June 2022

Vox

Succulent Chinese meme

By Dean Biron
The untold story behind ‘Democracy Manifest’, the nation’s most famous meme

The tenuous nature of memory has never been portrayed more subtly than in Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway. Early in the story the appearance in London of a mysterious motor vehicle captivates passers-by, only some of whom catch a glimpse of its occupant – “a face of the very greatest importance” – before a blind is drawn over the window. Was it the Queen? The prime minister? Though no one is certain, rumours as to the person’s identity disperse through the crowd “invisibly, inaudibly, like a cloud”. Each witness departs the scene with their own account of the incident, which they will swear by for the remainder of their days.

We all retain a store of significant recollections that for whatever reason transcend the minutiae of our day-to-day existence. For instance, lately I have been thinking quite a bit about something that took place on Friday, October 11, 1991. On that day I became embroiled in a trifling episode outside a restaurant, a farce interspersed with a melee, that no one other than the participants would remember were it not for the presence of a television camera. Three decades on, the affair has become an inescapable online phenomenon known as “Democracy Manifest” or “Succulent Chinese Meal”.

Though a bare flicker in celestial terms, 31 years is a near eternity for us humans. Over the intervening period, the corrosive nature of time certainly has done its work on me, and the others involved are now little more than phantoms adrift in the mists of history.

The video, on the other hand, has outfoxed time. It is unequivocal, undeniable: nothing can derail that piece of accidental cinema as it races further into viral infamy. Its star is a portly, middle-aged fellow of imposing presence, hamming it up for the audience as a cluster of bemused cops try to restrain him. “Gentlemen,” he declares, addressing the media, “this is democracy manifest!” And to his assailants: “What is the charge? Eating a meal? A succulent Chinese meal?”

Today many people seem unsure how to act without a camera in front of them; back then, most would be reduced to awkward reticence in the presence of one. Not this guy, though. He had his shiraz-emboldened amateur thespianism down cold, and for sheer blue-blooded resentment makes Donald Trump circa November 2020 look like a novice.

“Get your hand off my penis!” he hollers at one point, as a young detective ducks down with a view to manoeuvring our hero feet first into a police vehicle. A terminal introvert, I wonder if even in the heat of that moment I was sufficiently aware of the camera’s leering eye to try to get myself beyond the frame. (And, for the record, I didn’t go anywhere near it.)

Yes, that’s me playing anonymous extra in the Citizen Kane of viral videos, trying to persuade Australia’s very own Orson Welles to exit the stage in the midst of his greatest performance. (In stentorian tones as my fellow officers and I wrestle him into the car: “I see that you know your judo well.”) That’s my memory tumbling through cyberspace, as unshakable as my own shadow and available for scrutiny by every digital citizen on the planet.

It came as no surprise recently to learn that the protagonist did some bit-part acting in his youth. Revelling in his flash of online fame, he is now making a respectable buck doing interviews, taking part in music videos and churning out a series of facile paintings of the event.

In 2019, Guardian Australia called Succulent Chinese Meal “perhaps the pre-eminent Australian meme of the past 10 years”. Now there is Democracy Manifest wine (“Get your hand off my pinot”), T-shirts, carry bags and notebooks. There’s a horse called Democracy Manifest grinding around the provincial racing circuit, while a brewery took to marketing a “Succulent Chinese Meal” sour beer. A composer fashioned an orchestral accompaniment to the incident, and YouTube even has a Trump version, the lameness of which confirms one’s worst fears about the internet’s rabid proliferation.

As the video has spread across the web, the accompanying narrative has solidified into urban folklore. Roland Barthes once called the text accompanying photographic images “parasitic”. In this case, the tale is more like an out-of-control rocket, barrelling through the ether too quickly for the facts to catch up. So, as the spectacle grows more universal by the month – almost 3 million views, 74,000 likes, 2500-plus comments, and that’s just for the original – it’s mildly annoying to know that much of what’s on the record is, as Captain Haddock would say, bilge from stem to stern.

Admittedly there are greater indignities to get worked up about than a comic Gen-Y zombie resurrected by the internet and sustained by a steady diet of shares and retweets. Still, having come this far I may as well point out some of the more obvious holes in the published script. It didn’t happen in 1990, as Wikipedia insists. (They got the decade right, at least.) The whole thing wasn’t a “bungled police sting”. (Thanks for assuming some level of organisation, but in truth it was no more than a tiresome diversion from the fraud squad’s standard Friday afternoon at the pub. Before being called to help uniformed police sort out some incident downtown, we’d never even heard of the guy.)

When we arrived at the Chinese restaurant, there were news media in attendance outside, suggesting he’d already caused a scene. The constables weren’t sure what to do with him. Allegedly his sole offence was to skip out on paying for a meal, but that’s more horseshit. True enough, police have an unwritten rule that the more objectionable the crime and guilty the perpetrator, the more docile they will be. Serial killers typically respond to arrest with blank gazes and remarkable restraint. Innocent lambs, however, tend to come on like enraged lions. That this character put on a turn to rival Gordon Ramsay confronted by a collapsed soufflé might have suggested he had nothing to hide, but the reality proved somewhat different. If he wasn’t exactly Bernie Madoff, he sure as heck wasn’t Mother Teresa either.

