Food, by its nature, is ephemeral, and so is its history. Sometimes it’s obvious when a trend is happening (see: kale, fancy gelato, complicated doughnuts). Other times, you might look up and think, “Hey, remember the early 2000s, when every sandwich was a focaccia and hardly anyone ate sourdough?” And, the further back in time we go, the greater the challenge.
Which brings us to Flavours of Melbourne: A Culinary Biography by Charmaine O’Brien, an extremely fortuitous find in the local history shelves at the Melbourne Library. It doesn’t just contain history — it contains recipes!
I haven’t abandoned Malory Towers, but a lot of my spare time has been taken up researching another project (which is probably years away, but I’m all about the long game). Research so far mostly involves going through Melbourne newspaper archives of the 1920s — thank you, Trove — and making copies of the interesting/relevant ones.
(Fun facts: the word “nightclub” and variations thereof only appears in reviews of plays and correspondence from London, although one article notes that, despite the racy reputation of London’s nightclubs, a better source for cocaine is tea salons, the more respectable the better. And searching for “flapper” is made difficult because there was a racehorse of that name in Melbourne in the early ’20s.)
Anyway, I’ve been delighted to find excellent examples of Jazz Age thinkpieces. Are today’s youth being destroyed by too much theatre and dancing? Have moving pictures created “cinema fiends” incapable of experiencing real emotion? Why do people persist in listening to jazz in public?
After visiting the Chinese Museum on Saturday, I made my way down to the State Library to attend a free lecture, Couture: convention and conflict. The blurb:
Enjoy a journey of fashion transformation, from the Edwardian hobble skirt to the freedom of the flapper.
Dramatic social upheavals in the first decades of the 20th century brought radical shifts in the way we lived, worked and dressed. Join a fascinating discussion with fashion and history experts to discover how the suffragette movement, World War I and the increased use of bicycles, automobiles and electricity all influenced and dramatically changed fashion.
100% relevant to my interests! How could I not put my name down?
The Chinese Museum is one of my favourite places in Melbourne. Located beside Her Majesty’s Theatre, in a building which used to hold overflow from the theatre’s wardrobe, it contains four floors of Chinese-Australian history, from the gold rush to the end of the White Australia Policy.
I visited the Museum itself a few months back, but I didn’t have a chance to look closely at the shop that day. Finally, I’ve had a chance to rectify that serious omission.
(Steph interjects: WITHOUT ME, I CANNOT BELIEVE IT)
Official rebuttal from Noted Fatberg Zoe: #NOTALLFATBERGS
The Breakfast Clubbing Season – In which an intrepid ABC editor inserted talking ex-prime ministerial heads into the trailer for The Breakfast Club. Many thanks to Friend of No Award Sarah B for bringing this to our attention.
Why Grandma’s Sad, tales from the olds who need youths to get off their lawn, pay attention to grandparents, prioritise boring adults, etc etc. Steph laughed her way through this whole thing, it’s so great.
Kids spend an enormous amount of time looking at a type of device that didn’t really exist ten years ago. Among some young people, looking at these devices is the central animating activity. This is weird. Truly! Younger people are cyborgs and older people are meat, more or less.
While I’m being asked why “no one cares,” the Women’s World Cup is getting ratings that would make the NBA or Major League Baseball weep with joy. While ESPN Radio self-parody Colin Cowherd says that men are stronger and better athletes and we appreciate greatness in America and that’s why men’s sports is more fun to watch, his radio contract appears in peril because fewer and fewer people care what he has to say.
Plastic Free July update: Steph almost had a meltdown in the aisles of Minh Phat in Richmond, when she realised her choices were the following, as a Chinese-Malaysian in Australia:
Don’t cook Chinese food, keep plastic free status
Cook Chinese food, don’t keep plastic free status
Reader, she bought her oyster mushrooms grown in Victoria, wrapped in plastic and on a polystyrene board; she bought her noodles fresh made and wrapped in a plastic bag. She is going to make tofu tonight at home, so at least she has that. Anyway, cultural elements of Western society concepts that are about individualism and clash with other things, etc etc.
