Monday, December 30, 2013

Best day to buy petrol in Sydney

This has been me for a long time . . . 

Image pulled from
Original artist unknown

When it comes to money and finance, I have, for the most part, skipped merrily along with little thought about the future and my current spending. There are some pricey things I just won't consider (a Gucci handbag for example). 

But I have also been ignorant about the real cost of living. I try to set a budget and it falls over. I think it's because I don't actually know how much my daily living expenses cost.

Over the past few days I have read 'Your Money or Your Life' by Alvin Hall and 'Hot (broke) Messes: How to have your latte and drink it too' by Nancy Trejos. Both have helped me realise that my ostrich mentality has been holding me back from future-planning and protecting myself from possible risks like job loss, illness or even things like my phone or laptop suddenly not working. And that I have been placing my values in spending patterns that don't actually reflect my own values. 

But that's a post for another day. 

Today I was curious about the best day to buy petrol. I only fill up my car about once a month, as I generally only use it to drive to see my folks in the countryside. When I do fill up the tank, I do it as a spontaneous and unplanned action. As I see the numbers tick over on the petrol bowser I get a niggling feeling that if I'd plan ahead, I could spend less money on petrol. But an even more niggling sensation has been the knowledge that I really don't have a clue about petrol prices. 

Entering 'best day to buy petrol in Sydney' into google lead me to this page on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's website. 

In particular I was caught by this graph.

Apparently petrol is supplied in cycles. These fluctuate based on the cost of transporting it and some other factors which are explained on the ACCC's website. In Sydney it's generally a fortnightly cycle. Buy your petrol around 4 days after the lowest dip in the cycle and you'll pay about 7.5% more to fill up your tank. The last time I filled up the tank of my Toyota Starlet it was $55. So if I had chosen a better point in the cycle, it could have been $51. But then add the discount of a Coles shopper docket and I could have saved even more. 

Perhaps the overall saving is only $100 per year. Is it really worth it? 

As this article explains - $10 a month can make a big difference to a mortgage:

Assuming you've got a $100,000 loan amount set at 4 percent on a 30-year fixed mortgage, that extra $10 payment would save you $3,191.78 over the full loan term. It would also shorten your mortgage by 13 months, meaning your 30-year mortgage would be a 28-year-ish mortgage.

So - back to the question. What is the best day to buy petrol in Sydney? Based on the tracked petrol cycles for December 2013, the best day to buy petrol in Sydney would be a Thursday or Friday, around the 15th and 1st of the month

However, it's not just about the day of the week, or even the date, but about paying attention to average petrol prices. In December 2013 the cost of a litre of petrol ranged from $1.42 to $1.59 (almost 12%). So basically any day that the price drops below $1.50 per litre is a good day to buy petrol. In December 2013, there were 16 days where the price was below $1.50 per litre. Of course, this bottom figure may change as overall petrol prices rise and fall, but for today it's a good guide.

When it comes to saving money on petrol in Sydney, there are three tactics you could follow: 

  1. Try to purchase your petrol around the 1st and 15th of each month and you should be able to make use of the downward swing in the cycle 
  2. Keep an eye on the price. If it drops below $1.50 per litre, fill 'er up!
  3. Keep your Coles (or other supermarket) shopper dockets in the car

These easy steps could save me over $3,000 and buy me two years of freedom from my mortgage. And that would make me more like this ostrich:
I know which one I would rather be. I'm starting to understand that simple steps now can make a big difference in the long run. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Film Review : Persepolis (2007)

Persepolis weaves a rich tapestry of family stories and personal angst against the backdrop of war-torn Iran. In a genre dominated by 3D animation powerhouses like Shrek and Toy Story, Marjane Satrapi’s deliberate choice of a low-tech animation techniques and a mostly black-and-white execution allows the human story to unfold.

The result of a collaboration between Satrapi and her creative partner, Vincent Paronnaud, Persepolis is based on Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novels by the same name.The story opens on a depiction of Satrapi’s halcyon youth. The only child of radical parents, she blossomed in a home environment that was sociable and relaxed. Occasionally stories of persecution and torture at the hands of the ruling regime at the time would intrude on this enviable private life, but were dismissed in the belief that the repressive regime was only temporary. Soon the individual incidents of repression (and public opposition to the acts) snowball into the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Iranian society undergoes massive change – the new laws and watchful eyes of the citizen ‘Guardians of the Revolution’ become so invasive that the Satrapi family’s radical behaviour at home starts to collide with public expectations. Satrapi’s independence and forthrightness, encouraged by her radical parents and grandmother pre-revolution, sees her expelled from numerous schools in Tehran. Her parents, concerned for her safety, send her to attend high school in Vienna.

