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An old photograph of a middle-aged Chinese-Australian man and woman standing in a restaurant, with their two young children between them. The father and daughter are holding a knife above a birthday cake on the table in front of them.

Eugene and family in their restaurant. Image: Supplied

Mittagong, the town I grew up in, is nestled between two mountains. Best known as a gateway to the Southern Highlands—a confluence of small towns two hours south of Sydney—the most interesting thing about Mittagong is its proximity to nature. By virtue of its terrain, the locals inevitably find themselves sharing tenancy with an ecosystem whose feral growth bleeds into day-to-day life. Wombats emerge from burrows to meander across uneven asphalt streets, while troops of kangaroos casually feed on eucalypts in overgrown yards. Holidaymakers have long romanticised Mittagong’s coexistence with what appears as a kind of untouched beauty, to the extent that many residents have come to reconstitute this bucolic rhetoric as a source of pride and justification for living a provincial life.

And yet the romance, for all its hyperbole, is not an illusion—there is indeed truth to how arresting the landscape is. On clear days, and when observed from the town centre, Mount Alexandra is contoured by a legion of a thousand trees that recede upwards like broken brushstrokes on a flattened sky, climbing atop one another until the mountain’s summit is reached. On other days, discrete flowerings of blood-red waratahs can be made out by the naked eye, coagulated and conspicuous amongst the dense vegetation.

The aesthetics of Cheung’s Court are aberrant to Mittagong’s pastoral mise-en-scene. But in it we might begin to understand Australia’s relationship with Chinese food and its impact on taste.

Teresia and Ronald Cheung—my mother and father—opened Cheung’s Court Chinese Restaurant on St Patrick’s Day in 1988 at 86/88 Main Street, relocating a few blocks up to 16 Bowral Road in October, 2003. Today, on both the overhang and exterior windows, ‘Cheung’s Court’ is stylised in a typical ‘kung-fu’ font, the shop’s trademark announcing itself in an amalgam of yellow, vermillion, violet and white. Should these colours entrance you, you might catch a glimpse of three curious window vinyls that work harder to lure you inside: a caricatured Chinese man (in Japanese ‘geta’ sandals) grinning before a bowl of plain white rice; a sentient wine bottle toasting with an empty glass to an audience comprised of a teapot and a steaming teacup; and, an otherwise miscellaneous bowl of plain noodles with a pair of chopsticks behind it.

Journey inside, and a cylindrical tank with fake fish blown around by a bubble machine sits by the entrance, in stark contrast to the enormous calligraphed fan hanging on the wall furthest from the door. Along one restaurant wall, a horizontal mirror spans the entire length of the dining room, catching in the reflection its supposed twin, the opposite wall, on which hangs a series of antique Chinese plates arranged in a narrow, parabolic configuration. The wooden tables—some rectangular, others circular—are finished with clear lacquer and decorated with fake flowers, salt and pepper shakers, and a laminated purple wine list with a delectably rotund Buddha smiling on its cover. The chairs are a sturdy brown plastic and beige rattan, their vinyl-upholstered seats emitting a great sigh of air as you sit down; a noise that approximates being grateful for an arse, which is to say, for business.

The aesthetics of Cheung’s Court are aberrant to Mittagong’s pastoral mise-en-scene, to this colonial outpost. But this restaurant operated for 34 years before my parents’ retirement at the end of this month, and in it we might begin to unearth some understanding of the nation’s relationship with Chinese food and its impact on taste.

Those families my mother served, and who my father cooked for, were perhaps spectres of a lifestyle foreclosed to her, or one she hoped for her children to someday attain.

How to set the scene? The deep-fried delight of a mixed entree—little parcels of pork hand wrapped in a yolk-yellow dough, doused in batter and thrown into the deep-fryer, a gift otherwise known as the dim sim. Spring rolls, twice-fried for sturdiness like a Tuscan column, and prawn toast; ground prawns smeared as if butter onto white bread, tossed in sesame seeds and crisped until the dough, like magic, turns to gold. All three are served alongside a bright red pool of sweet and sour sauce, a sticky drizzle that children can eat alone on plain rice. Then it begins: a plate of glistening honey chicken the colour of morning light, its sweet amber ooze falling onto a bed of fried vermicelli whose role is entirely functional, to soak up the oil. Carrots julienned into fine ribbons unfurl themselves from atop the dish, like a poem revealing itself to us for the first time. A plate of Mongolian lamb is next to it, served on a cast iron plate in the shape of a cow, sizzling with the scent of dark soy and brown sugar, its sauce thick from a cornstarch slurry. On the side is a plate of special fried rice featuring a medley of stir-fried chicken, beef, king prawns and char siu. To finish, the ambrosial scent of caramel syrup that coats a crumbed and deep-fried ice-cream.

The interior of a Chinese restaurant. The floor has a dark blue carpet and a mirror runs along one wall next to a row of tables. On the far wall a large Chinese paper fan is mounted.

