Friday, January 05, 2007

Adventures in mysterious oriental stores

Near my house there is a Chinese restaurants/takeaway, literally on the wrong side of the tracks from a popular eating strip. The glass at the front is frosted and so the insides are veiled to the passerby. It has been there for as long as I can remember and the sign out the front gives a 6 digit phone number. We have been using 8 digit phone numbers in Australia for over a decade.

In all my time, I had never seen a soul enter or leave this establishment. Yet it remained, with an open sign on the door, year in, year out.

Surely it was a front for something. Triads? Yakuza? Heroin? White Slavery? What tentacles of the Mongolian Octopus was it hiding?

Today the missus and I made it our duty to explore the place. The enigma is yet deeper.

As we entered the place, we noted the decor. It would be familiar to anyone who has eaten in the old style Cantonese places which once spotted the Australian landscape, but have been disappearing from her cities. Lots of red cloth and calligraphy, prints on every wall and gratuitous, near circular archways. A new TV dominated one half of the establishment however.A man in a t shirt and shorts emerged from the kitchen and wordlessly demanded our business with a glare. We asked for a table for two. We were given one in the corner by way of a silent pointing finger.

We sat down and read the menu. Incongruously it had a photo (labeled) of a Vietnamese temple on the front. Our table only had one menu, so I surreptitiously removed one from the adjacent table. This table was large, with a lazy susan, and was set for 10 people. In light of such large numbers, it had two menus. No item on the menu was greater than $13.50 (the scallop dishes), and most were under $9, and largely consisted of the staples of Australian Cantonese food; Sweet and Sour, Plum sauce, sizzling, all in a choice of 6 or so meats. Interestingly however, there was also a "miscellaneous" section, replete with names like "Chinaman's Hat".

At this point there were two sets of diners, one eating at a table, and the others waiting for a takeaway. Both sets were elderly, working class and Anglo. Both were also chatty with the waitress (presumably the wife of our taciturn friend) and appeared to be regulars.

We ordered (Honey Scallops and Duck with Crab Meat), and received our food rapidly.

I fear that our order may have single handedly doomed the scallop to extinction. There must have been 20 of the damn things, all battered and honeyed up in a golden pyramid on our table, and each large enough to only allow one in our (plastic) rice bowls.

At this point Mr Taciturn turned on the TV and began to watch CCTV. This was subtitled in Chinese. Occasionally he would flip through a large variety of other Chinese language stations. At the same time, Mrs not-so-taciturn decided to turn on some music, which sounded as if it could be the soundtrack to a 1950s Disney nature or adventure film. It gave a aura of vast prairies and mountain rivers to the world of Chinese soap opera.

At this point I went to the bathroom. As I headed through a door indicated by silhouettes of a man and woman in elegant evening wear, Mr Taciturn gruffly asked....something. I asked "is this the bathroom". There was a sound approaching affirmation and I continued, past the intriguing door marked "private" and into the male toilets.

At the urinal, I brought out my goods and then stopped. I am not one for stage fright, but this was an unnerving urinal. It was not filthy, in fact it was quite clean. I would even venture that this urinal had not been urinated on in years. It was as dry as a bone. I went in the cubicle.

Exiting, I was afforded a look at the back courtyard of the property, with external stairs leading to the first floor where presumably Mr Taciturn spends his silent nights. Underneath however was a great contraption. A hulk of machinery, left from some forgotten age of steam. Perhaps it had once powered giant robots that had grappled with Zeppelins, or was a time machine. Alas, I had not to time to examine it, but it was adorned with a single and lonesome wok.

I returned, noticing that on the back of the door there was a Free Tibet sticker. A sentiment common amongst CCTV viewers.

During this time further diners came in. All elderly and Anglo. One came in and gave a silent nod to Mr Taciturn, who went into the kitchen and started cooking immediately. He came out with bags and handed them to the customer, who left wordlessly, and without payment. Another came in clutching a wine bottle, stylishly clad in a silvery plastic cooler, and became chatting breezily with Mrs not-so-taciturn.

When we left (with half the sea bed uneaten in a plastic container) we gave our payment to Mr Taciturn, who took our notes to the kitchen and returned with change. The front door had given notice that they also took Visa and EFTPOS. I can only assume that one went into the kitchen to pay with the latter.
Whilst waiting I read a flyer for Buddhist classes that spruiked themselves on the notion that in no way was Buddhism a religion.

Then we were back on the streets. I have even more questions than before.