I grew up in Sunshine, a suburb 15 kilometres west of Narrm (Melbourne). I want to take you down its main street – Hampshire Road – with my memories of having lived here for the better part of 40 years. I arrived in Australia as a baby refugee from Vietnam in the late 1970s. As much as I am grateful for my life here, I know that I’m living on stolen lands and have a duty to build a better path with First Nations people.
The late 1990s
I’m walking to Sunshine train station on my way to university, passing my first two employers located along Hampshire Road.
There’s Sizzler: home of the salad bar, grilled meats, and Proustian cheese bread. My shifts there consisted of topping up the endless variety of cold salads and keeping the soups, pasta and fried potato skins piping hot.
It was my first job. The only potential barrier had been my age. At 16, I was considered ‘old’ by Sizzler management and had to reassure them during my interview that I’d be comfortable taking instructions from younger people.
Looking back, I miss the humour of the salad bar crew and the things we concocted when the potato skins ran out (deep-fried spaghetti was a surprise hit). I miss the promise of the dessert bar – laden with apple crumbles, bread and butter puddings, soft-serve, sprinkles and sauces – Pizza Hut’s version had nothing on it.
I don’t miss the Friday nights spent cleaning the soft-serve machine or the early Saturday mornings dicing 10 kilograms of tomatoes for the weekend salsa. I don’t miss the hazards of working with Very Hot Things, made real one hectic night when two tureens of chicken noodle soup emptied directly onto my shins.
At 18, I’d aged out of my Sizzler job and took up employment with Chilli Hut, a cosy Malaysian restaurant near the train station.
I was that Nirvana-loving local kid, reading Kurt Vonnegut behind the counter, playing community radio – taking orders of beef rendang, mee goreng, and sago gula Melaka.
Preparing a drinks order one night, I muttered "Coca-Cola, we’ve run out of glasses" and realised I’d been acting out Faye Wong’s role in Chungking Express (apart from trespassing into a policeman’s apartment and moving things around).
I moved back to Sunshine with my fledgeling family. I subconsciously slid into routines my mum had laid down in the 1980s. Growing up, she told us the essentials for getting through a Melbourne winter were dark chocolate and instant noodles.
Mum was from the tropics, a city person of Saigon. She spent the bone-chilling winter nights here glued to the Vulcan wall heater in the lounge room. Our favourite storytimes were spent around that heater, listening to tales of the rabbit in the moon, watching TVB productions of The Legend of the Condor Heroes.
I’ve revisited all my old haunts on Hampshire Road, crisscrossing memories of changing shops over the last three decades.
Sunshine Pizza turns into Walia Ibex.
Safak Kebab turns into Pho Cuu Long.
Dial-a-Mr Wong turns into Just Vegan.
The Hot Bread Kitchen turns into KA Pies, then Afghan Bread Sunshine.
Chilli Hut turned into Desi Hut, then Lan Anh Bakery.
Sizzler was briefly a Bells Restaurant, then a Lone Star steak house before realising its ultimate destiny as Gold Leaf – Sunshine’s premier yum cha offering.
Diamond Palace remains forever Diamond Palace. Last year, the floor-to-ceiling red velvet curtains came down and with them the '80s chinoiserie mystique.
My destination these days is Vinh Phat for its stewed duck soup with egg noodles. It is the soul-warming soup of deepest winter. Rich, dark stock imbued with shiitake mushroom and medicinal flavours of angelica root and wolfberry. Thin noodles topped with a duck leg, bok choy and a shake of fried shallots. Served with chilli salt, fresh chilli and a lemon wedge. So many moments of communion with that soup, so many conversations.
These are the changes I am witnessing in my lifetime. I am conscious that there is an ever-present ‘before’ – before refugees, before migrants, before industrialisation, before colonisation. The 'before’ on which all this rests, 65,000 years ago.
During storytime with my child, we read Aunty Joy Murphy’s Welcome to Country. We learn we are on the lands of the Wurundjeri People. Local history cards tell us that the Marin-balluk clan was the community that first lived here. People who had tended the volcanic soil over thousands of years and cultivated foods including murnong (yam daisy), seeds and grains. These were all foods of a fertile grassland managed through fire-stick farming. Seeds and grains could be ground into flour and made into bread. Murnong was a staple food that could be left to grow and develop for years before harvesting.