In Vienna Satrapi tries to assimilate but is caught in the crossfire between Iranian and Western cultures. She makes friends, but misses the intimacy of her family and is betrayed by her first love. She can’t find a stable home and moves through a series of beds and houses, eventually ending up on the street. Despite her objections to the oppressive public regime at home, she returns to Iran to be with her family. She readjusts to Iranian culture and gets married, and is exposed to an entirely new set of problems.

Iranian-born Satrapi wrote and drew Persepolis as a way of processing her identity as an Iranian woman, to write a love letter to her family and to reconcile the dichotomy of the public and private lives in which she grew up. She also wanted to humanise the monoculture stereotype that the media perpetuates about Iran. On her Persepolis website she writes ‘If Western audiences end up considering Iranians as human beings just like the rest of us, and not as abstract notions like ‘Islamic fundamentalists’, terrorists or the ‘Axis of Evil’, then I’ll feel like I’ve done something.’

Technically Satrapi opted for traditional hand-drawn animation techniques because she felt that using modern 3D techniques would bring a mechanical, automated feel to what is a story about people – their feelings, faults and dreams. The simplified style allows the audience to focus on the story rather than being distracted by constructed and detailed scenes. Televised depictions of conflict end to sensationalise the events, but in Persepolis it is the lack of sensationalism that allows the human narrative to be told.

Stylistically Persepolis takes cues from the post-war film schools of Italian neo-realism and German expressionism with simple interior sets and candid street scenes. As an artist, first in Iran and later in Paris, Satrapi became obsessed with the German and Italian films and felt that they depicted the sense of hope felt by people who had lived through war.

Persepolis’ message changed with the adaptation of the original text to film. The internationally-awarded film takes Satrapi’s tender narrative to a global stage, with Hollywood actors like Sean Penn and Iggy Pop contributing as voice-overs in the US version. While the graphic novel was the work of Satrapi alone, the film is a collaboration, translating the original text into one that is more internationally palatable.
In the animated work, key events in Satrapi’s emotional history are condensed in the interests of keeping the narrative moving at the pace at which a film audience expects. Her emotional response to the stories she heard of family friends being tortured and killed is trivialized in the film by depicting her direct translation of the stories into playground games, bypassing Satrapi’s intense emotional response that is shown in the graphic novel. As a medium that requires a two-way dialogue, the graphic novel treats both the author and reader’s emotional responses with respect. The animation, for all its motion and speed, operates emotionally much like a still photograph - a snapshot of her reactions, depicting highlights or main events but little of the feeling that gives the graphic novel such rich texture.  

Satrapi’s goal in the creation of Persepolis, as both a graphic novel then a film, was to dilute the mono-culture stereotype of modern Iran. Both texts achieve this, but take the audience on different journeys. Persepolis feels like such a big story that while the film skims the surface, the novel takes us well and truly behind the veil.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Film review: Life Lessons (1989)

Scorsese sets the scene with a rocking soundtrack lead by ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ and puts us in the mood to stay up late, drink lots of whisky and smoke until our fingers turn yellow. Welcome to the paint-splattered world of Life Lessons.

One of three short stories told in the 1989 film ‘New York Stories’, Life Lessons immerses us in the world of an artist riding high on the adrenalin of the eleventh hour with just three weeks to go until his exhibition opens. 

Nick Nolte is superbly cast as Lionel Dobie, a tortured if successful, middle-aged painter. Rosanna Arquette plays Paulette – a precocious, 22 year old, aspiring artist who looks for her future in Lionel’s bed and his warehouse loft. The two fight to lead the sexual agenda against a backdrop of 1980’s New York, a landscape of shoulder pads, cocktails in martini glasses and performance art spaces in disused railway tunnels.

Fans of Steve Buscemi will find it a treat to see the bug-eyed, buck-toothed actor playing a floppy-haired cad who makes a game of Paulette’s affections and enrages Dobie.

