• An illustration of dishes at We Wok. (Joyce Cheng)Source: Joyce Cheng
As panic about COVID-19 led to empty Chinatown restaurants everywhere, two Sydney designers were inspired to start More of Something Good – a site that celebrates the noodle, curry and pho joints worth supporting.
Lee Tran Lam

3 Jun 2020 - 10:17 AM  UPDATED 5 Jun 2020 - 1:31 PM

In February, Mike Souvanthalisith and Muriel-Ann Ricafrente noticed something strange as they passed Ho Jiak in Sydney's Chinatown.

Ricafrente says, "We remember walking past one night and going, 'whoa, what the hell, there's no line there!' for the first time ever."

At the nearby Friday night markets, the long queue for takoyaki was fast-tracked because there was barely anyone around.

Their favourite Korean barbecue restaurant – which usually requires a patience-testing wait of three hours to get through the door – was weirdly queue-less. "We got seats straight away. And even then it was half empty," she says.

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They knew something was up and gradually realised that people were avoiding Asian restaurants out of a misguided fear you could contract coronavirus by dining at such venues (this panic led to empty Chinatowns across the world and saw Chinese institutions such as Melbourne's Shark Fin House closing after 31 years of trading). 

Given how potentially dangerous the virus can be, it was understandable that people were worried about contracting it. But even in late January, when three coronavirus cases had been recorded in NSW, there was an overinflated fear that anyone Asian might be carrying COVID-19.

"It really hit me when I read an article where an elderly Chinese man had died from a heart attack in [January, in Sydney's] Chinatown because no one would give him resuscitation because of coronavirus," says Ricafrente.

Souvanthalisith says he was noticing an increase in anti-Asian sentiment, "similar to that Pauline Hanson era of yellow peril" in the 1990s.

"We found a Wikipedia page as well, called 'Xenophobic attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic'. It catalogues every single news article that comes out around the world, where someone in the Asian community has been targeted," he says. At the time of publication, it had listed nearly 400 stories.

As designers with Asian-Australian backgrounds – Ricafrente has Filipino roots and Souvanthalisith's cultural background includes Lao, Thai and Chinese heritage – they felt the need to do something.

And that's how More of Something Good began.

The website is an online celebration of Asian restaurants: its pages are like a picture-packed menu you might pick up in Chinatown, except each image is an illustration by a local artist, paying a visual tribute to their favourite Asian dish – whether it's northeastern Thai fermented sausages with glutinous rice from Sydney's Yok Yor Thai Food Factory, "wife cake" (a traditional Cantonese melon pastry) from Melbourne's Nam Loong Chinese Restaurant or chicken katsu curry from Uchiwa Japanese Cuisine in Melbourne.

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Ricafrente and Souvanthalisith make several contributions under Studio Mimu – the name they give passion projects generated outside of their day jobs at Frost*collective design agency.

Their animated ode to the XO pipis with Chinese doughnuts at Ling Nan in Melbourne's Chinatown, defends the restaurant against its rather opinionated online critics. The disposable butcher's paper tablecloths, the unromantic fluorescent lights and the take-it-or-leave-it service are part of the restaurant's charm, says Souvanthalisith.

"I love that Ling Nan gets one-star reviews because of customer service," he says. "You don't go to an Asian restaurant and expect to be loved, you go to an Asian restaurant and you earn their love – the same way Asian kids have to earn their love [from Asian parents]!"

Souvanthalisith also offers an anime-inspired illustration of Pho Hung Vuong's pho. The dish connects him to where he grew up: Springvale, the Melbourne suburb where many Vietnamese immigrants settled four decades ago. "I'm so proud to call it home," he says. While his mother's pho rates as the best, Pho Hung Vuong's is a "close second". It's also the only place his mother will allow them to order pho.

One memorable contribution to More of Something Good is Chanel Tang's illustration of Roast Duck Inn's duck on rice.

Chanel Tang's illustration.

"She talks about coming from New Zealand [and] not having any other Chinese restaurants around," says  Souvanthalisith. Her family found themselves in Melbourne's Richmond, unsure where to eat, so they picked the restaurant nearest to where their car was parked – Roast Duck Inn – and ordered the roast duck on rice, which was only $5 a plate. "It was so good that they'd come back every time for the next 15 years," he says.

Ricafrente didn't grow up with Asian restaurants: there was only one Chinese restaurant near her western Sydney home, but she always assumed it was closed because its lights were so dim. "So I never went there!" And despite her heritage, the first time she entered a Filipino restaurant was last year – when she went to Rey's Place. So, being able to showcase Asian restaurants through More of Something Good now, in her twenties, is especially meaningful.

"You don't go to an Asian restaurant and expect to be loved, you go to an Asian restaurant and you earn their love."

Although the pair's site is driven by artist contributions, the pair has also asked chefs (such as Mr Wong's Dan Hong, Belles Hot Chicken's Morgan McGlone and Lee Ho Fook's Victor Liong) to suggest Asian restaurants worth supporting during this coronavirus pandemic.

Hong's recommendations were too convincing: Ricafrente found herself ordering from Ho Jiak just an hour after illustrating the char kway teow that Hong had talked up (she did go for the "non-bougie" version and not the ritzy marron one he named, though).

By listing restaurant contact details on the site, Souvanthalisith and Ricafrente hope people will support Asian restaurants by ordering takeaway through this crisis.

It's something they take to heart. They often pick up food from Sydney's Malacca Straits on Broadway instead of using a delivery app: "because you can't fit a 50-page laminated menu on Uber Eats," says Souvanthalisith.

That's the thing about these much-loved institutions: they're always offering you More of Something Good. 

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam.

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