It’s a familiar style of shop front that can be seen around Australia, and around the world. These ubiquitous restaurants say more about how well Chinese immigrants have become indispensible locals, than they do about food in China.
Before “multicultural” became standard, these restaurants often provided the only touch of foreign flavor to Australian towns and suburbs. (The history of Chinese immigration to this country is intertwined with the history of Australian colonisation itself, although the Chinese have still been considered the outsiders).
I must admit I was a bit confused by these places upon our shift to Hobart. I saw so many Chinese restaurants with beautiful, but faded, hand lettered signage and closed curtains or blinds. Were they still operating? Why were they so shuttered to the world?
But of course, in the old-style restaurant it wasn’t about authentic décor or transporting the diner to Shanghai or Sichuan. It was about being functional, comfortable and fairly plain. I suspect that many of these restaurants were decorated to mirror the sentiments of the immigrants themselves: they were Chinese, but trying not to attract too much attention for it.
(The style was not entirely inauthentic: plenty of restaurants in China are plain and practical too. I remember eating in one that really appeared to be the inside of a shipping container and thinking how easy it would be to hose out at the end of the day).
So yes, these restaurants are still operating behind those heavy curtains. And what of the food? It reflects a similar story of clever and adaptable Chinese people who have adjusted their own cuisine to suit a local palate. It has been years since I have seen “chow mein” and “chop suey” on a menu! Lemon or honey chicken, standard orders when I was a child, were created because the true Chinese flavours were too salty for westerners. The most famous and enduring example of this adaptation was the Melbourne invention of the “dim sim,” which can still be purchased from any Aussie fish ‘n’ chip shop, steamed or fried.
Once, when I was a teenager walking down a suburban street, my friends and I saw a stranded cat being coaxed from the roof of one of these restaurants by an Asian-looking man, who we presumed to own the shop. “No kitty, don’t listen to him,” my friend shouted, as we laughed. “Stay up there, you don’t want to be a dim sim!”
We thought it was hilarious then. But now I respect the Chinese people who brought us these funny old suburban restaurants as pioneers, in their way. They paved the way for even more adventurous eating by Australians. And they’ve helped shape the culturally diverse Australia that I now enjoy.