The drama centres around a power play. Lionel tells Paulette “I indulge in love and I indulge in my stuff and they feed off each other”. He unapologetically uses his angst-ridden and frustrated relationship with her as fuel for his messy and Pollock-inspired masterpieces. She uses him for free rent and, hopefully, lessons in art. She begs for his advice, mewling ‘Am I any good? Will I ever be any good?’ but she never picks up a paintbrush in the time this drama plays out. Paulette wallows in self-doubt while Lionel ploughs through it.

Lionel persists with equal vigour in both his quest for Paulette and his creative work. At one point Scorsese focuses on Nolte looking up at an object, a potent, unwavering gaze, filled with lust and a calm, formidable energy. We don’t know whether he’s looking at his artwork or his muse. 

In one of his ‘life lesson’ lectures, Lionel tells Paulette that he is a lion – a metaphor also suggested by his rough, greying beard and mane of silvering blonde hair. His behaviour echoes that of the savannah cat – capable of gentleness, or cunning and in equal turns fiercely territorial and utterly vicious. He holds his prey in his gaze and the future of the frolicking, long-legged Paulette is as unclear to the audience as it is to her.

Scorsese captures the panic and confusion of the young Paulette as she tries to make sense of her situation and Lionel's life lessons. We feel empathy for her search for truth, but also frustration that she can’t see what the audience can.

The story is loosely based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler. The femme fatales in both stories challenge their heroes to childish and potentially dangerous dares in order to prove their love. The Gambler story also extends into the plot of Life Lessons – both pieces follow a hero’s quest to secure the object of his affections. Both stories unfold amongst the upper class of society – the New York art scene no less depraved than the Russian aristocracy.

The influence of The Gambler in Life Lessons is not only evident in the driving themes of sex and compulsive gambling, but also in key scenes which serve to drive the narrative forward. Paulette dares Lionel to kiss a policeman, Dostoyevsky’s Polina asks Alexei to insult a baroness. The Russian protagonist fixates inappropriately on his lover’s foot, Lionel fetishises the gold-chained ankle of his modern-day muse – tilting the power balance even further out of his control. Screenwriter Richard Price drew inspiration not only from the 1972 translation of the original Dostoyevsky text, but also from the accompanying diary of Dostoyevsky’s lover, Polina Suslova that included a short story ‘The Stranger and her Lover’. It was this edition of the Russian classic that compelled Scorsese to interpret the friction between the lovers.

In signature Scorsese-style the music soundtrack is another character within the film. Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ accompanies Dobie’s energetic painting sessions. Procol Harum’s ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ opens, closes and plays at intervals in Life Lessons, while ‘Conquistador’ is the hidden narrator to pivotal scenes of sexual conquest and macho showdowns. The choice of songs by artists who were at their most popular in the year that Paulette was born places the ownership of the narrative unequivocally in Dobie’s court.

It’s not clear until the closing scene whether Lionel is the teacher or the student, but in telling his story Scorsese reminds the audience that the game of love and passion are always a gamble.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Film Review : Now You See Me (2013)


A magician’s audience can choose between two options. Either suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride. Or try to outwit the smartest guy in the room. My money is on the first option that requires you not to think too much – and it seems that’s what the makers of Now You See Me are banking on.

Now You See Me is an elaborate chase caper spanning New York, Las Vegas and New Orleans. Four magicians (Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco and Jesse Eisenberg) lead an FBI Agent (Mark Ruffalo) and his Interpol offsider (Mélanie Laurent) through a maze of stadium-scale magic tricks which involve Robin Hood-style theft from banks, giving to the needy and climaxing each time in a shower of paper currency. Their exploits are funded by an indulgent patron (Michael Caine) and followed by a TV exposé producer (Morgan Freeman).

The magicians are inappropriately titled ‘The Four Horseman’ – a name that might work well on promotional flyers but falls flat when no apocalypse is forthcoming. What is most disappointing about Now You See Me is that it promises magic, yet delivers none.

Stereotypes abound. Charming french Interpol agent, Alma Dray (Laurent), is bound up in her beige-coloured, spy-cliché trench coat for much of the action. She even wears Chanel-inspired stripes on her days off. Trés Chic.

The combined talents of Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are assigned to small roles which amount to glorified cameo appearances. It feels very much that they were brought in to broaden the appeal of Now You See Me to an older audience at the box office.

It’s a visual pleasure to see the attractive ‘four horseman’ outwit their pursuers against the sequinned backdrop of stage-show magic. Unfortunately it’s all glitter and no substance.