I first learned about murnong on a guided walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens called Six Seasons of the Kulin Nation. It was a children’s event led by a First Nations guide. The guide told us of how local clans observed seasonal changes in plants and how those changes were connected to the timing of hunting, fishing and farming activities. The walk ended at the garden nursery with each family receiving murnong seeds to grow at home.
I am conscious that there is an ever-present ‘before’ – before refugees, before migrants, before industrialisation, before colonisation. The 'before’ on which all this rests, 65,000 years ago.
The walk and the planting are ways for my family to continue learning about Indigenous culture, history and heritage. Years earlier, the kindergarten my child attended had shown us that learning about the impacts of colonisation starts in pre-school and how respect for the traditional owners can be purposefully integrated into everyday words and actions.
I am on a video call with my colleagues. It’s a social Friday afternoon check-in. I hold up boxes and bars of chocolate to the camera. "No wonder your kid keeps coming to your desk," they say.
I say that psychologically, it feels right to have all this chocolate piled up.
Dark chocolate and instant noodles.
I am known as the person with foodie adventures in my team. The variety of local makers I can access is glorious.
Mount Zero Olives warehouse within the 5-kilometre radius.
Living Koko sourcing cacao beans from Samoa to make chocolate.
Romu collaborates with Shokupan one day for some sold-out sandwiches.
Migrant Coffee delivers bagels on the weekend.
The Original Maltese Pastizzi Co. continually dreaming up new fillings.
Vari’s Organics delivering fresh seasonal produce.
I ferry cake and sweets around on my permitted hour of outdoor exercise time. The chocolate-dipped candied orange peel goes down a treat with friends and family.
My dad asks if my tree has produced any lemons. "Not yet, dad." He responds by giving me takeaway containers filled with kumquats from his garden.
All these things I can enjoy because I’m employed and have support mechanisms in place. This is not true of everyone in this pandemic, especially people made vulnerable through the systems of settler-colonialism. Disadvantage streams from these systems through time and generations.
As a war refugee to these lands, I’m saddened to think that my comfort rests on a history of massacre, dispossession and continued discrimination of its First Nations people. I feel a duty to know whose land I’m on and to give respect to the diversity of Indigenous languages and culture.
More broadly, I’m compelled to join in the call for the enshrinement of a First Nations Voice in the Australian Constitution – by writing to my state and federal members of Parliament, talking about it with my family. It also means supporting Indigenous-owned and led initiatives to reduce disparity across a range of sectors including literacy, media and publishing.
It’s about time
I’ve walked beyond the train station to a quiet place between the train tracks and a playground. From a clearing beneath old gum trees, I can look over the tracks to a container park and disused grain silos. Before me is a field of kangaroo grass and spear grass dotted with wildflowers and hunks of grey volcanic rock.
A park sign says that this area of native grassland is part of the Western Basalt Grasslands that once covered 23,000 kilometres of south-western Victoria. Now less than 0.1 per cent of the grasslands remain.
It was these grasslands that early colonisers stole from the Wurundjeri People in order to raise sheep. The sheep destroyed the native crops by eating them to the ground and their hard hooves compacted the soil so the crops could no longer grow. Urban development drove more land clearance. Now weeds pose a threat to this most critically endangered vegetation type in Australia.
I read Bruce Pascoe’s Young Dark Emu with my child and learn how Aboriginal people had cultivated and farmed murnong in abundance on the western grasslands of Victoria. Some groups called themselves ‘grass people’ to reflect the importance of the land.
Standing in the late winter sun, I imagine what once flourished here – the food plants that sustained human life, the diversity of a healthy environment. I know that many people are working to reclaim this legacy – by planting and weeding, reviving the harvest of native crops, sharing the stories of Indigenous clans and their knowledge. I want to support these efforts by participating in the maintenance of the grasslands, supporting Indigenous-owned food businesses, and learning more local history.
When I eat, I’m consuming stories, my history and my present.
I want my family to be a part of a community that is about abundance and nourishment for everyone who calls this place home. In the stories I share, I want to give respect to the people whom this place has and always will belong.
In this place that wasn’t always called Sunshine – it’s 2020, it’s each moment of time, all the time.
This piece was originally submitted for New Voices On Food, a project dedicated to promoting diverse voices on food.