The Age M Magazine - The Chinese Evolution / by Annie Louey

WRITTEN BY MIRANDA TAY
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Chinese New Year: three families on the changing face of the Chinese community

On February 5, this Chinese New Year of the Boar will herald in new beginnings. But how much influence does the past have on the future? We talk to three prominent families about their different approaches to life across generations, and the changing face of the Chinese community.

CHINATOWN THEN AND NOW

Hong Kong-born restaurateur Gilbert Lau was 16 years old when he started in the restaurant industry in Melbourne. Over the next 40 years, he turned the Flower Drum in Chinatown into one of the most iconic restaurants around. Today he runs Lau's Family Kitchen in St Kilda, with sons Jason, 47, and Michael, 46.

Gilbert: Chinatown in the '70s was not a huge difference to the '60s or even the '50s, when I was a young boy. In those days, the Chinese restaurant was very average. A bit of yumcha, a bit of BYO. The food was basic. Chefs went for convenience. Ingredients went into the fridge, soggy wontons were sold all day. But the customers never demanded more either; they didn't know any better. "Whatever you cook, I'll eat."

What changed the face of Chinatown was business entertainment, which took off in the '80s and '90s. People started to bring their corporate clients to Asian restaurants. They would come into the Flower Drum and say, "Twenty of my staff would like to come to your restaurant, what food would you do?"

So the food began to improve with demand. If you have the corporate clients, you have the business, and you automatically upgrade the quality of your food. Your turnover is bigger, and you can expand.

People began to appreciate the beauty of fresh ingredients. I thought, "let's do it properly". In the past, no one used premium cuts like the eye fillet. We started serving them at Flower Drum.

One of the big changes is that immigrants are bringing their authentic cooking culture into Australia. Our lives are getting busier, and we're eating out more or getting food delivered.

And people are travelling everywhere. They used to think Chinese food was just Cantonese. Now they're aware of northern delicacies, Sichuan cuisine. They come back wanting the genuine thing. Chinatown today has Burmese, Thai, Japanese, Sri Lankan cuisine. Why not?

Intercultural influences are everywhere. Everyone knows what certain parts of the world are doing with their food and they try out each other's ingredients. Fish sauce is no longer used in just Chinese dishes.

In the old days, what you cooked depended on how far your mule or horse could travel for ingredients. We wouldn't know about ingredients beyond that. It became a dish of the "district". Today's advantage is that ingredients can travel from airport to airport. Or if you want Mexican chillies, you grow them. It has opened up a world of choice.

Gilbert Lau and his son, Jason. Photo: Simon Schluter

Gilbert Lau and his son, Jason. Photo: Simon Schluter

When I sold Flower Drum, I was thinking of taking it slow. The new generation of food is more casual. At Lau's, for 10 years, we've been selling very good cooking in simple, uncomplicated dishes.

Michael is very good with wines, so he's in charge of the wine list. Jason is very good on the customer service side.

I'm in charge of the menu, of course. You must know where the ingredients are from – sauce is everything in Cantonese cooking.

Mentality-wise, my sons do business differently to me. The second generation is not as "kan jiong" (Cantonese for "more relaxed"). They don't have my Hong Kong and China background; I have 30 years' restaurant experience on them. I understand that a gourmet dish has its roots in hawker fare. It's just different generations. That's just the way it is.

Jason: When I was a kid, I remember Dad running the Flower Drum with an iron fist. It was so big; every night he had 200 customers. From what I saw it was the correct way to run it, the only way.

Lau's Family Kitchen is more settled, more casual, than Flower Drum. We're just modern Cantonese, very classical. A lot of locals like the basic produce-driven cuisine.

Dad and us, we have different management styles. Dad's more formal and we're a bit more casual, so we meet in the middle. Dad was always about the detail, about the little small things that can be missed.

I think dining in Melbourne has definitely gone more casual. Food has stepped up and accessibility has stepped down, because if you go to the top restaurants now, a good per cent of them are reasonably casual. That's what people want, they're so busy they don't have time for five-hour dinners.