It’s all written down in the journal I used to keep – and have kept, God knows why, to this day – recording every criminal case I was ever involved in. There isn’t a lot on this one: a name, or rather alias (Cecil George Edwards); the date; what he was ultimately charged with (19 counts of fraud and receiving stolen goods); and the amounts involved (totalling some $70,000).

We had the complainants, we had the evidence, we had him cold – until we turned up for court the next day to find some dolt of a watchhouse keeper had released him on overnight bail. After which he vanished – like Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects but without the finesse – until decades later when he re-emerged, somehow scrubbed clean of that pesky past and ready to take possession of his 15 minutes.

The next case I got tangled up in was a hotshot solicitor who’d pocketed more than $3 million from his clients then hightailed it overseas, surrendering most of the money to a Las Vegas casino before entering into an ill-advised pact with a plastic surgeon in Mexico. A bigger story, no doubt; more newsworthy in both detail and fiscal scale. Even so, back in 1991, 70 grand wasn’t exactly chickenfeed. Mr Democracy Manifest, who claims his misdemeanours amounted to no more than dodging the bill on the odd lunchtime banquet, need not be so modest about his malfeasance.

Not that any of this matters today. When it comes down to it, who among us does not have past indiscretions that might one day resurface for all of society to gloat over? If, 31 years on, old Cecil (or Jack, as he calls himself these days) has come out the other side of our brief encounter in unexpectedly robust shape, then good luck to him.

Besides, is my “truth” worth more than what has thus far been fumbled together by a few flimsy newshounds? We all risk retreating at times into the narrow perspective of individual experience – like those unreliable witnesses in Mrs Dalloway, we’re reluctant to admit that the face in the window may be nothing other than our own reflection. Weighed down by a further three decades of toil, turmoil and torpor, my recollection is as prone to touch-ups as one of Jack’s watercolours of the scene.

Moreover, it ought to be admitted that in 1991 I was rooted in an organisation still reeling from a history of corruption ( just weeks earlier, Queensland’s former police commissioner had been sentenced to 14 years’ jail), still stained by entwinement with a bumbling totalitarian government (epitomised by a 1989 “obscenity” raid on a city record store that netted a sad haul of Guns N’ Roses albums). As the far more notorious Rodney King footage from the same year suggested, in the digital age it would become ever more difficult to differentiate the saviours from the scoundrels, the oppressors from the oppressed.

In the context of 16 years as a detective, October 11, 1991 never kept me awake at night. The young woman stabbed in her bed, her corpse bloated and blackened after lying unnoticed for a week in her apartment. The twin infants of skin and bone, half-starved in their cots while the parents played videogames outside. The man in a hotel room, smartly dressed and neatly shaved, everything in apple-pie order up to and including his chin, above which the remainder of his head had been propelled into oblivion by the shotgun still gripped in his hands. Those are the kinds of movies that screened over and over in my head until I reached the last frontier – another bashed baby or molested child, I can’t remember which – and stumbled off to find something else to do with my life.

But in the context of Jack’s big moment, I am of the utmost inconsequence. Nor do the whys and wherefores of the Succulent Chinese Meal meme – the lead-up to those 69 seconds, and all that happened after – matter much. Forget Tutankhamun and the Dead Sea Scrolls: today we have fresh archaeological sites, and as we retreat into an ersatz online world, scavenging the web for images to divert us from an unpalatable present, historical context tends to become irrelevant. The only questions that matter are: Is it amusing? Is it lewd? Is it violent? (The Holy Grail, presumably, being all three at once.) Jack’s comical indignation is all that keeps this cyber-vessel afloat, leaving both fact and myth bobbing along in its wake.

Yet despite our distinct roles in the endlessly circulating drama, in the end Jack and I reduce to the same thing – pixelated playdough for viewers to sculpt into their own stories. Maybe that helps explain why on hearing Jack interviewed today, I find myself identifying with some of his modest philosophical musings. “Democracy is hypocritical and not what it’s made out to be,” he suggests, and it takes just a half hour or so tuned in to the parliamentary debate channel to validate that insight. “We didn’t rob the poor, we only robbed the scum who are robbing us,” he says, and even as I detect more than a hint of Robin Hood revisionism in that claim, it can’t be denied that putting the finger on the true villains of epic-scale capitalism is proving about as easy as relieving Leatherface in full flight of his chainsaw.

One report claims Democracy Manifest “has never been proven to be a real arrest”. And, in a way, that’s true. In a world beset by an inequality that thrives on pitting against each other people with more similarities than differences, what it really depicts is the downtrodden scrapping among themselves while the fat cats bask in all the distraction. At least that’s how I remember it.

Dean Biron

Dean Biron teaches at Queensland University of Technology’s School of Justice.

 

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