From takeaway shops to Asian fusion, Chinese cooking is well-established as part of the Kiwi dining scene. But often what we’re eating isn’t traditionally Chinese, as Eda Tang reports.
Leslie Leung was just 10 years old when he began working at a Chinese takeaway shop in Gisborne. He and his younger brothers worked front of house serving customers; they also read accounts and did the banking.
The family’s purchase of Starlight Restaurant was a new opportunity for Leung’s chef-trained father, who brought his family to New Zealand in 1984 to avoid being in Hong Kong when it reverted to Chinese administration.
Though his father was trained in Cantonese cuisine, he could not speak very good English. Leung remembers serving a lot of drunks at night, but rarely any Chinese people: “Maybe the odd traveller, like three times a year.”
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The menu, mimicked from the previous owner, included sweet and sour pork, beef and black beans, fried rice, egg foo young, “and yes, we had chop suey”.
“Starlight Restaurant served Chinese food that was popularized in America, which meant dishes were sweeter, boneless, and heavily deep-fried,” says Leung.
The takeaway shop also sold fish and chips and diner-style steak meals.
The concept of faux-Chinese food is nothing new. The first documented Chinese restaurant in an English-speaking country was John Alloo’s Chinese Restaurant in Ballarat, in the Australian state of Victoria, which sold “plum puddings, jam tarts, roast and boiled joints, all kinds of vegetables”.
According to one early settler, “Chinese food was the only thing not sold there”.
The labeling of non-traditional food as ‘Chinese’ has led to strange menu crossovers, granting social acceptance to certain versions of Chinese food, while marginalizing others. These days, the crossover is most commonly seen in ‘fusion’ cuisine.
Leung’s concerned that modern Asian fusion restaurants are “taking away the profile from these small shops that sell exceptional food from their culture”.
He understands that there’s an appeal to “ethnic food and an overpriced cocktail … in a nice environment”, but says it’s bewildering to see so-called fusion dishes for “three times the price”.
He recalls a restaurant serving mapo tofu with wagyu beef: “Just to say [wagyu beef] and then triple the prices? There are so many wrongs, but then customers are willing to pay for it”.
Leung says that “trying to own somebody else’s food” without connecting to those people is “not helping to amplify the food’s history”.
Graphic designer Lindsay Yee says some attempts to market Chinese or fusion cuisine can be “extremely derogatory”.
Yee, whose Chinese migrant parents sold fish and chips and Chinese food in Christchurch from 1984 to 1993, says culture should not be used for “signalling” and “decoration”.
“If you’re trying to sell culture, you’re not doing [fusion food] the right way.”
For example, Yee says, the usage of the ‘wonton font’ in some restaurants is “like someone who doesn’t have an accent putting on this fake accent”.
Last year, as part of the Toro Whakaara exhibition at Objectspace, Yee created Chinese Takeaways, a space based on his parents’ takeaway shop about “who spaces are for, what parts of kiwiana are accepted and what parts are not, who gets to be able to understand spaces with language and design, and who has been excluded”.
The English signage was printed in reverse as if looking out of a shop, while the Chinese characters faced inwards, reflecting the dual experience of many in the Chinese diaspora.
Tze Ming Mok, a social scientist of Chinese Malaysian and Singaporean descent, explains that Asian traditions are often commodified into western culture in a way that “does not undermine your idea of how the country is actually run”.
She says they end up being a “marker of sophistication” for westerners rather than a meaningful attempt to engage with other cultures.
Mok doesn’t have a problem with fusion cuisine per se, but doesn’t think it’s appropriate for non-Asian people to own and manage Asian-fusion establishments.
She says fusion restaurants risk demonstrating how “Asian cultures are consumed by the white capitalist state”.
“I just don’t think eating someone’s food makes you like them as a people”, said Mok. “People can buy your food and abuse you to your face”.
These cultural tensions have been on display with recent controversies such as the naming and branding of popular Auckland eatery Monsoon Poon.
The restaurant faced calls to be renamed because “poon” is a slang term for female genitalia – but restaurant owner Nicola Richards said that was not the intention, and they simply thought it worked well with the word “monsoon”.
However, in a concession to concerns about racism, the restaurant did agree to remove the phrase “Love u long time” from the footpath in front of the restaurant, which references the phrase from Full Metal Jacket used to derogatorily sexualise Asian women.
Mok says this kind of branding is clearly offensive: “You don’t really need a sophisticated academic argument to describe what’s going on here”.
Lin Ma is among restaurant owners taking a more nuanced approach to fusion cuisine. He migrated from Shandong 10 years ago to do his Master’s degree, and took ownership of the New Flavor restaurant on Dominion Rd in June last year.
The majority of his kitchen staff originally came from northeastern China and have a good understanding of regional techniques such as simmering, braising and sautéing.
However, says Ma, the restaurant has had to “slightly adjust on some dishes to meet the appetite of locals”. For example, the sweet and sour pork served at New Flavor is much sweeter and sourer than that would be served in China.
Ma agrees that “if it is called a Chinese restaurant, then it should be a Chinese chef”.
Sometimes, though, that’s easier said than done. Visa restrictions and higher-paying construction jobs mean “currently it’s difficult to find Chinese chefs”.
And it’s not just Chinese chefs that are hard to find. Ma says ethnic Chinese customers have fallen away due to anxiety around Covid-19, and he doubts the restaurant would have survived without adapting to Western tastes.
“The world is changing constantly, [and] so is the food,” says Ma. “In this way, business can survive more easily”.
Survival was key to the Leung family back in the 1980s, when they were running their family shop in Gisborne. They weren’t paying much attention to cultural niceties, and selling takeaway food was a means to an end.
They were surprised when curious customers noticed they were eating traditional Chinese food that wasn’t on the shop’s menu – for example steamed chicken wings and Chinese sausage ( 腊肠) – and wanted to try it for themselves.
These days, Leung’s parents are retired, and their children joke around by ringing up and pretending to be customers placing a phone order.
Gone are the days of chop suey and sweet and sour pork.
“Dad never really cooks any of the stuff that we had on the menu at all,” says Leung.
Instead, they’re back to enjoying their usual traditional food.