Dialogue like ‘Time is a luxury I don’t have right now’ barked by Ruffalo, fills the script with clichéd cop-talk typical of any cat and mouse-type chase tale.

Overall Now You See Me has an arrogant street magician’s tone. The condescending catch-phrase ‘The closer you look, the less you see’, plastered over the promotional posters and sprinkled partonisingly into the dialogue, infers that the clues are obvious. When the twist is revealed it feels more like an unwanted Christmas gift than a bolt of enlightenment.

The story itself would be better suited to a graphic novel where the characters and themes could be more deeply explored. However, a graphic novel won’t help sell candy bar treats to packed movie-houses on a Friday night. The absence of gore, sex scenes or genuine intrigue make Now You See Me a perfectly inoffensive ‘date night’ film. I suspect that was the filmmaker’s intent all along.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Mejico, Sydney

I was lucky enough to be taken for a business lunch today to Mejico.

I knew next to nothing about Mejico before we arrived – other than that a fellow food reviewer had been earlier in the year and raved about the guacamole, which is made at the table, and that the restaurant is next to Jamie’s Italian.

We arrived at 12:15pm to an almost empty restaurant and were seated immediately.

Service was fast, friendly and unobtrusive. We were advised to that the house specialties were the guacamole and the blackened corn, so we ordered both. Unfortunately the corn order never seemed to have been placed, but the guacamole was worth the hype.

In particular the lime and sugar that was added cut through the fattiness of the avocado and the freshness was a sign of what to expect from the rest of the meal. The accompanying plantain chips had a colleague reminiscing about her days living in the Caribbean.

One of my dining companions had eaten at Mejico before and recommended the mocktails. Each mocktail includes chia seeds and I saw it as an opportunity to make friends with the protein-packed super food whose appeal, so far, had eluded me. When I’ve soaked chia seeds in coconut water in the past, the slimy membrane around each seed had put me off. Here, in the ‘white nectar’ cocktail a few of us ordered, the chia seeds had a consistency like the bubble teas that are popular in Chinatown. This white delight really did taste like nectar of the gods and my romance with the chia seed was reignited.

We ordered each of the tacos: pork belly, lamb shoulder and salmon. Palm-sized flour tortillas became serving vessels for the succulent meats. Only the lamb shoulder disappointed. The guacamole was a flavour medley, but in the lamb taco the seasonings struggled to sing out amongst the generous serving of meat. 

Ceviche reminds me of lazy days spent on Isle de Mujeres. Here mounds of fresh raw fish danced a happy tango amongst the chilli and lime seasonings in the salmon or kingfish served on tostadas.

For the main course we ordered the achiote chicken and the sirloin steak. I was keen to try quinoa in a restaurant as to date I’d only had the quinoa I’d made with great success at home. The quinoa served with the steak was no different to that which I have made at home, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The green chimichurri sauce lacked punch but the steak, served medium, had a texture I most certainly could not replicate at home.

The salt and pepper grinders on each table had me enthralled in an ADHD-like trance – a single press of the thumb producing a fine grind of seasoning. 

For dessert we chose from a menu of three, and went for the fudge served with walnuts and a citrus cream. A fellow diner commented that if someone only bought caramel slice for the caramel, they would be in heaven with this dessert. The servings were just the right size to finish off the meal.

At the end of our lunch we were full, but not bursting, testament to the mounds of protein and vegetable accompaniments.

The fit out at Mejico is industrial with splashes of neon pink. It felt like being in the hippest restaurant in Mexico City – a city filled with modern art, ancient pyramids and a new wave of reinterpreting traditional recipes. It was surprisingly not too loud – a key factor in an enjoyable lunch. 

We finished with coffees. A chai latte was ordered but we were told that chai was temporarily off the menu – last week a complaint had been received about the chai and until the Mejico team are happy again with what they offer, it would not be on offer. We all liked the idea that Mejico would not sell anything they didn’t drink themselves.

This same fair approach underpins Mejico’s philosophy. Dr Sam Prince is the owner, a medical doctor, humanitarian and a philanthropist. He’s currently working on a project called ‘One disease at a time’ in which he is looking to eliminate scabies from the Australian Aboriginal population. You can view his TEDx talk here.

The bill came to less than $50 per person – we all agreed it was very good value for money.

