The Marigold, an iconic yum cha institution in Sydney’s Chinatown, opened its doors for the last time in December 2021. Huge queues of people lined up to get a final taste of their favourites: fluffy steamed pork buns, slippery rice noodles doused in sweet soy sauce, prawn dumplings and mango pancakes. For almost 40 years, this historic restaurant served up some of the city’s most-loved yum cha dishes.
Connie Chung, Marigold group manager, announced the restaurant’s shock closure on Monday 1 November, exactly 39 years after her parents opened the original Marigold on Chinatown’s Sussex Street. Ms Chung was quoted saying, ‘A few workers have been here for between 20 to 39 years … I’ve grown up with them, and they’ve watched me grow up as well.’ The ‘New Marigold’, which opened on levels four and five of the CityMark building in 1991, later came to be known simply as ‘Marigold’.
The earliest memory I have of the Marigold was when I was a young girl, no older than six. My mother and I had spent the morning exploring the hundreds of stalls at nearby Paddy’s Markets. To my delight, Mum had just bought me something I’d been dying to get my hands on — a small toy dog that would yap excitedly, shuffle forward a few steps and do backflip. Exhausted from shopping, and by my incessant begging, we decided to try out the Marigold for lunch.
With its regal red and gold carpet, crystal chandeliers and seemingly endless sea of tables, the restaurant exuded elegance. Even as an adult, the excitement of finally being seated was a feeling that never faded. The Marigold may have been your first taste of yum cha, a regular Sunday brunch spot, or the go-to place for family birthdays.
It wasn’t the only Chinatown icon to close in 2020, however. With heavy hearts, we said goodbye to BBQ King, famous for its crispy skinned duck. Devastated foodies were quick to pay their respects online, sharing fond memories of their favourite meals or the deals they did while eating them.
Meanwhile, the future of another long-running restaurant in the area, Golden Century, remains up in the air. With so many bittersweet goodbyes, it’s easy to see why people are worried about the future of the city’s Chinese dining scene.
But if there is one thing as certain as finding sweet and sour pork on the menu, it is that Chinese restaurants are resilient. In Australia, Chinese restaurants have survived two world wars, faced discriminatory policies and overcome immigration hurdles. Today, Chinese food, with its many regional variations, is one of the most enduring and popular cuisines in the country. It doesn’t matter where you travel throughout Australia, in towns big and small it’s likely you’ll find one common sight — the local Chinese restaurant.
Jan O’Connell, author of A Timeline of Australian Food, explains that commercial Chinese food in Australia can be traced back to the 1850s and the first big wave of Chinese migration during the gold rush. Soon enough, cookhouses started to open on the goldfields, serving up comfort food for homesick Chinese miners. Occasionally these small eateries would also attract Aussie diggers who were curious for a taste of something new.
When the gold rush ended, and with the arrival of the White Australia policy in 1901, Chinese migrants who had contributed so much were faced with hostility and racism. Many were reduced to menial jobs. Yet the total exclusion of Chinese people was never going to be a reality.
Some Chinese cooks who needed staff who were not available locally were allowed to bring in workers, as long as their business wasn’t considered to be in competition with similar European enterprises. While most migrants were not permitted to bring relatives in, Chinese business owners used this loophole to bring across family members, often changing their names to hide familial connections. Meanwhile, Chinese restaurants were busy remixing recipes to suit Western tastes. As fourth-generation Chinese-Australian author Annette Shun-Wah writes in her book Banquet: Ten Courses to Harmony, ‘Mutations of traditional dishes are a sign of that great Chinese ability to adapt.’ The infamous chop suey, for example, a simple dish of meat and vegetables coated in starchthickened sauce, was oddly similar to the savoury stews that sustained the Australian colonies. While the roots of chop suey are still debated, it was most likely first cooked in Guangdong, China. Written as tsa sui in Mandarin or tsap seui in Cantonese, its name can be roughly translated as ‘odds and ends’.
