Chopsticks or fork?
COMEDIAN JENNIFER WONG EMBARKED ON A DELICIOUS TOUR OF AUSTRALIA’S SMALL-TOWN CHINESE RESTAURANTS.
Up until 2020, Sydney comedian and writer Jennifer Wong had never seen – let alone tasted – a prawn cutlet. Growing up with migrant parents from Hong Kong, the closest thing she got to Aussie Chinese food was sweet and sour pork. Even spring rolls were passed over as simply too ‘heaty’. (The concept of heaty and cooling foods to balance digestion and health is found in traditional Chinese medicine.)
Jen’s opportunity to feast on Australian-chinese fare finally came in the form of a work assignment last year. Her friend and director Lin Jie Kong called her up one day, gushing over an incredible meal she’d had at an RSL Club in New South Wales. “She thought this was some of the best Chinese food of her life, and she couldn’t believe it was in this little town,” Jen explains. “She was like, ‘Where is this family from? Why are they here? What’s their story? And can we make a show where we travel around Australia asking people those exact questions?’”
What resulted was ABC TV’S Chopsticks or Fork?, a six-part series that sees Jen and Lin Jie road-tripping to meet the families behind six country Chinese restaurants. In between tasting sessions, Jen delves into each family’s colourful migration story and learns the history of Australia’s gloriously sweet, deep-fried Chinese cuisine in the process. The first thing you have to know about Jen’s culinary odyssey: “It was so delicious! There’s a reason why people have been eating these foods for generations.”
While lemon chicken and honey prawns might seem naff to city slickers, these dishes remain a beloved fixture of old-school Chinese joints in regional and rural Australia. “In Moree, I met a table of people in their 60s and 70s who’d been eating at this restaurant for 30-something years,” Jen recalls. “They were having the best time, celebrating a birthday with all their beautiful clothes and fancy hats on, neatly eating their spring rolls with a knife and fork. It was so different from what I know of Chinese food – I felt like a tourist!”
To understand how Australians got hooked on Chinese food, you have to go back to the 1840s, when our Chinese population first boomed. With no more convicts to dig ditches and clear through bush, Australia shipped indentured labourers over from Southern China to do the dirty work. By the 1850s, these Chinese men were joined by thousands more who’d come in search of gold. Some immigrants ended up running ‘cookshops’ – an 1800s takeaway of sorts – catering to both Chinese and Anglo customers.
Australia restricted Asian immigration by the early 1900s, but a change to the law in the mid-’30s allowed Chinese people in only if they were cooks. For Chinese restaurateurs and café owners, appealing to the Australian palate was key to doing business. Delicate steamed and braised dishes – staples of Cantonese cuisine – took a back seat to the strong sweet and sour flavours that proved most popular. Rather than the more traditional pork, beef became a common menu item. “At one point, a third of all cooks in Australia were Chinese,” Jen says. “And based on what we dug up while researching the show, it’s safe to say there’s not a small town in Australia that doesn’t have a Chinese restaurant. Sometimes they’re the only restaurant in town.”
While some are run by successive generations of the same family, others happily pass on the mantle to new Australians. Tina and Andy, whom Jen met at their Pagoda restaurant in Atherton, Queensland, had no idea how to cook Australian-chinese dishes when they arrived from Guangzhou, China, in 2013. But the couple persevered to win over the locals anyway – an immigrant tale as old as time. “If my last meal was at an Australian-chinese restaurant, I’d order the sweet and sour pork with fresh pineapple, just the way I had it at Pagoda,” Jen enthuses.
You don’t have to be from China to run a Chinese restaurant, either. In Gawler, South Australia, Jen met the Chiems, a Vietnamese family behind Palace Chinese Restaurant. The Lees at Happy Garden in Darwin are Hakka Chinese, and came to Australia by way of East Timor and Portugal, while Gary Bong at Oriental Palace in Hervey Bay, Queensland, hails from a Malaysian-chinese family. Whatever their migration journey, each family puts a unique spin on their Aussie Chinese menu. “It’s the little extra thing they do to make it of their time and place,” Jen says.
Convincing restaurant owners to be on camera proved a challenge while making Chopsticks or Fork? (state lockdowns also threw a spanner in the works). “So many people told me to go to Golden Sea Dragon in Coonabarabran, New South Wales, because the décor is like something from the Qing dynasty,” Jen recounts. “But when I called, the woman was so humble. She said, ‘There’s nothing very special about what we do here, we just work really hard and people are happy eating.’ That was really common – older people just don’t court media attention. Or they thought we were trying to get them to buy TV advertising!”
Jen spent days on the phone explaining to restaurants in Cantonese that language wouldn’t be a barrier to sharing their life story and family’s experience. “It was a lot of trust-building,” she says. “So it was such a joy to end up speaking Cantonese on screen. That meant a lot to me.” She also appreciated getting the chance to ask people about real matters of the heart in their language. “The second generation aren’t used to talking to our adult family members like this. I didn’t ask my mum, ‘When did you feel like you settled into Australian society? When did you feel that you belonged?’ It was really cool to have that type of conversation with elders.” These days, city dwellers are spoiled for choice when it comes to Chinese food. But while Sichuan specialties, malatang and dumplings have superseded ye olde Mongolian beef, Jen reckons there’s still something so comforting and nostalgic about Australian-chinese food – especially for those who grew up with it. “It’s nice to know that you could drive to Moree and have the same meal you had in 1985,” she says. “And if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from the series, it’s that no one ever says no to fried ice-cream.”
Chopsticks or Fork? is now streaming on ABC iview.