Mejico is a place I would take colleagues for a lunch, or the girls for a glass of wine and a few tacos. There were less kind reviews in SMH and the Telegraph earlier in the year, but we all thoroughly enjoyed our lunch. When it’s my turn to choose somewhere for a business lunch I’d include Mejico in my top five options at the moment. 

The little tuckshop lady with big ideas

I've started studying for my Masters of Arts in Creative Non-Fiction at UTS. 

So far, I'm loving it. One subject down, eight more to go, two years and lots of study ahead before I put that MA after my name. 

My first subject was simply 'Non-Fiction Writing'. Myself and 15 fellow classmates were lucky enough to have Gabrielle Carey for our tutor. Gabrielle was tough, fair, approachable and authentic. The class was a solid foundation for exploring non-fiction writing as a genre and getting a sense for which direction we may each want to head. 

We had two assignments to submit - a 'place' assignment and a biography of someone who had a public profile. 

I chose Nahji Chu as the subject for my bio and was rewarded with her generosity, creativity and a new perspective on the very public issue of refugees. 

At 2,300 words it's longer than your standard blog post. So grab a cup of tea, find a comfortable seat and come with me as we enter the world of Miss Chu: 

Over the past six years, Nahji Chu has emerged as a creative and culinary pioneer in Australia’s urban food scene. In 2006 she started selling rice paper rolls made in the kitchen of a home she rented in Balmain. Today her empire, whimsically named ‘misschu’, includes four tuckshops in Sydney and two in Melbourne. She employs more than a hundred people. Her delivery team, a fleet of pushbikes and motorbikes, dispatch more than 6,000 rolls each day. The business has an annual turnover of $20 million.

A little girl’s face decorates every misschu item – from the company letterhead to the delivery riders’ uniforms. The face of the brand, that little girl, is Nahji. The photo is a copy of her visa application from when she and her family, fleeing wartorn Laos, arrived in Australia in 1979 as refugees. Nahji was nine years old.

Nahji’s grandparents were originally from Vietnam but relocated to Luang Prabang in Laos when a plague destroyed their farm. Vietnam and Laos shared centuries of embattled history as larger countries’ armed forces fought to occupy pockets of Indochina. It was under this shadow that Nahji, one of six children, was born in 1970.

Luang Prabang sits in the foothills of forested mountains and limestone cliffs, on the banks of the Mekong River. The city is a patchwork of riverbank gardens, rice paddies and wide streets. French colonial buildings and ornate Buddhist temples sit next to traditional bamboo and wood houses.

Food was pivotal, not just for survival, but for the role it played in bringing the community together. Preparing the family’s meals meant a daily trip to the market for Nahji and her grandmother, mother or aunt. One of Nahji’s earliest food memories is that of her favourite dumpling dish Bánh cuốn – a Vietnamese crepe made from rice starch and stuffed with minced pork and shredded vegetables. Her grandmother would sell the pancakes on the side of busy streets, to make money and feed the family.

Indochinese culture is steeped in traditions surrounding arts, crafts, food, language, festivals and rituals. Daily life was punctuated by Buddhist and harvest traditions. Each April Nahji looked forward to the New Year ‘Songkran’ festival – a celebration of purity, clarity and new beginnings. To literally wash away the old year and to prepare for the new, people swapped armaments and farmers tools for buckets of water and united in a city-wide water fight.

In April 1975 the world changed for Nahji and the people of Indochina. The Vietnam War erupted. Laotian communist forces (the Pathet Lao) struck out against American forces in a bid to gain control of Luang Prabang. Hostilities threatened not just the livelihood, but the lives of the Chu family.

More than a quarter of the entire Laotion population fled in a mass exodus. The Chu family split up to increase their chances of survival and used various means of escape. Her father smuggled Nahji into a canoe and, with three other men, left Luang Prabang in a daring escape along the Mekong River. Other families’ young children were given opium to keep them quiet. Nahji was gagged to make sure she didn’t unwittingly notify the authorities of their escape attempt. After a terrifying ordeal, narrowly avoiding detection from the Pathet Lao, they arrived in Northern Thailand and found refuge in one of four refugee camps.

The culturally abundant city of her childhood was replaced with a muddy, makeshift community filled with tents, bamboo huts and desperation. ‘There is no order in a refugee camp,’ says Nahji, “the walls of the tents were made of mosquito nets and we had to get water from the well”. Meals often consisted of watery rice without any vegetables or herbs. Occasionally they would also eat eggs. Daily routines revolved around collecting water and firewood and then boiling water for cooking and bathing.

