Feeding Darwin...

Canton Café, Cavenagh Street, Darwin, n.d. c.1940s

Darwin was multicultural, but after Federation and the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia, Chinese Territory families, most of whom were descendants of gold seekers who had came to the Territory in the 1880s, were prohibited from taking government contracts. This was an outcome of what would become infamous as the ‘White Australia Policy’.

The Chinese population of the Top End, which from earliest days had always worked in many areas outside mining including construction, pastoral and agricultural, were restricted to service delivery and supply. In the period between the wars, the Chinese of Darwin became famous for the thriving businesses and retail areas of Cavenagh Street. In particular, many long-term Darwin residents recall with pleasure the Chinese cafés where everyone ate.

There were a number of these including the popular Australian and Imperial Cafés,which specialised in both English and Chinese food run by the Gee Fong brothers, who provided a value meal for just 1/9d. The Imperial Café was supplied with fresh eggs from ‘Grannie’ Lum Loy (Lee Toy Kim) who ran a chicken farm at ‘Police Paddock’ in Stuart Park. The ‘squash’ or cool drink shop, operated by Chin Loong Tang for Sun Hing Kee and Company in Cavenagh Street sold a very popular non-alcoholic Hop Beer brewed in Darwin by the family.

Ray Foskey arrived in Darwin in 1939. He recalled:

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I must also tell you that we had pretty good Chinese restaurants that we – they weren’t restaurants, they were actually boarding houses to a point. Some had – they were two stores some of them, there was a oh, the Eastern Café, the one where I used to eat. That only cost 30 bob. I am now gone back to the time before moving out to Joe Ruddick’s place. We’d come from Mindil Beach up to the Eastern Café and it was run by a bloke by the name of Danny Chuk. Harry was his brother, and another – there were three brothers actually ran it, and they only used to charge – with your lunch all thrown in, 30 bob a day – 30 bob a week – and I can remember their menu still very well, which was roast beef, corned beef, ham and brawn, and curry rice, plus two other dishes…

No, no, it was English, it was all English. We had sweets, and you had soup, tea and coffee, it was generally ice cream and jelly and some fruit salad or something like this – always a very, very special meal. Had two Christmases – Christmas dinner the traditional way of ours, and we would have the Chinese one with them...

[Northern Territory Archives Service NTRS 226, TS 212 and NTRS 219, TP 119, Ray Foskey]

A Merry Xmas at the Canton Café, Darwin, 1939

Jacquie O’Brien also remembered the wonderful snacks from the Chinese cafes:

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We used to be able to get milk blocks from the Chinese shops – or ice blocks and they’d be either, of course, condensed or powdered milk; they’d be made of all raspberry or just cordial poured in and frozen; and these we would buy for a penny each. The Chinese also sold the most beautiful little pastry curry pies that were tuppence each, that were a delight to all the children and of course the adults as well.

[Northern Territory Archives Service NTRS 226, TS 98 and NTRS 219 TP 256, Jacqueline O’Brien]

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