Recording date:

Chinese historians Barbara Nichol and Julie Stacker explore the establishment and nature of very early Chinese restaurant businesses, together with their food offerings, and the role they played in the history of Chinese migration to Australia.

Transcript of Sweet and Sour History

Speakers: David Wong (D), Julie Stacker (J), Barbara Nichol (B)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 20/02/2016

D:         Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m David Wong, the Library’s Assistant Director General of Information Technology. As we begin I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land we are now privileged to call home.

So this weekend is the second of our experience China weekends where we will explore Chinese culture, cuisine, art, landscape and architecture and the Chinese diaspora as part of our programming for Celestial Empire, Life in China, 1644 to 1911. Celestial Empire and its public programs without the support of a tremendous group of partners. It has been an extraordinary collaboration between government, commercial partners and individual donors.                                                 

First and foremost I thank the National Library of China for sharing its extraordinary collection with us and with all of you. I hope you will take the chance to visit the exhibition this afternoon. I thank our partners, Shell in Australia, Seven Network, Wander One Pty Ltd, Optus Singtel, Hui Hua, Cathay Pacific, TFE Hotels and the event partners, the ANU Centre for China in the World and Asia Society Australia for their generosity. I thank our government partners, the Australian Government, for support through the National Collecting Institutions Touring Outreach Program and the Australia China Council and the ACT Government through Visit Canberra.

Now I’d like to thank all of you for joining us this afternoon to hear from Barbara Nichol and Julie Stacker who are here to reveal to us the stories of early Chinese restaurant businesses and the role that they played in the history of Chinese migration to Australia. Barbara Nichol completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne in 2012 following a career as a reference librarian and later manager of reader services at Swinburne University Library in Melbourne. Over the years she developed a passion for urban history and also being an enthusiastic restaurant customer she had become aware of the stories she was hearing about the city’s very early restaurant sector departed in significant ways from historical understandings. As an enthusiastic restaurant customer she reconstructed Melbourne’s late 19th, early 20th century restaurant sector believing that the relationship between the sector and the city’s sociocultural economic and political landscape was always more complex and interdependent than has generally been acknowledged. She volunteers at the Chinese Museum and plans to publish her research later this year.

Julie Stacker has worked in the archives, records and museum fields for over 25 years including at the State and National Archives and museums. For the last 15 years she has worked as a consultant providing strategic and practical guidance to small and large organisations particularly in New South Wales, the ACT and Tasmania. Her cross-disciplinary professional approach has informed her work as a historian through which she focuses on 20th century comparative histories of immigration, Chinese businesses and Australian and Canadian food cultures so please welcome Barbara Nichol and Julie Stacker.


J:          Thanks very much, David. So I should add thanks to the National Library staff, who’ve just been fabulous in helping us get set up today, they’ve done a wonderful job.

It’s a real pleasure to be here today to see so many people who are interested in the history of what has become an international phenomenon and we’re going to look at the Australian part of that. My presentation’s based on the research that I did for my Master of Philosophy thesis, and that’s some years ago now, and that was a comparative study of Chinese restaurants in Sydney, Australia and Toronto in Canada but today I’m just looking at that Sydney portion.

So why did I want to research the history of Chinese restaurants? Two reasons, first I’d spent 12 months backpacking around the world and everywhere I went there were Chinese restaurants, everywhere. And I started to ask myself how did this come about? Especially in Anglo countries where there was often a lot of discrimination you know how did the Chinese restaurant become this iconic business model that everybody flocked to? Secondly I’d been working with a colleague whose brother wanted to do a PhD but what he really wanted to do was sit around on the beach all day and swim so he did a PhD in sandy beach ecology. And I thought I’m sure I can apply this to eating in Chinese restaurants so I did.

Okay so Chinese restaurants in Sydney ... whoops, yeah ... Chinese restaurants in Sydney from 1900 to 1960. So in the first half of the 20th century the Chinese restaurant was one of the most visible symbols of cultural diversity in Sydney. As we know now China is home to one of the world’s great food cultures. In the period to 1960 new arrivals in Sydney came largely from Guangdong, the southern Chinese province with arguably one of the best of the Chinese cuisines and if anyone here’s from China and they want to debate that we can do that later.

