Do you get the feeling that everything on Instagram looks the same? You’re looking to find a connection; a story in that handheld device; but all you can ever seem to find is the empty equivalent of a birds eye shot of someone’s lunch? When something manages to make you feel something through that little screen, it’s like finding a diamond in the rough. I opened a message in my inbox the other day, that simply read: “FYI. We travel around Australia taking photos of Chinese restaurants in suburban regional and rural areas. Kind regards, Anna.” Not another word was needed. I was an instant fan and follower of @chineserestaurantroadtrip.
Anna Satin and Josh Burns have been together for 11 years. Some couples like to visit museums or go to the cinema at the weekend, but these two found a slightly more inventive way of spending their leisure time…
“Chinese Restaurant Road Trip combines a love of road tripping, vintage clothing, old school Chinese restaurants, and cultural crossovers,” Anna tells me. “Our quest is to photograph Chinese restaurants that are time capsules, and a reflection of a well-loved Australian tradition.”
“If you walk down the main street of any country town in Australia, chances are you’ll see the ubiquitous Chinese restaurant. From the 1950s through to the 1980s they rose to prominence, and were among the first eateries to offer an alternative to hamburgers and fish n chips. Historically for many Australians the local Chinese restaurant was like a portal to an exotic faraway land. In some places, they retain that status. Tasselled lanterns, faux jade dragons and gold lattice moon gates still hold great allure, as does the fried rice.”
Like so many fabulous things on the fringes of society however, these time capsule eateries are all too often overlooked and ignored– or more to the point– not considered worthy of sharing on instagram. But to the curious and intuitive eye, they are a photographer’s paradise, a Wes Anderson movie set waiting to happen (and pure Instagram gold).
“There’s a certain thrill in finding an opulent example of vintage Chinese restaurant architecture in a quiet country town. It’s like finding treasure!”
Their idea is ingeniously kitsch. While many of us have felt that pang of nostalgia for a favourite local Chinese joint, no one has thought to document it in such a way; incorporating the allure of a quirky treasure hunt to inspire your next road trip, with a delightful vintage fashion-loving redhead as your new travel hero.
“By placing me in the scene, we hope to reawaken people’s memories of their own trips to the local Chinese restaurant.”
Do you always get dressed up in vintage when you visit Chinese restaurants? I ask…
“Yes. I love that mixing of fantasy with reality. Wearing all these different vintage looks allows me to play the part of someone else in the photos. I’m that person in the family photo album whose look and style changes through the ages. We were born in the 70s and 80s so those were formative years for us. I love the aesthetics of the 50s and 60s as well. Back then, going to the local Chinese restaurant was a family ritual. The restaurants we visit often provide quite lavish backdrops, which always inspires the choice of clothing. I source clothing from op shops and vintage sellers, and I sometimes borrow pieces from friends.”
What I know to be true of my own attraction to old Chinese restaurants, is that you go for the décor and the time travel as much as you go for the food.
“I love walking into these well-worn, family-run restaurants where it feels like time stopped long ago,” explains Anna, in words that are like music to my ears. “Many of them are disappearing, their hand-painted signage fading in the sun before our very eyes.”
“Sometimes they’re desolate joints, but other times you walk into a place on a Thursday night and it feels like the whole town is there. Their charms may be low-key – it could be a detail like the way the sunlight slants through a porthole window, exposing an empty laminex table decorated with apricot pleated napkins. Nostalgia works in mysterious ways.”
How often do you go to Chinese restaurants?
“When we’re out on a road trip, which we do once a month, we hit one or more restaurants a day. Usually that’s over a weekend. Now and then we do a week-long trip, visiting family and friends and staying in cheap motels along the way. We’re always looking for new and interesting routes to take, and it’s a great excuse to explore places off the beaten path.”
Whats started out as a passion project in early 2016 with a dear friend, Renee Goodman, has now taken on a life of its own since, Anna tells me.
“Now we’ve got a permanent case of Chinese restaurant fever. Underpinning it all, Chinese restaurants are visible expressions of the part Chinese-Australians have played in the ritual of our growing up in this country. They have enriched our culture immeasurably and are embedded in the national psyche.”
Before I let her go, I had to ask: What’s your favourite Chinese dish?
“Short soup [aka. Wonton soup] and I’m always happy to see Szechuan chicken on the menu!”