Inside Cheung’s Court. Image: Supplied

This is the banquet of multiple generations in small towns across Australia, a cornerstone cuisine in this country’s conception of ‘dining out’. Food historian and scholar Alison Vincent has written that this kind of ‘Australianised’ Chinese food is an invention that embodies both the adaptation to, and adoption of, local conditions. ‘Adoption’ takes on greater resonance when I think of how often my mother mentions seeing two, sometimes three, generations of Mittagong families grow up at the restaurant. It wasn’t until later in life that I grasped the implication of her words: that in being at the restaurant for so many years and absent at home, she missed many of her own children’s formative moments. Those families she served in the dining room, and who my father cooked for, were perhaps spectres of a lifestyle foreclosed to her, or one she hoped for her children to someday attain. Perhaps my mother felt as if she could somehow ‘adopt’ and care for the children who came into her restaurant as she might my sister and me if we had a consistent life together at home. She unfailingly handed them lollipops and chocolate, and snuck their parents an extra portion of something, a shot of whatever on the house, or a discount. Once, whilst working with her front of house, a man my mother had first met when he was a toddler approached the counter, leant over, and gave her a strong embrace. He said that I was lucky to have a mother ‘like Therese’, a woman who was always there for his various milestones, bringing out food for his girlfriends and, eventually, his own children. Therese, Trish, Louise, Winnie—all names she was called but never sought to correct. She cared little for being known ‘properly’ as Teresia, or as anything else other than for her lovingness: it was the wealth she possessed but would never speak of.


Toward the early 2010s, my parents noticed business thinning out. At times, their weekend dinner service—once bustling, breathless—was left only to those true-blue customers who remember the restaurant’s halcyon days from the 90s into the early 2000s; those days where ‘Going to Cheung’s’ was as much a ritual as watching the local rugby match on Saturdays. My parents began to feel themselves swept up in the so-called ‘refining’ of local tastes—where Australia’s mainstream conceptions of Chinese food were becoming more nuanced, and restaurants like Cheung’s Court were its collateral. Chilli chicken and spicy fried squid no longer sated those recently introduced to the palate numbing pleasure of the Szechuan peppercorn, and sweet and sour pork paled in comparison to the robust and earthy stewed pork belly one had tasted on their holiday in northern China.

Their restaurant is rooted in a moment in Australian history where the country Chinese restaurant was, principally, a one-stop shop where the community could converge.

But even as my parents realised the inevitability of this epicurean turn, they never shifted gears to better approximate the culinary codes of Hong Kong or Shanghai. Not because of stubbornness or a lack of nous, but because their restaurant is so rooted in and born of a moment in Australian history where the country Chinese restaurant was, principally, a one-stop shop where the community could converge. It was a place to commune, to celebrate a fundraiser, to provide an exciting and otherwise ‘exotic’ location for the Country Women’s Association’s monthly lunches, to celebrate a birthday one day and cater a wake the next. They saw the restaurant in relation to a particular Australian temporality, one politically insular and fearful, climaxing in the years of Pauline Hanson (a stretch that seems ongoing), and so their subsistence became a defiance of it. In other words, their food allowed white Australians to eat something that made them feel as if they were reaching out into the wider world, discerning the contours of our round earth’s edges, and perhaps coming to understand those outside their community a little better.

It would be easy to render the narrative of my family’s survival into the grotesque shape of perseverance; trite to wax lyrical about how my sister and I are indebted to my parents for their sacrifices—those things that gave, and still give, shape to the lives we live now. All this is true, but to centre diasporic gratitude would feel like an obfuscation of the nature of things, on the gradations of their struggle. My parents now live with chronic pain: my father, from years of standing at the stove, throwing things in and around a heavy wok, from lifting, carrying, and all the other verbs that come with manual labour being the sole apparatus for earning a wage. My mother too, from ferrying dishes on both arms, pouring countless drinks, her face creased from so many hours of smiling, the dual erosion of her eyesight and spine from being hunched over a small desk to balance the books, file taxes and so on.

But as I watched their bodies buckle and fall apart over the years, I realised that a parallel narrative of disintegration was at play, too. As cosmopolitan tastes from the metropole bled into Mittagong, and as an awareness of the world’s cuisines slowly made their way into the local palate—‘culturing’ it—it somehow crystallised, for many, this idea that the food my parents served lacked ‘authenticity’, when authenticity was never the point. To insist that Australian-Chinese restaurants—or indeed any aspect of our colonial assemblage—be ‘authentic’ is to misapprehend the stream of Australian history.

To insist that Australian-Chinese restaurants—or indeed any aspect of our colonial assemblage—be ‘authentic’ is to misapprehend the stream of Australian history.


As Cheung’s Court approaches its final act, the most striking memory of the restaurant I can recall and am now transported to, is my mother closing the till and counting the day’s earnings after the restaurant finished service. She is illuminated by a single orange light that shines directly onto the bar where she sits, Caravaggesque, as her surroundings recede into the darkness of the dining room where I wait, by the windows. Mittagong at this hour appears as a collection of shadows frozen in time, its buildings petrified and blurred into a uniform mass while Mount Alexandra becomes an indistinguishable outline that smooths itself into the sky and disappears. The world seems to have turned off the lights as one might do to artefacts in a museum, and it is here that Mittagong appears most annihilated to me, as a shell that once bore civilisation but somehow gave up.

I wonder if the loss of Cheung’s Court feels as difficult for others as it does for myself. I think of the world that awaits my mother and father—a godless world for sure—but a world where their bodies might finally experience leisure and levity. Is this their horizon, I wonder, or merely what I think they deserve? All the way from where I live now in Germany, I hear the fumbling of keys and turn to see my father waiting—his hands gesturing that it’s time to go. I give Mittagong one last look, so silent and placid, my head pressed against the glass just a while longer in hope of a passing car, one which might carry another family like ours, coming into this place to start a variation of what my parents built.

And so it goes on, I tell myself, and so it goes.