Society

Food

Guess who’s coming to dinner
MasterChef conceals and reveals Australian racism

MasterChef 2020 judge Melissa Leong

Acting immigration minister Alan Tudge believes that we are the most “successful multicultural country in the world” because one of the judges on MasterChef and some of the contestants are Chinese (they are, in fact, Australian with roots in South-East Asian countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia).

Tudge’s recent comments were made after he was asked about the Chinese government’s recommendation that Chinese international students and tourists should avoid Australia given its history of anti-Asian racism. Tudge countered these claims by saying he believes that Australia is not a racist country because, among other things, “On MasterChef at the moment … one of the judges [Singaporean-Australian Melissa Leong] is Chinese, has an ethnic Chinese background, and many of the contestants, who are hugely popular”.

Tudge’s conception of anti-Asian racism and his belief in the implausibility of it occurring in Australia are unsurprising to me as a scholar of Asian Australian studies. It fits into a long history of Australia’s careful denial and concealment of racism towards Asians and Asian Australians. The most infamous example of this, the White Australia policy, was actually a series of policies, effective until 1973, that banned non-European, mostly Asian immigrants. Crucially, it was never formally called the White Australia policy, and nor was it ever an explicit ban. As Australia discussed the bill, the British government intervened, opposing the ban on the grounds that a racist ban would be offensive to some of its colonial subjects and allies. In place of an explicitly racist ban, parliament passed the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, which required all non-Europeans seeking entry to Australia to pass a dictation test in a European language of the immigration officer’s choosing. The prospective immigrant would not be told which European language would be used until the day of the test, and the language chosen was always one that the prospective immigrant was known to have no knowledge of.

Australia’s anti-Asian racism has always been like this: disingenuous, implying deficiency of Asian immigrants rather than examining its own fear and hatred. Anti-Asian sentiment has historically been something that the whole country can unite over. The promise of a nationwide anti-Asian ban was one of the key motivators for Australian states to federate in 1901 and the Immigration Restriction Act was one of the first bills that parliament passed.

Tudge bolstered his argument by saying that “we treat people as individuals. We accept them for who they are”, adding that there is much data that shows how well we “get along”. The data Tudge cited showed that migrants had similar employment rates to non-migrants and that immigrants did better in the education system than non-migrants. This data didn’t show how well we get along, it revealed the immense pressure that non-white immigrants face to be considered “good migrants” in order retain visas, gain permanent residency and to be accepted in Australian society. It shows us that Asian Australians must constantly work at being “good Asians” – useful little engines who contribute to our society by studying, working hard and denying the racism we constantly face. Some of the actual statistics on how well we “get along” show that almost half of all students from East Asian backgrounds in Australian schools have experienced racial slurs (the highest rate of any racial group in Australia), and that 60 per cent of students have witnessed racial discrimination against their peers. The denial of Australia’s racism problem runs far deeper than Tudge’s recent comments. It is not contained in a single incident, but rather is symptomatic of the wider problem of Australia’s denial of its racism, which leads to a collective feigning of horror at racism in countries like the US while ignoring the racism on our home ground.

MasterChef is often lauded for its diversity, and it is true that it is just about the only Australian TV show where I can see people who look remotely like me, who aren’t being gratuitously sexualised or being forced to do a generic “Asian accent”. However, the fact that there are several Asian Australians on MasterChef and almost none on, say, Neighbours or The Bachelor sends a clear message to Asian Australians: We don’t want to live next door to you, touch you, get close to you or know anything about your inner lives, but we will take your food.

Australia’s rich “ethnic food” culture is frequently interpreted as a sign that contemporary Australia is a “successful multicultural country” because Asian-Australian food is desirable to white consumers. Eating and preparing so-called ethnic food is a way for white Australia to cleanse their palates, to show us how far we’ve come and how refined they are. But food is not a level playing field for non-white Australians. Whenever I hear a white person boasting about how good they are at making dumplings or their love of ramen, I wonder if they are the same white people who, as children, threw our lunches on the ground because they “smelled weird” or were “disturbing” – as my best friend in school once described a boiled yam I was eating, before asking me to put it away. The same food that makes white consumers and cooks seem refined serves to ghettoise Asian Australians.

Contemporary Australia’s revision of ethnic food from abject to exciting only remixes old colonial tropes of encountering otherness in the wild. In a recent episode of MasterChef: Back to Win, Benjamin Cooper – the executive chef of Melbourne-based fine-dining restaurant Chin Chin – challenged contestants to make his Jungle Curry dish. Cooper, introduced by the judges as a “master” and revolutioniser of Thai cuisine, described his curry as “spicy and a bit feral”, a dish that “knocked him over the head” when he first made it. Cooking and eating otherness is – for the white food adventurer – more intense, exciting and dangerous than eating European cuisine. By becoming a “master” and “revolutioniser” of Thai cuisine, Cooper has dared to discover otherness in the wild, and tamed it into a dish suitable for fine dining.

Unlike Cooper and other white chefs, “ethnic chefs” are less likely to be allowed to cross boundaries, create fine-dining dishes or “revolutionise”. Poh Ling Yeow, one of MasterChef’s most popular contestants is constantly pigeonholed as an “ethnic cook” or a “Malaysian cook”, despite describing herself as being most comfortable with French patisserie, which is the basis for her Adelaide cafe Jamface. In an interview with Richard Fidler, Yeow revealed that in her original audition for MasterChef she cooked a French Nouvelle dish, which the judges “hated”. Nouvelle cuisine, Henri Gault and Christian Millau’s rebellious break with French tradition, is famous for transforming cooking from a craft to an art. In response to Yeow’s offering of this kind of dish, the baffled judges immediately asked her about her “heritage” (“What are you doing? What’s your heritage?”), a word that describes the opposite of creative rebellion. “Heritage” in this context makes racial identity an arcane possession, preserved and protected by each new generation. The judges gave Yeow a second chance to cook something from her heritage, and only then did she make it through the audition. Yeow’s career has since been built on both her love of patisserie and her Malaysian family recipes. And Tudge is not wrong, she is “hugely popular”, but this popularity was made possible by an audition in which she was forced to choose between being (in her own words) “a cultural cliché … Asian face, Asian food” and having creative autonomy over her cooking career.

White Australia does not accept us for who we are. It accepts us when we become bite-sized versions of ourselves, then it miniaturises our achievements as the work of ethnic cooks and “good Asians”.

Jessica Zhan Mei Yu

Jessica Zhan Mei Yu is a writer of essays, poetry, fiction and scholarly work. She holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of Melbourne. 

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