You see, for him and his colleagues, individual consumption wasn’t considered to be in the realm of politics at all. Power rested not in what you did as one person, but what you did as many people, as one part of a large, organized, and focused movement. For him, this meant organizing workers to go on strike for better conditions, and eventually it meant winning the right to unionize. What you ate for lunch or happened to be wearing was of absolutely no concern whatsoever.
Did you know that the archives of The Argus, once Melbourne’s premier newspaper, are digitised and available to the public? If you’re a giant nerd like me, this is a great opportunity to roll around in history for a while.
Now, I’ve been curious of late about the lives of Chinese-Australians during the White Australia period, so I selected the records from 1920-1929 and searched for the keyword “Chinese”. The results are fascinating, revealing and also (unsurprisingly) quite racist. But there are also some incredible highlights.
Transcript for people who don’t enjoy peering at tiny vintage newsprint, with bonus paragraph breaks:
Saturday 20 August 1927
Writing in the “Wide World Magazine” Mr W H Turner, of Hong Kong, tells some amazing stories concerning the activities of pirates and bandits in China at the present time.
“There are more of them than ever before,” he says, “and they pillage and murder practically unchecked. Not long ago a certain band of Chinese buccaneers operating below Canton decided to pull off a really picturesque ‘stunt’, and they did it with such daring as to almost take one’s breath away.
A certain big foreign-controlled school lying just across from the Bund was the object of their attentions, and the plan they had decided upon was to seize control of the whole of the students and hold them for ransom! At the appointed time the pirates arrived in their steam-launch and anchored at a convenient place. While part of the gang stood by the boat the remainder went up to the school to collect the students.
The first thing they did was to set off the fire alarm: this quickly brought the startled scholars out of bed and down to the grounds, where the pirates gathered them up like chickens and bundled them on the steam-launch waiting in the river. Once they were all on board the launch steamed away down the river, passing hundreds of boats and boathouses and the patrols of the water police!
The ‘catch’ consisted of nearly a hundred students, mostly from rich families, and yielded a rich harvest of ransom money to the rascals concerned.
Perhaps the leading pirate chief operating in China today is Yuen Kung, otherwise known as ‘King of Apes’. It is said that his is the biggest organised gang in South China. He himself is a burly fellow who has a weakness for luxuries and foreign clothes; he is, nevertheless, a clever organiser.
He has under his orders from six to seven thousand pirates – a veritable army – and his operations are conducted on a very big scale. His piratical activities are co-ordinated just like a legitimate business enterprise, going under the name of ‘Kwongtung T’ong’.
People who have been captured by his satellites declare that the pirate chief lives in a magnificent palace where he reigns like a king. His ‘office’ is the last word in modern equipment, even down to the smallest fixtures, and the work of the pirate organisation is divided into departments like a big business house.
He has, for instance, a repair department, which looks after his launches, junks, guns, motors and so on; a water police department, a judicial department, a ransom department, and a department of health!”
Now, I don’t want to cast aspersions, but this was an era of rampant police corruption pretty much all around the world. I don’t know exactly why, but I’d hazard a guess about technological developments (cars, telephones) becoming widespread just as promising criminal enterprises came along with the introduction of Prohibition in the US, 6 o’clock closing in Australia, the general collapse of government in China, etc. Different factors around the world leading to a general culture of police corruption.
(Note: I am not a criminal historian, nor do I play one on TV. I wonder if that’s a thing that exists, though? How cool would that look on your business card? “Yes, hello, I am a criminal historian. I study the history of crime. And also steal historical artefacts in elaborate museum heists.”)
Anyway, I can never remember if it was Hong Kong or Shanghai whose police chief took early retirement to pursue his hobby full-time, his hobby being running the city’s biggest criminal gang. Literally the only police department that I know of that didn’t have a corruption problem in the ’20s was Scotland Yard. (Further note: the world is full of police departments I know nothing about. I’m just generalising wildly.)
What I’m saying is, I can’t help but wonder if Yuen Kung’s “judicial department” was in fact the actual Shanghai department of justice. Likewise his “water police”. I just have some questions, that’s all. Starting with, has anyone written a book about the “King of Apes”?