Australia is a Restaurant

Cuisine and race relations in “the Lucky Country”

Image courtesy of the author

Kimberley got out of her car, locked it, and blew the hair out of her eyes. Sunshine slapped her skin with the unannounced shock of walking into a glass door. She was accustomed to the humidity in Hong Kong but even after twelve years in Australia, the summers here always felt tough and rubbery, like old chewing gum.

Thirty-nine years old, five-foot-ten, usually dressed in black drainpipe trousers and a silk blouse, Kimberley Cheung lived alone in South Perth. She dropped the keys in her bag, which was, as always, heavy. Two iPads, iPhone, charger, bottle of water, banana, bookings schedule, two diaries, and a packet of cigarettes.

Walking across the car park of the Jade Palace Chinese Restaurant, Kimberley squeezed the back of her neck and told herself, “Seventeen tables booked… Eight in the garden; nine in the Jade Room, and all the VIP tables. First arrivals, 6:30?” And then, in her mind, Need to double-check. Not sure. Check the schedule.

Kimberley’s thoughts often overtook the speed with which she was able to process them — it was not unusual, then, that her to-do list should update itself like this as she recited it aloud.

She looked at her watch. Five forty-three.

Kimberley continued to mutter to herself until she reached the Jade Palace, where she glanced up at the large green banner suspended above the entrance. She read the gold text printed across it: HAPPY AUSTRALIA DAY, it said, with the same printed in Mandarin characters. Australia and China, united in one banner.

This was the fourth Australia Day Kimberley had hosted at the Jade Palace. Even though she did not understand its appeal, she knew this holiday was always good for business. Australians loved to celebrate their country, which was the accepted way of saying they gorged themselves and got drunk. Her restaurant facilitated these activities.

Kimberley’s friends would call today Invasion Day, but she ignored their implications, as Australia’s past did not interest her. She had come to this country for its prosperous future, and from that had built a business that afforded her a riverside bungalow and a ‘20-plate Toyota. That this rendered her as self-interested as those who had colonised her adopted country two-hundred-and-thirty years ago was not something that weighed upon Kimberley’s conscience. She believed herself as much a part of this country as anyone else.

She looked up at the banner once more and focused on AUSTRALIA, remembering a fragment of the national anthem she had heard on the radio that morning:

For those who’ve come across the seas

We’ve boundless plains to share.

Kimberley’s cheeks tightened in the sudden coolness of the air-conditioning as she stepped inside. Piano music fell from speakers in the ceiling like powdered sugar. Occupying the main body of the restaurant was the Jade Room, whose walls curved round in one enormous circle. The tables were laid across the floor like canapés on a platter, while, on an elevated section of the room with floor-to-ceiling windows, a triplet of banquet tables overlooked the Swan River. Within weeks of opening, these tables had regularly become occupied by customers to whom Kimberley referred as The Money, whose arrival was declared as much by the loudness of their voices as the strength of their perfumes. They were all cash, no culture — but they were good for business.

“Hi, boss,” Michelle said, looking up from a touchscreen monitor.

“Hello, Michelle.” Kimberley dug the bottle of water out of her bag. “It’s so hot,” she drank, “I can’t believe it.”

Michelle laughed, “It’s nice and cool here, boss. Lovely breeze everywhere.”

“I’m very happy for you.” Kimberley stuck out her tongue, and hoisted the bag further up her shoulder. “This is killing me so I will throw it at something if I don’t sit down quick. How many tables reserved tonight?”

Michelle tapped the monitor, squinted, tapped again. Announced, “Jade Room, ten tables, plus all three VIP tables. And seven in the garden.”

“Oh.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Kimberley opened the bottle, drank. “Got the reservations mixed up. Hmm,” she said, scrunching up her nose. “Okay, speak to you later?”

“Bye, boss.”

Kimberley never asked to be called that, boss, but she did not consider it unsuitable. It was on her trial shift that Michelle had first said it, while memorising the table numbers. Kimberley had corrected her and Michelle responded with, “Okay, sorry, boss.” None of the staff had ever referred to Kimberley as anything other than Kimberley, and she would have found this insulting were it not for the respectful neutrality of Michelle’s expression. She had looked to Kimberley awaiting further instruction, not striving to antagonise, having simply called her “boss” with no apparent awareness of the familiarity required for such an informal moniker.

Kimberley accepted this as an invitation to the friendship that had since grown between them for almost two years. Both women were Asian by descent, although Michelle had enjoyed twenty-four years of Australian citizenship. The second-generation daughter of Chinese parents, she had lived in Perth her entire life but both Kimberley and Michelle shared the experience of being made to feel a foreigner in their own country.

Kimberley turned right into a corridor wallpapered with Chinese calligraphy and shouldered the kitchen door open. She passed the chefs with garbled hellos, entered her office, dumped the bag on her desk and cried out in exhaustion as she fell into a chair.

Kimberley looked down again at her watch. “Six twelve,” she told the empty room. The first reservations would be arriving soon.

Image courtesy of the author

A ripple of warm air touched Michelle’s nose as the doors opened. A slim tanned woman strode in and ran her fingers through her hair, shadowed by a shorter, darker man in a white shirt. The woman’s shoes were pointed at the toes, spiked at the heel, and red on the sole. The small logos on the couple’s clothing affirmed their owners’ wealth. Kimberley had told her about customers like this. It was very, very important that she be polite to them, even if they were rude, which they often were.