At 6pm here, we get a lot of families coming in groups of four or five. They say, "bring more food out, just put it on the table". They do six entrees, five mains, share it out. They're out in an hour and a half, they're happy.

Lau's Family Kitchen, 4 Acland Street, St Kilda, 8598 9880

SNAPSHOTS AND STORIES ON STAGE

Melbourne comedian and writer Annie Louey, 25, brings hilariously relatable true personal stories to her stand-up routine. She returns to the Comedy Festival in March with a biscuit tin of never-before-seen photographs of Hong Kong and rural Victoria in the '50s, taken by her late father. She lives with her China-born mother Jian Xian, 56, who works at Tao's Asian BBQ Kitchen in the CBD, and sister Anna, 19.

Annie: I always thought I was funny as a kid, but I was probably boxed into the nerd stereotype in school. It wasn't until year 9 that I felt free to be myself. I always saw humour in situations, so I thought I'd do stand-up.

But things didn't get kick-started until I was 16 years old when I had this life-changing accident. I was on an army cadet camp. I cut my finger and fainted into a fire. I became a burns survivor. It's part of my story now. After that I realised I had to start living, doing stuff that I was too scared to do. I thought, "No matter how badly I did on stage I wasn't going to die."

I knew at a young age that I wasn't going down the traditional path like a doctor or lawyer. Even at 10, I was more interested in writing or speaking or the arts. My parents weren't pushy about my education but they still had high expectations: "Get a uni degree, make sure you do everything the right way first."

Dad passed before I graduated, but I think he would have got on board with my comedy. It's like a small business.

Our family has been here since the Gold Rush. Dad was born in China and schooled in Hong Kong. At 19 he came to Australia to help his dad with the milk bar, and he went back to China to find a wife. He was a lot older than my mum, he had me when he was about 64.

It's an interesting dichotomy being stuck between two worlds. As I grow older I'm aware that it's not a compliment to be told "you're like a white person". I push back against that now. I'm my own person; I'm Chinese and Australian.

Mum has maintained her Chinese identity so strongly that I've kind of given up on her. She's very superstitious; those traditions of what not to do – not washing your hair on certain days – don't appeal to me. I'm an adult now and I'm going to wash my hair, and she's like "oh, it's the 15th!" I don't even have a Chinese calendar to reference what I can do on what day, I just have my phone.

I'm very feminist. We talk a lot about relationships, she wants me to be married, have a house, kids. I have a Western boyfriend but marriage doesn't really appeal much to me so there's a bit of tension there.

Mum is very philosophical and accepting. She says, don't forget where you came from: the village culture, handwriting letters, no telephones, no electricity. We visited her mum's house in China, and it was just a shack, and she said, "I was born in that corner there."

Jian Xian: When I got married, I didn't know my husband well. We were matchmade by relatives. I was 29 or 30. He was 63. There was a big age gap. But I have no regrets. I thought it would be good to migrate to a foreign country. I felt comfortable coming here. Everyone thought I would be lonely but I was fine. I was always going to come and work hard and look after a family.

Her father had a large circle of friends. My daughters were still young so I stayed at home. I knew my husband's friends, my younger sister nearby. That was my circle.

My daughter came within the first year. Her father's thinking was that her future would be a good education, be happy and independent and fulfilled.

A lot of Asian families don't allow their children to have so much freedom and independence. I felt that the most important thing was that my daughter should enjoy what she was doing. If she has an interest in something, she'll put her heart and soul into it, be happy.

With marriage and relationships, even though I feel as long as that's who they love, that's fine by me. But there's a part of me that wants to say to Anna, "your older sister is seeing a non-Asian, what about you?" A Chinese man will just make communicating so much easier.

I tell my daughters: respect everyone's opinion. In the old days, women didn't have the kind of independence or opportunities they have now. We've come to Australia, we keep an open mind. We still have our Chinese customs, understand our Chinese values. But it's impossible to stick to all the old traditions. They will go their own path.

