• Sweet and sour pork, beef in black bean sauce and honey chicken: How has Australia’s appetite for Chinese food changed over 30 years? (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
A lot has changed since takeaway shop owner, Lily King, arrived from Hong Kong in 1984. So are we still ordering the same dishes?
Lily King, Presented by
Yasmin Noone

21 Jan 2019 - 12:04 PM  UPDATED 28 Feb 2020 - 1:54 PM

I was born in Guangzhou, China, but my mum had a lot of kids so she sent me to Hong Kong to live with my grandma. That’s where I grew up.

I lived there until the early 1980s – around the same time when the Australian government introduced the family sponsorship visa. My two sisters had already moved to Australia and were living in Townsville. One sister asked me if I would like to come over to live in Australia and be sponsored. We said yes.

So in April 1984, I came to Australia directly from Hong Kong with my husband and two daughters. We went straight to Townsville: it was very different than Hong Kong.

Back then, there were only a few Chinese restaurants in Townsville and not many Chinese families living there.

When we were in Hong Kong, my family ate mostly vegetables and chicken, pork and fish dishes. We steamed our meals with ginger, shallots and soy sauce, or we had stir-fries with oyster sauce. But when we came to Australia, cooking Chinese dishes at home was hard because it was difficult to find authentic Chinese ingredients – like choy sum and Chinese spinach – at the shops.

It was also tough to look for a full-time job because Townsville is only a small place. So I did part-time work for a few months and then I decided to buy a business. I first bought a fish and chip shop. A few years later, around 1993, I acquired an already established Chinese restaurant – Nanking Restaurant - in the suburb of Aitkenvale and a takeaway shop in the Woodlands.

I had the restaurant for 15 years and also had a Chinese takeaway at the same time, where we sold traditional Chinese dishes. Most of our diners – around 80 or 90 per cent – were Caucasian because most Chinese people like to cook at home and don’t eat out a lot. Back then, customers were very happy to stick to ordering the most popular Chinese dishes, like black bean sauce, sweet and sour pork, fried rice and honey chicken.

Kylie Kwong's sweet and sour pork

Around 2006, the landlord decided to rent the land to the bank. So the restaurant closed but we continued to run the takeaway shop in Woodlands.

These days, the Asian population in Townsville seems to have tripled. When I first came to Townsville, there were only a few Chinese families – maybe 20 families – and now there would be hundreds. There are also a few more traditional Chinese restaurants in Townsville, but there are also many noodle bars.

"But when we came to Australia, cooking Chinese dishes at home was hard because it was difficult to find authentic Chinese ingredients – like choy sum and Chinese spinach – at the shops."

I think if someone moved from Hong Kong to Townsville today, it would be a lot easier to settle in and become familiar with the food sold in Australia compared to how it was years ago. In Hong Kong and China now, they have adopted a lot from Western culture, so they'd be used to Western food.

And, nowadays, it’s more common to find Chinese ingredients in Australia. People are even growing Chinese radishes in their home gardens. Coles and Woolworths sell many kinds of Chinese sauces, bok choy, ginger, shallots and all sorts of other authentic ingredients. Any vegetables we can’t get from the main supermarkets, we can easily get from the Sunday market in Townsville.

So now, we cook more Chinese food at home. We mostly make traditional foods like steamed chicken, roast duck, barbecue pork (Chinese style), a lot of stir-fries and steamed fish.

We can also order ingredients from a larger supplier that imports products and vegetables from overseas. It’s made it a lot easier to eat authentic Chinese dishes at home in Townsville like we used to eat in Hong Kong.

Today, I am still running my Chinese takeaway shop, Nanking Woodlands. It’s very busy and as popular as ever. There are a lot of workers, including people from the mines and local tradespeople, who visit our takeaway shop and buy a Chinese meal for dinner on their way home from work.

I’ve been in the food business in Australia for more than 25 years – and it’s amazing, but many of the people in Townsville still order the same dishes today as they did 25 years ago.

I don’t know why, but Australians still want to eat authentic Chinese beef in black bean sauce, fried rice and sweet and sour pork. Although times really have changed some things – like ordering Chinese takeaway – has stayed the same.

Bask in a Chinese food bounty like no other in Adam Liaw's brand-new series Destination Flavour China airing 7.30pm Wed nights on SBS, with an encore Sun 9.30pm on SBS Food (Channel 33) and then after broadcast via SBS On Demand. Join the conversation #DestinationFlavour on Instagram @sbsfood, Facebook @SBSFood and Twitter @SBSFood. Check out sbs.com.au/destinationflavour for recipes, videos and more! 

Destination Flavour China is sponsored by Cathay Pacific. For more information, please visit cathaypacific.com.au

Make these Chinese staples at home
Black sesame tangyuan

Traditionally eaten at the end of Chinese New Year, my grandmother taught me to make these delicious sweet glutinous rice flour dumplings. Destination Flavour China 

Braised dried Chinese mushrooms

These richly flavoured mushrooms keep well in the refrigerator and are perfect added to stir-fries or braises.

11 reasons to toss out that Chinese takeaway menu
Take the greasy spring rolls and salt-laden fried rice off speed dial. From fast, healthy stir-fries and 700-year-old soups to devour-me dumplings and an enjoyably odd dessert, these Chinese classics put the fast-food imposters to shame.
Hong Kong fried rice

A fast and easy favourite. 

Hot oil noodles (yo po mian)

This is one of those rugged dishes so typical of Northern China, where wheat-based noodles, garlic, black vinegar and plenty of dried chillies rule. Any wide, dried wheat, ‘ribbon’-style noodles you find at a Chinese food store will be good here although alternatively, these work really well with home made hand-cut noodles.

Spiced-honey roasted duck with rice and Asian greens

With some punchy flavours, this dish has a sublime spice balance. Molasses, honey and brown sugar make the rich sauce the perfect coat.