“Good evening,” Michelle said.

“Orright,” the man replied.

“What’s your name, please?”

“Elly Bleach,” the woman answered. “We’re booked on the big tables, right?”

“Of course, one moment.”

Michelle stared at the monitor, searching for their reservation. The man exhaled through his nose, watching her mouth out all the Sams and Deans and Bens, all those Australian names. None of this Xing Pi Ting Wong bullshit.

“Ah okay, yes,” Michelle said. “Please follow me.”

Michelle led them up to the banquet table and stood aside as the tanned woman folded herself into a chair, stiffened by the tightness of her dress. The man dropped to his chair like a sack of wet sand.

“I shall come back in a few minutes with some green tea for you both.”

“Nah nah,” the man said, “bring us a wine list, would ya? Cheers.”

The Jade Palace Chinese Restaurant began as a derelict piece of real estate acquired in the early nineties by Kimberley’s father. It was eventually christened as the Cheung China House and thereafter enjoyed little success until foreclosing completely in the mid-2000s. As an only child, and with a much cleaner credit rating, responsibility fell upon Kimberley to redeem the property. She sold her apartment in Hong Kong and immigrated to Perth, when the death of her father left her an inheritance worthy of resurrecting the restaurant anew as the Jade Palace.

In lieu of children, she had dedicated herself to the restaurant. New furniture, new wallpaper, an extension overlooking the river, and new chefs who produced dishes that were reviewed in every national broadsheet from The West Australian to The Sydney Morning Herald.

Some of these articles had portrayed Kimberley as an immigrant success story, a thousand words beside a photograph of her stood in front of the restaurant, staring confidently into the eye of the camera. A similar photograph of Kimberley’s father, thirty years prior, was framed in her office.

She was standing by the front doors when Michelle came over. “Boss, most of the reservations have arrived at the VIP tables. Just waiting on a few more people.”

“Good, that’s fine. I’ll go over and take a drinks order.”

A shot of laughter rang across the room. “Sounds like they’ve had quite a few already,” Michelle said.

“They’ll want more.” Kimberley watched one of the men standing at the banquet table swig a bottle of beer as he squeezed the arse of a woman beside him. “They always do.”

The last of The Money had arrived.

“Oh my god, hiiiiii!” Elly’s voice exploded across the restaurant as she leapt out of her chair.

Another tall tanned woman called over, “How you going, hun? Not seen y’in ages, you look great!

They both wore short black dresses and impractical shoes. Both were blonde, their skin the same shade of bronze, and as they embraced, the two women became one homogenous form. Even their voices were interchangeable, each word anonymised in a dialect of laughter and nonsense. One of them pointed to a bottle of Cristal and promptly upended it into two champagne flutes. Thin and golden, the glasses for a moment resembled the women holding them.

Kimberley strode across the Jade Room, ascended the steps, and placed her left hand on the shoulder of a man in a white shirt. “Happy Australia Day,” she said, offering her other hand. The man turned around and looked at her face, looked down at her hand, shook it, nodded his head, and said thanks.

“How are all of you doing tonight?”

“Yeah, pretty good.” He sipped from his JD and coke. “Ya’self?”

“Very well, thank you.” Big flash of teeth. “It’s such a beautiful night. You should get a fantastic view of the fireworks from here.”

Kimberley looked through the window, across the river to South Perth. It was not a beautiful night; the sun was hours from setting and the sky was an acidic shade of blue. She returned to the man’s face. It was hardened by sunburn, containing eyes that assessed Kimberley’s straight black hair before taking in her lips, her small nose, and then her own dark, almond-shaped eyes. He did not return the smile she offered to diffuse the hostile silence, instead folding his arms. Like his face, they were dark and covered in black hair. Kimberley supposed he was of Greek or Italian heritage, and she knew what these people were called in Australia. This man was a wog.

“Should be alright, I reckon. Look,” he said, “can you get us some drinks?”

“Sure. What would you like?”

She had encountered men like this before, knew that they looked at her as a vending machine, a maid, an Asian. Men who believed this was their country and sought to remind her with every curt sentence, overlooking the fact her blood was as red as theirs. But she welcomed them in with wide smiles and open arms, because they were The Money. Dignity was expensive, and these people handsomely remunerated her abandonment of it.

“We’ll have a bottle of Malbec,” the man said.

“Of course.”

Kimberley walked to the bar and retrieved the bottle of wine, loading a tray with glasses. She blew the hair out of her eyes and returned to their table. Laid the tray down, uncorked the bottle in front of them all. Poured it into every glass, emptied it.

“Would you like another?” Kimberley asked.

The man nodded. Yes, they wanted more. More and more and more.

Kimberley presented them with a new bottle and wished them a good night, saying she’d be back later to see how they were doing. No-one paid attention. They had their drinks.

Kimberley decided to get something to eat from the kitchen, before it got too busy. It was going to be a long night and would only be lengthened by hunger.

She passed Michelle clearing plates off a table, who called out behind her, “Boss.”

“Yes?”

“Happy Australia Day,” she said.

Kimberley shook her head and laughed. “Isn’t it just?”

Gay writer who will always talk to strangers // Australian, 24 // Keith Haring & classical music // bit.ly/liamhr-portfolio

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