Before I Forget, Chinese Museum, 22 Cohen Place, Melbourne, March 27- April 21, Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

REAL LIFE VERSUS REEL LIFE

Distance has never been an issue for Sydney-based author and screenwriter Benjamin Law, 37, and his Malaysian-born mother Jenny Phang, 64, who lives in Brisbane. Their daily lives are enmeshed in creative collaborations such as SBS' award-winning The Family Law, based on the family memoir, and the no-holds-barred sex and relationships advice book, Law School.

Benjamin Law and his mother, Jenny Phang, collaborated creatively to write the award-winning SBS show  The Family Law . Photo: Vince Valitutti

Benjamin Law and his mother, Jenny Phang, collaborated creatively to write the award-winning SBS show The Family Law. Photo: Vince Valitutti

Benjamin: In the '80s and '90s, when multiculturalism was spoken about positively, I was happy growing up in a predominantly white part of the country (Queensland). But when it's spoken about in a completely different way, when someone politicises your race, suddenly you are a target and that's when things change.

My first time out of the country, we travelled to Hong Kong. I was 12. To be in a place where everyone looks like you and speaks like your parents was something I'd never experienced before.

It made me realise I didn't quite belong 100 per cent anywhere. Although that was something that I struggled with, as I've grown older, I don't mind being an outsider wherever I go. When you put being gay on top of that, that's being an outsider in a different way as well.

I actually appreciate that. Being a writer, one of the things you need to deliver is an original perspective … it means I experience culture shock less.

The only problem with stereotypes is when the one character detail is all you see about that person again and again. If you give them as complex a world as any other character – you make them flawed, you make them funny – they become the hero of their own journey. So stereotype for me isn't just about tropes, it is whether you see those characters deeply or not.

The Family Law is not necessarily a show about ethnicity, or about race. It has many components. Season 3 is about the relationship between parents and kids, and as much as it's a show about coming out, it's also a show about embracing your child for who they are.

Both my mum and my dad are modern – they understood the value of their kids' happiness to pursue the lives they wanted – yet at the same time they are traditional in their own ways.

Mum holds onto some Chinese values close to her heart, like filial piety (respect for your parents and elders), that I'm happy to adhere to because I think there's something in that that other people miss out on.

I love her resilience. Mum has had five kids and pretty tough times, and she gets through it with good humour – that's something I could learn from. To get through to the other side fine and still be charming as ever is pretty great.

The Australian Chinese community can't not evolve; it's not easy to pin down either. The Chinese community isn't a monolith. It's Australian-Chinese communities, plural, and that can involve mainland Chinese who have just arrived back to people who have been in Australia for generations, people with an Ocker accent. I think that identity is always changing but it's such a central part of Australian culture.

Jenny: When we migrated to the Sunshine Coast from Hong Kong in 1975, we bought a restaurant from the only other Chinese family in the area. I had my first child the next year. I have five children: Candy, Andrew, Ben, Tammy and Michelle. Ben is the middle child.

I was quite happy in my life until I realised I'd married the wrong man. I am not a traditional Chinese woman. Because if I were, I would never have gotten a divorce. The old-fashioned way of thinking is conservative: you stay in your marriage like a good China woman.

The Family Law is a mix of real and imagined stories. But the relationship between me and Ben, that's very true; we've always been very close. We went to China when he was researching his book. I told him, "I'm now 100 per cent Chinese because I climbed the Great Wall."

His personality is a lot similar to mine. He respects his elders. If you're Ben's friend you're very lucky, he's a very loyal friend. After he filmed Filthy Rich and Homeless in Sydney, he made up some urgent packs for the homeless: a pen, notepad, lollies, even tampons for the women. He's a really decent human being, I'm very happy because it has a lot to do with parenting.

Talking about sex and relationships with the children came naturally, even from a young age. I think it's very important all parents do that. Ben and I had so much fun doing the sex and relationships advice book. I don't like the Asian thing about taking secrets to your grave.

Jenny in season three is pursuing her sexual freedom through online dating. I'm the opposite. I feel so free not having to compromise with a partner. I love the lifestyle in Brisbane, where I live now, going to the movies or theatre. My life is complete.

The Family Law is available on SBS on Demand.