Therefore perhaps it’s not so surprising that Chinese food would become a popular edition to food choices for a largely Anglo Celtic population. So between 1900 and 1960 Sydney’s population grew from about 480,000, which is about the current size of Canberra or Newcastle, to just over two million people so that’s a fourfold increase. And over this period Chinese restaurants emerged as distinct commercial enterprises.

In 1900 there were 227 restaurants in Sydney, there were six Chinese businesses listed as restaurants, three located in Campbell Street, for those of you who know Sydney, and one in each of Goulbourn, Elizabeth and King Streets. By 1960 so 60 years later, and many restaurants had come and gone, 67 of over a thousand restaurants were Chinese in name or style. Now Sydney Chinese restaurants began much earlier than 1900, yeah? So ... but this is the period I’m looking at. They began as a service for the local Chinese community but the period after world war one, some specifically aimed to attract customers from the wider community.

So in 1918 and ’19, a number of Chinese restaurants of a standard to enjoy the title leading Chinese cafes opened in Sydney, the Peking in Pitt Street, the Ye Jun ... by 1921 this was called the Hong Kong, the Shanghai and the Tientsin all in Campbell Street. Some of these high-class cafes had been permitted to temporarily introduce Chinese chefs so the immigration authorities had said fine, you can have a Chinese chef to replace the person who’s leaving to prepare Chinese dishes. The Tientsin Café was located in Sydney’s Chinatown in Surrey Hills and it was housed in a grand three-storey building with a tiled front at the ground floor level, double-fronted display windows and a cantilever canopy. The premises looked grand and the menu promised exotic delights. The menu was presented in both Chinese and English. It offered 55 dishes under different headings, soup, chop suey dishes, oiled noodles or fried noodles, fish, poultry and then quite strangely rice and bread. So menu item 51 was bread and butter and that was clearly ... it was a side dish and also you could have it as an accompaniment to chop suey so clearly they were making concessions to you know Anglo Australian ways of eating.

A wider range of dishes included things like beche de mere (sea cucumber) bird’s nest and shark fin soup, chicken, pork, prawns, oysters, seasonal fish, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, ginger and they made a note that the ginger was used in savoury dishes because Anglos may well have expected that they would get a sweet ginger dish like a preserved ginger, pigeon, duck, Chinese green peas, soy bean sprouts, pickles, silver cabbage and tomatoes. So they were really extensive menus, they weren’t just one or two dishes.

In the years leading up to and during World War Two, the presence of Chinese refugees and seamen in Sydney was a major factor influencing the growth and character of Chinese restaurants well into the 1950s. So discharged Chinese seamen, seamen who had deserted from their vessels and evacuees were collectively referred to by immigration authorities as wartime arrivals. And you’re all probably aware that Japan invaded northern China in the 1930s so as early as 1938 Chinese seamen began deserting from ships that had docked in Australian ports and that were heading for Japan. A 1943 inquiry into the working conditions of Chinse seamen concluded that there were about 500 alien seamen ashore in New South Wales, mostly in Sydney. So in total over the war years Australia hosted some 991 Chinese wartime arrivals, many located in Sydney and these men became clientele, staff and potential proprietors for existing and new cafes. And these cafes provided meals for everyone, from wharf labourers to people in what they called the best part of the city.

Also during the war American influences via the armed forces created a significant market for Chinese restaurants. Sydneysiders, not bombarded with chop suey and chow mein since the turn of the century, were delighted to experience Cantonese cuisines, whereas Americans sought out something more exotic, Peking, Shanghai, Sichuan and Hunan cuisine.

Now restaurant owners were very active in lobbying the Chinese consul for access to staff through immigration. So Chinese restaurants and their owners and their employers were part of the local and national debates on immigration. The restaurants themselves were sites for shaping the role of small business in the Chinese community and a force in changing Australian food ways. Restaurants were important sites for family and community focus and Barbara will talk a little about how restaurant owners used immigration regulations to bring out family members often under different names, claiming that they were experienced chefs. It’s just an immigration file to give you an illustration of the sort of work ... paperwork they had to do. So restrictive and discriminatory immigration regulations profoundly affected both the demography of the local Chinese communities and businesses and Chinese restaurants become a focus for official anxiety about the effects of immigration but I think it’s pretty clear that it might have been official anxiety but really nothing stopped everybody going to eat at Chinese restaurants so I don’t know that there was any actual anxiety on the ground on the part of the patrons.

