• The rich cuisine our Chinese-Australians have given us. (Getty Images)
It's time for us to support our Chinese food community.
By
Melissa Leong

20 Feb 2020 - 11:03 AM  UPDATED 20 Feb 2020 - 5:39 PM

There is little doubt in my mind that we are already in the throes of the apocalypse. With fire, flood and drought at play, the global climate is currently set to mass hysteria. 

We've seen epidemics come and go, but the recent outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) threatens to pass into history as an outbreak that has not only claimed lives but one that severely damaged one of the most ancient food cultures on the planet.

No matter where you live in the world, the contribution that Chinese migration has had on food culture is undeniable.

Country town to the city heart, in every corner of the globe you'll find a Chinatown, a Chinese restaurant or an Asian grocer. From this vast and ancient culture, we credit noodles, dumplings, rice, countless spices and cooking techniques to have enriched every culture that they've landed in.

In Australia, Chinese food culture has imparted flavour, dimension and excitement to the way we eat. Right now, though, from Melbourne's Box Hill and Glen Waverley to Sydney's Chatswood and Burwood, eat streets that were once packed have become ghost towns.

The vibe is dire, with business owners and members of the public claiming customers are slowing to a trickle as some doors close, while others are simply putting their businesses on pause to wait out the current storm.

In the long run, I can't help but wonder how this will impact our food culture at large.

"When the news hit, we saw an immediate drop off in trade of about 30 per cent."

Restauranteurs have different ways of coping with the apparent downturn in business.

The downturn in business isn’t as simple as Australians walking away from their love of yum cha out of fear. Sitting in an otherwise empty Tina's Noodle Kitchen in the Melbourne suburb of Preston, we're served by Shirley Chen, a familiar face on the floor here. 

She maintains an upbeat demeanour but it's clear her business has been impacted, even in a place as popular as this.

Chen tells SBS Food, "We're doing fine here, but it is definitely quieter. We're lucky because we have the local Vietnamese and Australian communities who support us."

She adds that venues in suburbs like Box Hill have resorted to restricting their hours and staffing to cope with the slow down.

For many beloved eateries like Tina's, a significant volume of trade comes from international students from China and greater Asia, as well as mainland Chinese tourists.

A travel ban on foreign nationals who have recently been in mainland China is preventing students and tourists from entering the country, effectively cutting off two vital revenue streams for local businesses.

The one-two punch combo has not just slowed business, but for some like Melbourne's long-running Chinatown favourite Shark Fin House, which has just shuttered its doors after 31 years, it's a knock-out blow. 

In Sydney, Junda Khoo of Malaysian restaurant is one of many restaurateurs calling for customers from all corners to bring their wallets and appetites to Chinatown.

Khoo says, "When the news hit, we saw an immediate drop off in trade of about 30 per cent. 

"People are avoiding Chinatown because of fear," he says.

Australia's Department of Health had confirmed 15 cases of the virus in the country at the time of publication. 

"We have never been so affected by fear."

Khoo adds, "We're now at a 41 per cent drop because everyone is afraid to be where the Chinese are and people [of Chinese background] are staying home because they think it's safer.

"We have never been so affected by fear," he says of the drop from 600 to 700 covers a day, adding how badly he feels for smaller or lesser-known restaurants who are at a greater risk of not making it.  

Chinese venues aren't the only ones feeling a kick in the guts.

Melbourne chef and restaurateur Jerry Mai is known for her deliciously vibrant Vietnamese and Thai influenced cuisine.

Her newest venture, Vietnamese eatery Bia Hoi, is located in Glen Waverley in Melbourne, and Mai says its current drop in trade has forced her to make a heartfelt plea via social media.

"Bia Hoi is down 80 per cent, and our CBD venues are down by 50 per cent", she says.

"I have spent a lot of time and money helping charity dinners and events. I am also first to put my hand to help with struggling farmers and fire relief. My question now is, who will help me and my Asian restaurant colleagues when we are in a time of need?"

It's a valid question and one that anyone with cash and an appetite for good food is invited to answer, with many chefs like Khoo and Mai as well as Dan Hong and Shannon Martinez and more, taking to their social media accounts to compel diners to remember their favourite Asian venues when it comes to dining out right now.

The effect on staffing, suppliers and producers means the entire chain of hospitality is feeling the sting of the slow down.

It's a sobering moment for Australian food, but there is a small upside for local consumers, at least for now. Luxury produce that is imported to China, such as top-notch lobster, is currently available at compelling prices, due to the sharp drop in export demand.

This has been a hefty blow for Australia's live seafood export industry. While it's unlikely to be sustainable for our fishers in the Torres Strait Islands, which presents a huge concern, lobster dishes are now being served at more affordable prices. 

Khoo says, "It's actually a great time to go out. You can get a table without waiting… and we finally get to eat export-grade [produce] at affordable prices."

As media campaigns and hashtags jump on the bandwagon to rescue this part of the industry, it’s even more impetus to visit your favourite Chinese restaurant, if ever there was one.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @fooderati Facebook/fooderati, Instagram @fooderati.

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