It seems as though almost everyone in Australia has a Chinese restaurant memory. When Lin Jie Kong and I made our series Chopsticks or Fork? for the ABC two years ago, we found this sense of nostalgia is especially true when it comes to Chinese restaurants in regional Australia. These restaurants are the backdrops to birthdays and anniversaries and “firsts”: whether it’s dressing up to dine out or trying non-western food such as spring rolls or chicken chow mein.
Over the last few months, we’ve travelled to restaurants in Victoria, Western Australia, Tasmania and Canberra for Chopsticks or Fork? – The Book and chronicled places we weren’t able to visit for the show. We’ve met more families who run these establishments and chatted with diners who can’t get enough Mongolian lamb and deep-fried ice-cream. Some of these diners and their families have been visiting the same Chinese restaurant for four or five generations.
Now we’re seeking your memories for the book, in the form of stories or photos about a Chinese restaurant close to your heart. Maybe it’s about the eatery your family ran when you were growing up in Mildura, or the local in Laurieton where you’ve been eating lemon chicken every Thursday night for the last 20 years.
By way of inspiration, you might have a cosy childhood memory like Tina Kurtz, who writes: “Every Friday night Dad would take me for a walk to Pearly Wong’s Kwan Tong Palace in Berowra [NSW] to pick up dinner to give Mum a break. She stayed home, put on a record and had a bath in peace.
“After ordering special fried rice, sweet and sour pork, chicken cashew nut and garlic prawns we’d get a block of chocolate for Mum, as well as the once-a-week bottle of Coke. To this day I can’t eat old-school Chinese food without Coke.”
Meanwhile, Peter Baker tells the story of a Chinese restaurant on the western side of Forest Road in Bexley, Sydney. “My dad was a retired cab driver and his words of wisdom to me were: ‘Eat where the cab drivers eat.’ His reasoning being that it’ll be cheap and consistently good.
“This place had about six blue Formica kitchen tables with matching chairs … Dad was right – the food was consistent and good.”
Or maybe you’re a fan of a particular dish, like Joanne Real, a devotee of the ham and chicken roll at the Capitol restaurant in Townsville, Queensland. “This restaurant has served my family members meals for six generations: my great-grandmother (who was three-quarters Chinese), through to my children and some of my cousins’ grandchildren.”
For the benefit of extended family members who live out of town, she takes the concept of takeaway to extraordinary lengths. “We put it in the car fridge and take it home 1,000km to Mount Isa for them.”
We’re also looking for stories from those who ran, or run, the restaurants. Juliana Loo Bun wrote to us about her dad, Arthur, who arrived in Australia from Hong Kong in the 1950s as a sponsored migrant. With his wife Matilda, he ended up running two Chinese restaurants in Queensland: Melin and Lantern.
Juliana writes: “The Lantern had a living area for the family upstairs and the restaurant downstairs. I remember loud parties happening while us kids were banished upstairs. My siblings and I would sometimes sneak into the busy kitchen to steal a few prawn crackers.
“At Melin, we all helped out in the restaurant. All four kids were expected to lend a hand. It truly became a family-run enterprise! It gave me a much deeper appreciation for the phrase ‘hard yakka’ and how hard my parents worked.
“As a child I resented the absence of my parents who were too busy working to spend more time with their kids. Looking back I am grateful for the experience which honed my interpersonal skills and brought my family closer together through shared adversity.”
No memory is too short to share. We love this one from Tom Plevey, who writes about some paperwork left behind by his grandfather: “I have a business receipt of Goong Goong’s purchase of a Chinese restaurant in Darwin which includes, among other items purchased, a ‘six-pound bag of monosodium glutamate’. Is that Chinese restaurant-y enough?”
MSG is delicious. So yes, Tom. It definitely is.