Confucius was a little Chinese restaurant in Kings Cross. It never occurred to me to eat there because it reminded me of a low-grade Chinese restaurant, the type you find in country towns. But its closure has me reminiscing.
Chinese restaurants first began appearing in Australia in the 1950s. Australia in the 1950s was a very different place to today. Meat and three veg was the staple diet, immigration was something to be feared – not celebrated – and a large proportion of the population lived in a regional or non-urban setting. Despite the advent of the White Australia policy and subsequent ‘yellow peril’ hysteria, there seemed to be one Chinese family in every town, who would own the one ‘international’ restaurant. Albury, the country town where I grew up, was no exception.
I have fond memories driving empty single-lane highways with my father throughout regional New South Wales and Victoria, knowing that no matter what town we end up in, it would have a (nearly always empty) Chinese restaurant waiting for us, serving such cultural delicacies as sweet-and-sour, chow mein and, best of all, deep-fried ice cream. I cringe at the thought of eating these foods today, and, it seems, so do my neighbours, as the closure of Confucius illustrates.
These restaurants demonstrate sheer entrepreneurialism. Men and women moved their families into foreign, remote and unwelcoming environments, and established a business in the hope of creating a new, more prosperous and enjoyable life.
In the urban and self-consciously evolved society that is contemporary Australia, it is easy to dismiss our first taste of international cuisine as pure cultural cringe. But I am grateful to our first international restaurants and the people that ran them, because they helped establish the rich culinary landscape that Australia enjoys today.
Without chow mein, we may never have had Kylie Kwong, and for that we should be eternally grateful.