So despite these restrictive immigration policies Chinese business people and workers capitalised on changing city demographics, local prosperity, international migration and their culinary heritage. So the Chinese restaurant became a cultural icon and a visible symbol of cultural diversity and by 1960 Chinese restaurants were at the hub of post-war internationalism that generated Australian interest in other countries, other cultures and in other cuisines. So I’m just going to leave you with this photograph of ... you might not think that this ... a Chinese restaurant would look like this in Sydney in 1949 so the modern China café you know refers to both modernism in China but how gorgeous, how beautiful is that café and really that’s not what I would visualise when I think of a Chinese restaurant but how interesting it is. Right, thank you very much and I’ll hand over to Barbara.


B:         Good afternoon, everyone as well and I’m very pleased that the National Library has chosen this subject to emphasise over this absolutely wonderful exhibition that you have here at the moment, it’s just great.

So Julie and I have both remarked that there’s been a tendency to regard the development and spread of Chinese restaurants as a post-world war two phenomenon. Apart from historical approaches to Chinese food and food culture by people like Annette Chun Wa and Elizabeth Chong, Elizabeth very enthusiastic about Chinese community in Melbourne, and the inclusion of Chinese restaurant businesses in wider historical research particularly by Sophie Couchman and others particularly focusing on Melbourne’s Chinatown. But apart from that histories have implied that the early Chinese sector was small local businesses established by lower-class Chinese as part of the community support infrastructure and of very little wider influence.

Nineteenth century representations of drunkenness, prostitution, drugs and depravity have privileged over ... have been privileged over a more diverse restaurant sector and I’ll quote Richard Beckett from Convicted Tastes which he wrote in 1984 ... published in 1984. Chinese eating houses up to the 1950s produced a bastard cuisine aimed at satisfying westerners who were in the main drunk, they did not touch the palates of the average Australian. Well all restaurant ... I don’t know if there are any Melbournians here but if there are you will be well aware of our 6:00 swill, the restaurants had to contend with ... all restaurants had to contend with drunks. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Victoria’s infamous liquor laws req ... before that they required hotels to close at 6:00 and also hotels had a monopoly on serving alcohol with meals as did some of the more substantial restaurants. Others ... other restaurants got around the problem of not being able to serve alcohol after a certain time in very creative ways including the Chinese but as I emphasised drunkenness was a problem for all of the city’s dining sector up until the law was changed in 1980s.

While many early Chinese restaurants were small and short-lived as we’ve observed in Sydney, Melbourne supported a number of very successful businesses over the early decades and interestingly enough I think as Julie’s pointed out, that it was a period when the Chinese community was declining in number. Apart from a moderate dip over the first three or four years of the 20th century as immigration restriction created Chinese business uncertainty and again over the great depression the sector has enjoyed continuous growth. And here we have some slides of some of the restaurants in Melbourne at the time. This is the Chung Wah restaurant in Heffernan Lane. It ... there was a restaurant on that site in 1891 and it became the Chung Wah in 1916. It’s still operating as far as I know as a Chinese restaurant in Melbourne.

The Yin Bun Low Cookshop. That was established around 1899 and in 1920 it relocated to Russell Street and became The Oriental, a very popular restaurant with Chinese and non-Chinese customers. I think it closed around 1972. I don’t have a slide of the Ling Nan but the Ling Nan was also a very important restaurant in the sector. It was established in 1907, it became known as the Ling Nan in 1941. But in 1910 Chinese merchants and others with national and international business and political connections made the move out of Little Bourke Street establishing two substantial restaurants. From the outset the partners of both actively sought the custom of non-Chinese diners with a dual Chinese and non-Chinese menu. The white building on the right was the Peking Café circa 1910 to 1928 and next to it The Oriental at 189 Russell Street was formerly the Yin Bun Low that I mentioned that relocated from Little Bourke Street in 1920. It ... I don’t know exactly when it closed but it was still certainly operating in 1970.

Partners of the Peking Café included Sydney merchant, Louis Haydan who also had a poultry farm at Braybrook and later became a shareholder in Sydney’s upmarket Peking Café which Julie mentioned. The Hotel and Café Canton was two doors up from the Melbourne Town Hall in Swanson Street. It opened in 1910 and it was sold to a Greek restaurateur in 1937. Partners in the Hotel and Café Canton included merchant Lee Yuan Sam, grand master of the Yee Hing, the Chinese Masonic Society and businessmen, Charles Lim Kee, Louis Ling Tak and others.

