Cooking up controversy
29 November 2009
Sydney celebrity chef Kylie Kwong has known the heavy hand of Chinese officialdom. On her last trip to China, the customs officer at Chengdu airport in Sichuan province in the country’s southwest was suspicious about what she wore and what she carried.
It was March 2008, the month Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao accused the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama of masterminding several days of demonstrations in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, that had begun on the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule.
China was claiming rioters in Lhasa killed 13 people that month; Tibetan exiles were saying as many as 99 had died in clashes with authorities.
Kwong, the telegenic owner of the Billy Kwong restaurant in Sydney’s Crown Street, Surry Hills and a third-generation Chinese-Australian, had taken a food tour group to China which had been forced because of the riots to cancel a side trip to Tibet. She’d made it to Tibet twice before, in 2005.
The atmosphere was intense as the customs officer at Chengdu closely inspected the book Kwong was carrying; the Lonely Planet
guide. “He flicked through
page,” recalls Kwong. “There was a super-sensitivity, because they were looking for pictures of His Holiness.
“I had one of my Tibetan jackets on. ‘Where did you get it?’ he asked me. ‘When did you go there?’ I’d actually bought the jacket in Yunnan province, where a lot of Tibetans live.”
Now, at age 40, Kwong, a practising Buddhist, has days when she wonders if she’ll be allowed to enter China again after her recent decision to welcome the Dalai Lama and be master of ceremonies when he gives a public lecture at the Sydney Entertainment Centre on Thursday December 3.
Of Cantonese lineage, Kwong loves the Chinese people and indulging in their cultures, but doesn’t hold back from her political views on the country her great-grandfather the herbalist and gold prospector Kwong Sue Duck departed in 1875 to come to Darwin with his four concurrent wives, making Australia home and having 24 children here.
“Just because I’m Chinese by blood doesn’t mean I’m going to agree with the government and the policies of China,” says Kwong, sitting at a table in the restaurant she opened nine years ago.
“I’ve seen a lot of how China works,” she says; her first trip to China was in 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square uprising by Chinese students. “What I will say is I absolutely disagree with the Chinese Government and [its treatment of] human rights I find absolutely appalling.
“That is another reason why I accepted to do this day with the Dalai Lama and why I actively promote it; I speak about it publicly at the risk it may prevent me going back into the country. But that is how strongly I feel.”
Kwong recently won the inaugural 2009 Sustainability Award from the
Good Food Guide
, and the evidence of that focus is all around her restaurant: from a completely organic and biodynamic pantry, to her replacement of oyster and hoisin sauces with additive- and preservative-free alternatives, to encouraging Billy Kwong diners to donate to a renewable energy farm project in the Chinese province of Heibi.
Her food, apart from Thai rice, is all Australian-sourced. She rattles off the story of her carrot provider, the Toowoomba organic farm pioneer Rob Bauer who was convinced by the cancer that killed his farmer father and four other farmers in the region to reject farming pesticides and herbicides. Kwong then waxes enthusiastically over her next project, a mooted city farm at Glebe’s Harold Park, still subject to Sydney Council approval.
The root of all this sustainability talk is Kwong’s Buddhism: she was introduced to Buddhist precepts several years ago by her restaurant maitre’d, Kin Chen [Kin Chen,ok], a small, slight man whose head is shaven apart from a little tuft at the centre.
One day she noticed how effortlessly Chen glided around the restaurant, seating diners at their tables, so she sat him down and asked: “Tell me about your practice; I want a bit of that magic.”
Chen, who is sashaying around the restaurant now as Kwong speaks, briefly offers this explanation: “It’s all inter-related – how we work, how we conduct ourselves.” Today, Kwong regularly meditates and takes regular classes conducted by Khandro Thrinlay Chodon, a Sydney-based female lay Buddhist practitioner of Tibetan descent.
The clarity of mind has sharpened her critical faculties when considering China’s own issues with sustainability as the country has run full-tilt towards capitalism. “I hope China and India will come to the table at [the UN Conference on Climate Change in] Copenhagen a little bit more – they certainly need to because they’re the biggest polluters,” she says.
“When I went to China all of those times the only province that was sustainable was Yunnan province, and the rest of the provinces were pretty scary. I mean, I was in Beijing and sometimes couldn’t see ten feet in front of me.
“I’m hoping the Chinese Government can come towards more clearly seeing the bigger picture as opposed to just the power and the economy and the money.”
The Chinese government may not be the only ones unhappy with Kwong’s approach; a few food bloggers complain of her cultural insensitivity through a lack of Cantonese or Mandarin speaking skills when filming in China and her reliance on an interpreter – learning the languages “is just not in my life plan”, Kwong reasons – while another internet foodie critic objects that her cooking “lumps everything together and calls it Chinese”.
Kwong responds: “I try to stay true to my heart, true to the produce available in this country … so whatever comes out is modern Chinese, or Chinese-Australian.”
Has Chinese cuisine deserved its bad rap over the years? “When I opened my restaurant Chinese cuisine had a pretty bad profile; it was the MSG-laden, gloopy fluorescent sweet and sour sauces, and the chop suey – I don’t even know what that is. But Chinese cuisine can actually be very sophisticated and beautiful; the art of poaching the whole chicken and steaming the whole fish.”
In China, however, Kwong discovered “90 per cent of Chinese households, restaurants and street stalls all use MSG” because of frugal habits enforced by Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution but also because today some “lazy” young chefs would rather grab a quick teaspoon of MSG than have purer flavours simmer for hours.
Back home, Kwong still hopes to have “three or four children” – her mother Pauline and late father Maurice both came from families of 10 children – and dreams of cooking for them as well as her extended family and serving up on a big French provincial rustic table at home. She loves cooking Italian as much as Chinese.
At present, though, she doesn’t have a partner. What to make then of Sydney drag queen Mitzi Macintosh’s column in the gay newspaper SX last December, in which Macintosh wrote about a party thrown at the ivy by
for its Top 100 most influential Sydneysiders issue: “All the lesbians flocked about Kylie Kwong like moths to a flame”?
“Oh, right,” says Kwong, momentarily stunned by the quote. “That doesn’t bother me.
“There have always been speculations about what one is, who one is and whatever. I’ve always just tried to be myself. What other people say about me doesn’t even touch the sides.”