Monday, July 22, 2013

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.

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