It was usual practice for Chinese restaurants to celebrate the opening of their new restaurants in style and they always invited leaders in the ... both Chinese and non-Chinese communities so of course the Peking Café and the Hotel and Café Canton were no exceptions. Sorry, I thought I had a ... beg your pardon, I didn’t have a men ... a ... I think it’s coming up. Sorry, there is a menu coming up. Guests at the Hotel Café ... Hotel and Café Canton included the Consul General for China, Mr Chok Hong Chiong and former Lord Mayor of Melbourne, politician Sir Henry Weedon. The menu at the Hotel and Café Canton included edible bird’s nest soup, chicken and ham, shark’s fin and French Alaska sweet.

The establishment of these restaurants at the time coincided with the revolutionary movement in China and the partners of both were members of the Nationalist Party. I think ... I’m sorry, I do have a ... we’ll get to that in the menu in a minute. Significant restaurants continued to open including in 1923 the popular Eastern Café in Russell Street.

From the mid-1930s when government concessions enabled local Chinese traders to introduce temporary substitutes and workers Chinese businessmen cast their entrepreneurial gaze into suburban Melbourne. And here we have the Tientsin Restaurant in Ackland Street. It opened in 1937 and it was still operating in 1974, in fact quite a way that the partners moved across Ackland Street and opened the very upmarket Tientsin Restaurant in 1957 and I think the Tientsin was located in this section of the building. And the Ti Pin Restaurant. The Ti Pin was on Punt Road right near St Kilda junction for those who know that area. The Ti Pin opened in 1939 and was there for ... well into the 1970s. It’s ... fact it’s still ... I took this photograph about five or six years ago, it was still called the ... as you can see the Ti Pin but of course it had ... there were many different partnerships over that time.

So looking at non-Chinese customers and the understood ... early understood history of them being drunk and fairly disorderly I spent a lot of time searching archives and interviewing people about ... older people about their memories of eating in Chinese restaurants. So by the turn of the 20th century the city’s emerging intelligentsia of artists, writers and later university and college communities were venturing into Chinatown. Opera singer, Joy, who I interviewed, she was ... she was in her 80s at the time ... discovered the Chung Wah in the 1930s. She observed we called ourselves bohemians to save any other title being put upon us. It was an adventure really and then after we’d been there once or twice it became somewhere we wanted to go because the food was so good. She emphasised that they always felt at home at the Chung Wah.

But I’d like to add other groups that I’ve identified. City workers, suppliers of local Chinese businesses and nurses and doctors coming off late shifts at the Melbourne General Hospital which was across Lonsdale Street at the time. They were grateful for the welcoming atmosphere of Chinese restaurants in a city almost closed down for the night. Nurses living in the hospital’s hos ... the hospital’s hostel also discovered their takeaway service. In the late 1920s Dorothy ... nurse Dorothy recalled that when we were going out in the evening we would call in and order our dim sims and pick them up when we came home, it was very popular with the nursing staff.

War brought increased custom to all city restaurants as Julie has indicated ... observed about Sydney. Workers in war-related industries crowded the city and frequently found their way into the restaurants to eat. In mid-1942 they were joined by thousands of allied servicemen. They included Filippinos, Dutch, Chinese and British but the vast majority were American. In early 1943 23,000 first marine division servicemen were rested in Melbourne and in major regional centres in Victoria. Wherever the servicemen were encamped their patronage of local Chinese restaurants was a prominent event in the wartime memories of several Chinese and non-Chinese informants. As US war correspondent John Loudner commented Melbourne has dozens of Chinese restaurants ... that’s a bit of an exaggeration but not a lot ... he said where you can obtain the local substitute for the hamburger or to take out, ie the dim sim, a ball of chopped meat, spiced and wrapped in cabbage leaves.

Further evidence of growing non-Chinese custom was discovered in the archives of the Deputy General ... the Director General of Security and his state deputies who on the ... were on the alert for Japanese spies. They turned their gaze on Chinese restaurant staff and customers across the nation. As in Sydney Melbourne hosted many Chinese wartime refugees and a number were found ... were ... a number found work in restaurants. While no spies were located Chinese and non-Chinese civilians and Australian and allied servicemen were present in all restaurants in the CBD.