Despite the desperate situation they now faced, the refugees retained their traditions. The festivals that signposted the Laotian calendar were still acknowledged in the camps. Nahji’s short animation ‘Autumn Moon’, made in 2011, demonstrates the sadness and hope underpinning the rituals. Refugees in a camp prepare for an Autumn harvest parade, making dragonfly and star-shaped lanterns out of sticks and leaves. After the festivities, as the refugee children and their families lay down to sleep, one child says to her mother ‘Next year I’ll make a frog’. Her mother replies ‘Hopefully we won’t be here next year’.

Fortunately the Chu family was reunited, reuniting in one of the four refugee camps that Nahji was to stay in. Nahji’s parents and grandmother worked tirelessly on the process of applying for refugee status in Australia.

Meanwhile, Nahji and her siblings found entertainment everywhere. The New Year ‘Songkran’ festival was still celebrated in April. No-one in the camp was safe from the being doused by buckets of water. It was during this festival one year that Nahji encountered her first white person – an American soldier. ‘I remember we were hiding, waiting for the next person to come along.’ Nahji reminisces, smiling broadly, ‘This happened to be the first white soldier we ever saw. He was on a motorbike, approaching us and we yelled “Ambush! Ambush! Throw the buckets! Everything!” We pulled him off his bike, saw he had a beard and we said “Oh my god, look at all the hair! This person’s weird. He’s a westerner. Argh!” For us it was really freaky to come across this white person’.

In March 1978, three years after they arrived in the refugee camp, the Chu family was flown to Australia. They were processed through the Villawood detention centre and stayed in a hostel in Bass Hill in NSW. Nine of them slept in the same room – but the walls and roof were solid and they had immediate access to running water. ‘We had a tap with running water to ourselves, a house, not shared facilities,’ Nahji told Marie Clare magazine in 2011, ‘My parents said “We’ve made it, we’ll be fine.” That tap was a very powerful experience’.

Refugee services found work for Chu’s father on a farm in Cessnock, in rural NSW. As the first Vietnamese family in the area, the Chu family’s arrival caused quite a stir and was announced in the local paper. Curious, well-meaning neighbours brought the Chu family gifts of food, clothing and blankets, helping them to set up their new lives.

Two years later the Chu family’s application for public housing was approved and they moved to Melbourne. They settled in Richmond, which was fast becoming a Vietnamese stronghold in Melbourne’s cultural landscape. However, locals were not as welcoming as those in Cessnock. “We were like mushrooms sprouting and I think it was seen as quite a threat to the local community,’ said Nahji.

Nahji assimilated into her new life and culture. She did well at school, but didn’t get the grades to train as the journalist she wanted to be. She pursued other creative avenues – writing, acting, filmmaking, photography – always trying to find a way to tell her story and that of other refugees. Everything I set out to do in my life was based on my circumstances, around the trauma of having come here as a refugee. And the trauma of the assimilation process of coming to live in Australia. And I really wanted to document it,’ said Nahji.

Food was always a fallback option, as a way of making a living. Her Aunt Yen had joined them in Melbourne and had started her new life from a simple bowl of soup. She first sold pho (beef noodle soup) to other Vietnamese refugees in the area, and eventually opened Indochine - one of the most popular Vietnamese restaurants in Melbourne’s Box Hill. While Nahji tried to find a job that would fulfil her storytelling desires, she worked in her aunt’s restaurants. She also worked for Melbourne hospitality icons Italian chef Maurice Terzini and caterer Vernon Chalker.

Nahji relocated to Sydney in 2004, to move away from hospitality and to reinvent herself. ‘I always wanted to steer away from food because I didn’t want to be a Vietnamese woman doing the typical thing, where I just sell Vietnamese food, that’s all I’m capable of,’ she tells me when we meet on Anzac Day this year, ‘I didn’t want to be that person’.

She found a job as a credit analyst – a role that won the admiration of her family. Nahji says ‘Going to work in an office was exciting and exotic, and for me seemed to be “I’ve made it”. A lot of Asian families are proud to say “She works in an office. She doesn’t work on the floor making things with her hands, she’s not physically on the ground”’. However glamorous her new role seemed, Nahji became frustrated with the processes and politics of corporate life. She still felt the need to find a way to tell her story.

