• Lau's ox lantern design for Lunar New Year in Sydney reimagines the reliable ox to be like the Japanese ‘maneki-neko’ or beckoning cat. (Supplied by Chrissy Lau)Source: Supplied by Chrissy Lau
Artist, Chrissy Lau, grew up in her parents' Chinese takeaway shop, sharing two cultural identities. She tells SBS how her 'waving ox' lantern design in Sydney's Lunar Festival pays homage to Chinese Australians who grew up in their parent's food business, torn between cultures.
By
Chrissy Lau, Presented by
Yasmin Noone

9 Feb 2021 - 11:18 PM  UPDATED 1 Feb 2022 - 3:02 AM

I grew up in a Chinese takeaway shop.

When I was four years old, we moved from the fishing port town of Grimsby in England to Hull, where mum and dad started their takeaway shop. They served fish and chips in the day to cater for English eating habits and Chinese food at night.

My parents worked really hard, all of the time, so I was always at the takeaway shop helping them. I remember sitting in the kitchen, watching my dad work before he would say ‘you can chop the mushrooms’, ‘serve the customers’, or ‘count the float’. He taught me to fry the chips and flip the fried rice in the wok. 

Experiencing hunger as children motivated them to make food abundant in my childhood. 

Both my parents grew up poor and didn’t have much to eat growing up. My dad was born in a small village in China but escaped to Hong Kong at age 10 for a better life. My mum was born in Hong Kong and was raised by her grandparents.  

Experiencing hunger as children motivated them to make food abundant in my childhood. They preferred their kids to be over-full rather than to ever feel the pain of hunger, as they did in their youth.

I remember I’d be allowed to eat any piece of food in the takeaway shop –there would be western Chinese dishes like curries, sweet and sour chicken and fried rice – and I’d eat as much as I wanted. At home, we’d enjoy more traditional Chinese foods. There would be a lot of rice; healthy soups; tofu and bean curd.

We always used to celebrate Lunar New Year. I remember the red packets with money in it and a table full of food. My favourite dishes were steamed fish, and chicken with soy sauce, ginger and spring onion.

Every Lunar New Year, we would also have plenty of oranges. They were used as an offering to attract wealth but dad never just bought one or two. He’d buy a giant box of them so we’d end up eating loads. Dad just wanted us to enjoy food and always feel full.

Racism and my cultural identity

Growing up in a Chinese takeaway shop was about more than food. It inspired a work ethic. At a very young age, I became a mini-business person. I also ended up being the English translator for my parents.

Having two identities, English and Chinese, I didn’t really belong anywhere culturally. If I went to China or Hong Kong, they’d see me as a foreigner because I dress and act differently. In England, I was always seen as a foreigner because I look different.

At school, kids were always intrigued by my drawings and just saw me as a creative person. But outside of school, almost every day in England, somebody would tell me to ‘go back to my own country’. I was never scared – I would respond ‘I was born here’. As soon as they’d hear I had a strong northern English accent, they'd run away.

Once I moved to Sydney in 2007, I became anonymous: I was just another Chinese person. To be honest, I really enjoyed that feeling.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to embrace my heritage and feel lucky that I live in such a multicultural country like Australia.

The multicultural waving ox

This year, I was commissioned by the City of Sydney to design two giant Ox Lanterns that will appear in Dixon Street Mall as part of the Sydney Lunar Festival.

The lanterns reimagine the reliable ox to be like the Japanese ‘maneki-neko’, or beckoning cat. Everyone who has ever been to a Chinese takeaway shop or restaurant will know this waving cat.

The beckoning cat is usually the first thing you see on the counter before you give your order or take a seat. It’s welcoming and nostalgic. Just like Lunar New Year, the Japanese symbol used throughout all of Asia is multicultural. It’s also something from our childhood that we can all embrace.

My ox design, created to mark the Year of the Ox, is a nod to the unique upbringing of Asian-Australian children who grew up in their parent’s restaurants and businesses, as I did.

We weren’t just kids who went to school then came home and played – we had responsibilities. That’s not a complaint. I appreciate my past as it’s made me understand the meaning of hard work and how to run my own business as an adult.

My ox design, created to mark the Year of the Ox, is a nod to the unique upbringing of Asian-Australian children who grew up in their parent’s restaurants and businesses, as I did.

Hopefully, when people of all backgrounds see my waving ox, it will trigger food memories of Chinese cuisine, from sweet and sour chicken to prawn crackers. Shared food experiences are so important for us all, as they are a gateway to conversation and a step towards learning about another person’s culture.

Lunar New Year – and the food we eat during this celebration – is all about embracing for good fortune, happiness, health, prosperity and longevity. But aren’t these hopes shared by everyone no matter your culture?

By celebrating Lunar New Year, we can create a sense of familiarity, tap into our shared hopes for the future, and embrace our multicultural society.

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