Turning to Chinese food and the question of authenticity, when Richard Beckett labelled early Chinese restaurant food served to non-Chinese as bastardised he was implying that the food was a hybridisation lacking authenticity. Surviving menus from the 1910s, ‘20s and ’30s, backed by other sources show that while restaurants offered close to authentic and very specialised dishes menus also became Australianised. By the late 1910s for example the distinctive Cantonese emphasis on fish, poultry and pork had been joined by beef and local wild fish such as snapper and Murray cod. These were important shifts in the development of a uniquely local Chinese cuisine as Julie has indicated.

So this is from an extract from the menu of the Eastern Café and you can see rump steak is being offered and ... braised rump steak with bitter melon. So it was very much a combination of cultures there. The Eastern Café menu was a substantial document of nine pages comprising an English language section of 47 items and a Chinese language section of 120. They included beche de mer, imported Chinese mushrooms, steamed duck and fish and traditional Chinese vegetables and condiments. But as you can see the ... they also offered steak and combined it with bitter melon.

Modifications to Chinese dishes were not entirely a consequence of non-Chinese food preferences. An increase in import duties in the 1930s for example had a flow-on effect on Chinese restaurant menus, an important ... informants and other sources confirm that this influenced decisions to reduce the more expensive imported ingredients such as shark’s fin and dried Chinese mushrooms in their dishes. Also edible bird’s nests became prohibited imports from the 1930s following an outbreak of Newcastle disease among wild and domestic birds. So to dismiss Chinese restaurants ... restaurant food as inauthentic or bastardised denies a more complex early cultural landscape and perpetuates a very narrow and negative approach to Chineseness and early Chinese entrepreneurialism.

Turning then briefly to have a look at the role Chinese restaurants have played in the history of Chinese migration to Australia. As Julie has indicated from the outset the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 allowed Chinese businessmen of standing to introduce workers for limited periods. In 1934 Chinese local traders making a substantial contribution to the economy also became eligible to apply to introduce workers. Restaurateurs became eligible to apply to introduce cooks and cafe workers providing the restaurant met certain criteria. And as Julie indicated restaurateurs took the opportunity to bring in young family and often under another name. I interviewed two or three people who had a different name from their father and they also learned their cooking skills from here, from Australia.

It’s interesting that many of these children also went on to open their own restaurants and many of our suburban restaurants were in fact originally owned by this new group. This is a ... these young people came into the country on a Certificate of Exemption. This is from the dictation test. This one I found in the archives, it’s ... was a young man who was in fact found to be working in a Melbourne restaurant, not working ... not cooking. He was supposed to be a cook. He wasn’t working as a cook on several occasions when the restaurant was inspected and his certificate was cancelled and he had to return home and this did happen quite frequently but generally speaking many young people came to Australia this way and as I said opened their own restaurants.

The restaurants’ dominant customer base and the kind of food served had a significant bearing on the success of applications, Chinese food and non-Chinese custom being a combination regarded favourably. Australianised Chinese dishes were relatively simple to cook and not too foreign for non-Chinese tastes. It boosted number ... Chinese ... customer numbers, increasing a restaurant’s chance of meeting the department’s requirements. Income derived from trade with China was also encouraged from the 1930s. It’s no coincidence that Australia’s goodwill mission to East Asia was undertaken in 1934 by Minister for External Affairs John Latham and in August 1941 Sir Fred Eggleston was appointed by the Menzies UAP Government as Australia’s first Minister for China and here he is at the Ti Ping Restaurant on Punt Road. The function was hosted by the Vice Consul for China, Mr Sao Win Yin and Madam Sao and it was on the 4th of August 1941. Left to right Mrs Dunstan, the wife of the Premier, Sir Albert Dunstan, Sir Fred and the Consul ... Vice Consul.

From this time Chinese restaurant menus became politicised, culinary responses to changes in Australia’s immigration laws as much as customer preferences and other local conditions. By 1950 the city’s Chinese restaurant numbers had risen to 31, 13 were in the CBD, 13 in city fringe suburbs and five in middle and outer suburbs. By 1960 there were 82 Chinese restaurants across greater Melbourne, they’d become a fundamental part of the city’s shifting sociocultural landscape and an unremarkable presence in the nation’s cities and towns.

[End of recording]