Nahji explains, ‘When it became apparent that all I’m capable of is selling you Vietnamese food, it was a cold reality for me. It was all, the reality is, this is how you’re going to make your living. Because every other path is going to be really difficult for you’.

She worked casually in the Sydney catering scene and saw an opportunity amidst the mini pizzas, blinis and other carb-loaded canapés that were popular at the time. In 2008 she started making traditional Vietnamese rice paper rolls, filled with light, fresh ingredients and bold flavours. At first, she made them at home and sold them wholesale. She came under scrutiny for how expensive her product was, but she remained uncompromising about either the cost or quality of her food.

Word spread and the orders kept coming in. A government grant, secured through the New Enterprise scheme, gave Nahji the opportunity to grow the business. She moved to a commercial kitchen on Darlinghurst’s Bourke Street, to be closer to her catering customers. So many people stopped by, asking if they could buy lunch, that Nahji opened a cafe at the front of the kitchen. She told Smart Company magazine, in January 2013, that she ‘called the new cafe a “tuckshop” because she didn’t want people complaining about the service and the fact nobody spoke English’.

The café’s success catapulted Nahji into the public spotlight. Crowds snaked along Bourke Street. The press used her self-made, headline-friendly title ‘The Queen of Rice Paper Rolls’. The public gave her a few different names, comparing her to Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi – a character whose food was so good it was worth offensive service. Stress and dealing directly with the public forced the diminutive Nahji to revert to her cultural roots. Her Vietnamese tone and nature was not always understood by the Australian public. She quickly gained a reputation for being blunt.

Nahji had no patience for customers who didn’t understand the new menu or have the right change. One very busy lunch hour, in 2009, Nahji ordered a dithering customer to step aside until she knew what she wanted. The affronted woman complained ‘You are the rudest person I have ever met!’. Having heard something about a new social media platform called Twitter, Nahji precociously snapped ‘Well, why don’t you go and tweet about it?’. The customer, with uncensored brutality, tweeted a message to the public - unleashing a virtual storm in the new social media teacup.

Since then, Nahji has harnessed the power of social networking. The misschu Facebook page has become an essential two way conversation with 12,000 of her customers who ‘like’ the page. It’s also a platform for Nahji to use humour to break down the barriers posed by racism. Members of the public complain a few times a year that her home delivery service slogan, ‘You ling, we bling’, encourages racism. Nahji replied to one of the most recent complaints with a Facebook post, ‘My staff and I joke about our Vietnamese accent all the time. It makes us all laugh and we love it that our customers do too! It breaks down the barriers faster than any silent racist undertones I see so often as a Vietnamese growing up in Australia.’ Ever the straight-talker - she tagged the disgruntled Facebook user and commented, ‘Thank you for taking the time to comment and please don't be so uptight’.

Nahji likes to challenge the status quo. Last year the mobile food truck phenomenon posed a threat to her business. She focused on one of misschu’s competitive advantages – the home delivery service. She updated the staff uniforms - adding grey Vietnamese workmans’ jackets and personally stitching a cloth patch onto right arm of each uniform. A two-wheeled ‘army of Chu’ was dispatched across Sydney and Melbourne. The update was a strategic branding move, says Nahji, ‘Let’s brand the delivery service now, let’s own it and make them look really official. It was also playing on the whole communism, propoganda thing. Accentuating everything that is Vietnam. So it was a play on communism and fun’.

It’s these brave decisions that help Nahji Chu forge new ground. ‘The little tuckshop lady with big ideas’ is how she now signs off her emails. The business has given her new opportunities. She has appeared on the ABC television program Q&A, representing a refugee perspective. Her empire continues to expand – she’ll open a new tuckshop in Manly in September, and, later this year, will open her first tuckshop in London.

Despite global expansion of her misschu empire, Nahji’s focus remains firmly on Australia. In her proudest moment to date, the Refugee Council of Australia invited Nahji to be their Ambassador for Refugee Week 2013. She hopes that the public respond positively. ‘I plan to get on stage and say “Look Australia, I think we need to take in more refugees,” she tells me, ‘and I hope they’ll say “Let’s listen to her. She’s obviously smart, she’s done all these things, we eat her food anyway, come on, let’s just see what she’s got to say. It might just make sense.”’

Nahji has captured followers with her food and hopes to capture minds with her story. For a little girl smuggled out of her homeland 38 years ago, being heard is all she has ever wanted.

You hungry? Order Miss Chu's food here.