Memo to self: If I ever decide to flirt with the shoals of bankruptcy and follow friends’ calls to ‘open a restaurant – you’re so good with food!’, then I’d better first run the business plan past a diversity committee including but not limited to Tim Soutphomassane, Waleed Aly and anyone who ever published a ‘hot take’ on Lionel Shriver. Otherwise, I’ll wind up like the owners of British Colonial, a new Brisbane restaurant who set up a sort of cocktail-tapas-restaurant, in their words, ‘inspired by the stylish days of the empirical push into the developing cultures of the world, with the promise of adventure and modern, refinement in a safari style setting.’
The times being what they are, this caused great outrage in those corners of the internet where people learn their history off the back of a granola box (and really, it’s not like the owners went and opened a Congolese bistro and called it King Leopold’s). It wasn’t long before some people got angry about the whole thing and had a spew online about how evil European exploration was, what terrible brutes the English were, and so on. The comments were dutifully picked up by the press, ‘outrage’ being as much a legitimate beat for the young journalist today as ‘police’ or ‘courts’ were in centuries past. A writer from the Brisbane Times – ironically herself with the rather pukka sahib byline of Amy Mitchell-Whittington – clipped and pasted the comments of the offended into an article (‘Racism has become so normalised that peolpe (sic) have no idea just how insensitive their actions and words are’ pretty much capturing the flavour), the restaurant apologised, and everyone went on with their lives.
But if this sort of thing happens with depressing frequency, this particular episode leaves some unanswered questions. First off, if restaurants now have to carry the burden of ‘correct’ historical instruction along with everything else, then really there should have been more concern when recently the PR kids enlisted by a new World War II era-themed bar in Sydney shopped around to the local booze press a line about ‘being transported to Paris, 1944’. Of course, without any more specificity as to month it meant that prospective customers would not know whether they might find themselves seated next to costumed GIs on their way to Berlin singing ‘Hitler Has Only Got One Ball’ or Gauleiters belting out the Horst Wessel song. (Perhaps the controversy never went anywhere because someone remembered they were in Sydney, where any such public exuberance is squelched faster than Captain Renault shut down Rick’s Café Americain, and everyone quickly forgot the whole thing.)
But more importantly, the case of British Colonial shines a telling light on the double standards of those who tell us what is and is not OK – something which often involves publishing manifestos with the title, ‘such-and-such is not OK’. Of course everyone has their blind spots but for the offenderati, for whom every event is graded on a sliding scale of oppression that judges crimes exponentially less harshly the further one gets from the West, some spots are blinder than others.
For example, I note the existence of the Chairman Mao Chinese Restaurant in Kensington, a Sydney suburb popular with students attending the nearby University of NSW. Whatever depredations the British may have committed in the course of empire, there’s plenty of room for ambiguity and arch ‘what have the Romans ever done for us’ commentary in that story; not so much when it comes to the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. So, I recently wondered, have the Punchy McPunchscreens ever arced up? Practising the new-new journalism, I pointed my browser to the Facebook page of Chairman Mao’s. Having recently read Frank Dikotter’s magisterial if depressing as hell study of the Cultural Revolution, I wondered just how historically accurate the restaurants owners – or would that be capitalist running dogs? – might make the theme. Big-character posters (helpfully translated into English, but written in that old Chinese menu font) all over the walls exhorting to ‘Criticise Lin Biao! Criticise Confucius!’? Diners who hold investment properties risking being forced into the ‘jet-plane’ position so that other diners could throw things at them and abuse them? And, more to the point, would anyone be outraged about the use of the name of an historical monster who directly and indirectly killed millions upon millions of his own citizens?
Not surprisingly, the answer to all three questions was, ‘No’.
Instead, Chairman Mao’s Facebook reviews are pretty much all positive. ‘Great food service. Will be going back with more friends. Loved my visit to China and to this restaurant’, wrote one diner. ‘Most excellent dining find! Classical menu – finely sliced pig ear, spicy seaweed salad, beer braised duck, and eggplant with green chilli sauce. Amazing!’. Of course, being the Internet, someone’s always having a whinge, with a one-star customer complaining, ‘an absolute joke! service couldn’t get any “better”! Go to Hoh Won up the road, always busy… great service and better food!’
Which despite the crimes of its namesake is probably a saner reaction than that meted out to British Colonial. It is becoming depressingly clear that the kitchen is becoming a political battleground, a depressing prospect if ever there was one. Recall that while we laugh about these things when we hear of them happening in the US, a few years back the University of Sydney had a sombrero controversy of its own over a Mexican theme night. It is a wonder that the beloved family tradition of ‘taco night’ has not been ‘shut down’, that an Occupy Aisle 6 (or wherever the Old El Paso stuff lives) movement hasn’t done more damage to the big supermarkets than a thousand campaigns by dairy farmers. And that’s without contemplating how ‘problematic’ Australia’s growing love of southern-US style barbeque threatens to become.
Sadly there is little we can do but keep our heads down and eat, voting with our dollars to keep politics off the plate, which is the last place it belongs. I do know one thing, though. If British Colonial ever does shut up shop as its detractors surely hope, at least whomever takes it over will not only have a fully-fitted out kitchen but also good roads, common law, a working parliamentary system, schools, hospitals…
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