A great example of how Chinese-Australian food came to proliferate can be found in Roy Geechoun’s book Cooking the Chinese Way. Published in 1948, it was Australia’s first Chinese cookery book. The thin volume features 30 popular recipes with common ingredients like ham, green beans, cabbage, beef, pineapple, almonds and peas . Faced with a shortage of traditional ingredients, early Chinese cooks sought local substitutes to make food that would closely resemble dishes from their homeland.
By the late 1950s, Chinese restaurants had started spreading across the country. For many ordinary Australian families, ordering Chinese take-away was as close as they came to eating out. It was during this time that menu items like lemon chicken, beef and black bean, and chow mein become standard favourites.
I know these dishes well . For several years as a teenager, I worked with my mother in the ‘Asian section’ of an RSL club restaurant on the Central Coast. Sequestered in a small corner, away from the ‘Western section’, the two of us served up hundreds of dishes during peak service time. As the orders came in, my job was to assemble all the fresh ingredients and slide them over to my mum. Armed with a huge metal wok over a roaring gas burner, she would plate up something delicious in a matter of minutes. King prawns, fried to golden perfection and coated in honey, or a soothing bowl of egg noodles with pork and prawn wontons. One of our regulars, an older gentleman, would stop by almost every day to say hello and order his chicken omelette (extra vegetables, sauce on the side). I wondered how he never seemed to get tired of eating the same thing .
At the end of a long and sweaty shift, Mum would always prepare a meal for us to take home. It was never a secret ‘off the menu’ option, or anything glamorous. My favourite was the sweet chilli chicken: delicious deep-fried nuggets of chicken, covered in a tangy red sauce and tossed with onion and capsicum. While it was very different to the Chinese food we typically ate at home, it was still delicious and comforting in its own way.
At home, behind closed doors, my mum prepared the most incredible Northern Chinese food. On her days off she would spend hours hunched over in the kitchen making dumplings filled with chives, egg and pork. Learning how to cook traditional Chinese food has been a huge part of my life as an adult, but there are still days where I crave those dishes we served at the club. It’s not just the cuisine itself that I miss, but also the memories of being with Mum in the kitchen — the heavy hum of the exhaust fans or the scrape of a spatula on a wok.
Food can help people feel at home, it can prompt them to miss home and it can be a bridge to a new home. We all have those special meals that instantly transport us back to a time and place. It could be the soup your mum made when you were feeling under the weather, or the questionable meat pie from your school canteen. Even the simplest of recipes is loaded with history, memory and identity.
Everyday Chinese restaurants are rarely celebrated in the same way as places like the Marigold or Golden Century. Their offerings don’t usually catch the attention of inner-city foodies looking for ‘authentic’ Chinese food. Consider the New Bo Wa restaurant in Moree, which has been nourishing the community since the 1970s, or the Peking Garden Chinese Restaurant in Gosford — not the restaurant where I worked — a local institution for over 30 years. For many of us, their classic dishes can be a trip down memory lane, one that leads to a birthday party, a first date or a wedding.
It goes without saying that our knowledge and appreciation of Chinese food is far richer and more complex than it was 50 years ago. We are now familiar with previously foreign flavour profiles like the tongue-numbing spice distinctive of Sichuan and Hunan. Immigrants from northern China have brought with them recipes that champion wheat, such as bouncy hand-pulled noodles and fluffy steamed buns. In Sydney, within walking distance of each other, you can find Hong Kong-style cafes, Taiwanese fried-chicken stalls and Michelin starred soup dumpling restaurants.
While we mourn the closure of long established venues in Sydney, I hope we can also pay our respects to the remote Chinese kitchens that still exist today — in pubs and clubs, motels and malls. They may not attract hundreds of reviews, but their classic recipes offer a priceless — and delicious — taste of nostalgia. Let’s remember everyday Australians whose first experience of Chinese food came from plastic take-away containers, and those children of immigrants who spent their teenage years behind the counter of their parents’ restaurants. These everyday restaurants are a testament to the resilience and creativity of Chinese immigrants and their contribution to Australia’s modern food culture.
This story appears in Openbook autumn 2022.