “Chinatown”. During the nineteenth century there had been many eating houses in Chinatown, commonly known as “cookshops”, but by the 1930s Chung Wah was one of the few remaining.

I frequently had my evening meal at Chung Wah on a Saturday, after spending the afternoon studying in the nearby State Library. A small group of Melbourne University students would eat together there, after a few drinks at a pub in Swanston Street before we were ejected at six o’clock (closing time). The fashionable drink at the time was rum-and-raspberry.

The only names that I remember of the Chung Wah diners in our group were Ernest Clark, who later became the foundation librarian at Monash University, and Helen Palmer, a leading leftie. I think we were mostly left-wing, somewhat bohemian members of the Melbourne University Labor Club. I was younger and less politically committed than the others. Except for Helen’s occasional presence we were all males as far as I remember.

The building was unusual; it was four storeys and very narrow; the kitchen occupied the ground floor and a steep flight of stairs led to the small dining-room upstairs. The orders were called out from the back of the dining room and the meals were delivered by goods lift. The waiters never seemed to know any English. This was surprising as, officially, no immigration of non-Europeans had been permitted for at least thirty-five years. The Department of the Interior sometimes issued temporary visas for workers with catering skills to come to Australia to work in the Chinese restaurants, and if they already had family connections in Australia they were often allowed to stay.

The menu was small and basic. We prided ourselves on ordering the courses by their Chinese names; I’m not sure whether our words were Mandarin or Cantonese, more likely the latter. It was not hard for me to learn the name of my favourite dish, chicken and vegetables; I think it was chow har yuk min. There were three types of soup: plain chicken, short soup (won ton) and long soup (noodles). It was the first time I had encountered the Chinese custom of sharing restaurant dishes in the style of family meals at home.

Although the restaurant would not have had a liquor licence we never encountered any problems with bringing and drinking our own beer. (In those days one almost never came across anyone drinking table wine, apart from “champagne”, in a restaurant, although one might do so at a private function.) I don’t remember any attempt being made to hide the bottles, but it is possible that Chung Wah followed the practice of other restaurants of serving the beer in tea-cups.

My second Chinese restaurant came later when I was living in Perth. Only one or two Chinese restaurants existed there at the time and their quality and style were as basic as Chung Wah.

In 1953 the young King and Queen of Thailand were completing a state visit to Australia and were due to leave from Perth to fly home when their plane was delayed for a day owing to engine trouble. Unfortunately, their hosts, the Governor of Western Australia and his wife, had an official engagement and could not host Their Majesties at dinner. They came up with a solution to the dilemma: ask the six or so Thai students at the university to entertain their King and Queen for the evening meal. Considering that in Thailand loyal subjects were supposed to be so deferential that they normally prostrated themselves before Their Majesties, this must have been quite a challenge for these students. Their solution was to take their guests to the nearest Chinese restaurant. Just imagine the much cosseted King and Queen being subjected to the indignity of eating in that primitive hole in the wall, and possibly being ushered into the backyard to go to the “dunny”. I never heard a first-person report on the success of the outing, but emotions must have been on edge all round.

This memoir appears in the December edition of Quadrant
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In the 1960s there was a steady increase in the number of Chinese restaurants in Australia and by the 1980s these included some high-class establishments. In the 1970s my wife and I were delighted to notice a new one in Hawthorn within walking distance of our home. It was called Panda and soon we started going there quite frequently. It was a Hong Kong-style family restaurant where one could just decide to go on the spur of the moment. Most customers ate in-house, but you could take the food home if you brought your own pots.

The atmosphere was friendly and welcoming and after a while Panda became a preferred locale for our family celebrations. We frequently celebrated important birthdays and other family occasions there, including even my grandson’s bar mitzvah reception. A delightful memory that I have of one family celebration at Panda was of my grandson, then aged five. He had just arrived on an overnight flight from England. He started collecting chopsticks from nearby tables and then went to sleep under our table with handfuls of these trophies covering him.

The partner-manager, Simon Mui, originally from Hong Kong, soon became a well-known local identity. He was distinguished by his loud voice punctuated by mirthless laughter at the end of every few sentences. He knew his customers well and was ready to tell everyone that they represented a socially important segment of society. Whenever I appeared at the door he would call out from wherever he was at the time, “Good evening, Professor”, to the curiosity of all of the diners. He would then give a loud recital of the various professors, doctors and leading footballers who had graced Panda in the last couple of weeks. It was embarrassing that my friend, a Supreme Court judge whom we often accompanied there, never seemed to warrant a special mention.

Panda had style: it had fresh linen tablecloths and offered hot towels before and after the meal; the waiters were formally dressed with black ties. It sometimes won awards, such as the “Golden Wok”, and made it into the Age Good Food Guide. Simon had some strong ideas and would not tolerate any contrary suggestions; for example, he would never produce a menu unless forced to, as he preferred to negotiate the choices with the diners. There was never a traditional yum cha. The noise level was continually high but Simon refused to allow any soft furnishings to reduce it. He would not employ any female waiters. As soon as a table was vacated the cloth was changed, with great care taken to ensure that the bare table-top was never exposed for a second, and the table was immediately reset.

With all his idiosyncrasies Simon became a legend in Kew and Hawthorn and diners flocked to Panda for the tasty food and the personal attention they received from him and his more placid partner, Andy. One regular bit of excitement at Panda was the visit from a dragon on Chinese New Year. The dragon paraded and danced in Glenferrie Road accompanied by the loud clashing of cymbals and drums.

Panda was very popular and obviously a financial bonanza. Then one day in the early 2000s we arrived there only to find it closed. To our astonishment there was a note on the door explaining that it was “under administration”. How could such an apparently thriving concern come to such an abrupt end? One report was that Andy had moved on to establish his own restaurant elsewhere, which seems to have been the case, but there have been other more tragic personal rumours to explain the surprising financial difficulties that I prefer not to spell out.

Since Panda closed there have been at least three short-term attempts to establish different regional-type restaurants on the site. Today it is occupied by an apparently successful Cantonese-style establishment that specialises in yum cha. But each time I visit, the ghosts of Panda and Simon and Andy still float around in my mind. They are sweet memories.

Ron Taft has recently published a memoir, My World: Reflections on My Life and Times. He thanks Dr Barbara Nichol, whose research on Chinese restaurants in Australia focuses on the period 1850 to 1960, for kindly checking some of the facts in this article.