Cosmopolitan consumption: the life and death of ‘real Australia’

Xiaoran Shi couldn’t handle the Strewth.

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One temperate autumn morning earlier this year, a little commercial lot on north King Street flickered into life after months of desuetude—a bold move considering the high mortality rate of small businesses beyond the borders of the Marlborough Hotel on the citybound side and Earl’s Juke Joint near the street’s St Peters terminus.

Compact and unassuming, 85 King Street has hosted, over the course of the past three years, an optometrist, a juice bar, and a frozen yoghurt franchise (during the feverish heights of Newtown’s froyo affliction, naturally), all of which eked out a brief existence typified by a fluorescent optimism that swiftly descended into barren tedium before arriving at a hasty, premature death.

This climate of abject austerity, however, has proved no match for the buoyant Australian entrepreneurial spirit as on April 23, Strewth Foods, a cafe purporting to serve “Real Food, Real Aussie” opened its doors to the public and 85 King entered its latest reincarnation.

Despite the restaurant being roughly equidistant from my house and Sydney Uni, a lifelong truancy habit ensured that I first heard about Strewth through a terse, indignant message from a friend on Facebook. Below a blurry photo of the restaurant exterior read the words, “um what the hell is this”.

My initial reaction was baffled laughter. Surely this was a belated Brown Cardigan April Fools joke. But repeated assurances that the photo was, in fact, undoctored consolidated the apparent horror of the situation: the distinct resurgence of far right nationalism that drew confidence from the systematic degradation of minorities in the mainstream political arena had finally manifested a cultural war.

This is symbolic violence in the guise of the hottest new brunch spot, my friend and I bemoaned to each other, between crying emojis. This is the Cronulla riots on our doorstep.

But the reality of the situation was far more complicated. The mastermind behind the menu boasting items such as ‘Roo in the Autumn Forest’ (kangaroo fillet with salad) and ‘True Blue Trio’ (a dessert consisting of panna cotta, Tim Tam crumble and Milo mousse) was Eddy, a 30-something Chinese-Australian man who attended culinary school in France. He was not the Pauline Hanson-esque proprietor I was expecting to uncover, and he certainly did not fit the neat narrative that had been fermenting in my mind, of Strewth exemplifying the cultural symptom of an aggressive White supremacy.

In fact, Eddy posed an unwieldy challenge to the idea of who can lay claim to the identity of “real Aussie”; who can claim ownership of and profit from “real Aussie” culture because the collective imaginaries of both the left and the extreme right (and arguably the centre-right too, as embodied by bipartisan party politics) overwhelmingly conceptualise the deployment of rhetoric invoking a “real” Australia as the domain of the Anglocentric core.

In the case of the left, such a discursive field carries a negative valence, inextricably linked to broader matrices of structural racism, whereas the right apprehends it as a righteous pronouncement of its hegemonic position.

The urgency with which my friend and I interpreted the assertion of real Aussie-hood as yet another instance of the dominant culture lashing out defensively against a perceived threat of engulfment by the ethnic Other attests to the lack of mobility in negotiating the terms of belonging to a real or imagined Australia, or namely, of interpolating oneself as an Australian subject.

The complications do not end there. As Jon Stratton theorised, the substitution of assimilationist policy with multiculturalism in the late 1980s did not lead to the realisation of a racially egalitarian utopia, but rather to further ossification of the Anglocentric core as the dominant culture, whereby the only site of change was located in the core’s relation to the ethnic periphery. This shifted from a coercive relation demanding the periphery shed its difference and seek incorporation into the dominant culture, to an appreciative relation that was willing to enjoy the difference of the periphery whilst foreclosing the possibility of heterogeneity, of ever allowing the ‘ethnics’ to challenge the Anglocentric monoculture.

Primarily, this ‘enjoyment’ of difference took place through the (re)production of ethnicity for consumption by the dominant culture. Departing from Stratton’s analysis, Ghassan Hage contended that when it comes to consuming multiculturalism, particularly as it pertains to ethnic cuisine, it is not enough to characterise the gaze of the consumer through the lens of whiteness. Instead, he posited the subject as a ‘cosmo-multiculturalist,’ who views the sampling of ‘authentic’ ethnic food as a means of acquiring cultural capital—a classiness, a sense of cosmopolitanism.

The elusive concept of ‘authenticity’ is key; the cosmo-multiculturalist is not content with any old plate of chow mein or butter chicken. Authenticity, and to some degree, the function of the entire multicultural project, is rooted in reifying the ethnic Other as an object, a prize which must be won through the adventurous, daring merits of the cosmo-multiculturalist.

This idea can be easily illustrated by the variety of anecdotes available at most people’s disposal about appreciating the authenticity of a restaurant that does not seemingly cater to a clientele outside of its own culture (a Chinese restaurant with no English menus and staff who speak limited English, for example). Although benign at first glance, it quickly becomes evident that what is actually desirable about such an establishment is its ability to uphold the fantasy of a segregated cosmo-multiculturalist core and ethnic periphery.

To continue with our previous analogy, the Chinese restaurant must appear unconcerned with courting the interests of the cosmo-multiculturalist and thus remain uncorrupted by the dilution/pollution that results from pandering to Western palates. Only through this process of essentialisation, of performing a pure ethnic-ness distinct from that of the dominant culture, can the periphery be deemed ‘good’, as worthy of being tamed.

Therefore, it is precisely through overlooking the injunctions of this ideological schema, whether it be through wilful subversion or sheer ignorance, that Eddy’s choice to open Strewth is an interesting one. Under a regime of multiculturalism that compels the ethnic periphery to commodify or die, Eddy is actively refusing to be pinned down as a subject defined by his otherness or to offer up his ethnicity as spectacle for the dominant culture, although this is not done without palpable anxiety.

The marketing of Strewth as possessing a “real Aussie” nature betrays its own premise insofar as it lays bare the desperation of the ethnic Other to appeal to the heart of the dominant core.

As he writes on the Strewth website: “I feel like every Australian has had a moment where they have said, “Mate, I would love to open a Restaurant!” I was one of those people [and] I somehow mustered all the bravery, resources (and arrogance) that I possessed and opened Strewth!” What is interesting is Eddy’s eagerness to interpellate himself as an Australian subject, as someone who deserves a fair go at the Australian dream as much as the next bloke, even when it is clear the dominant culture does not recognise him as one of its own.

Indeed, this fear was confirmed when Strewth closed down mere months after it opened. Before Eddy had a chance to his seasonal menu in time for winter, butchers paper was already obscuring the glass entrance of 85 King once again. Foot traffic was low and interest in “proper Aussie food,” it seemed, even lower.

This lack of interest in the commodification of an authentic Australian-ness can on one level be understood as a sort of cultural cringe; an aversion to the gauche connotations of the unsophisticated, backward culture alluded to by use of the term “Aussie,” nominally deployed without jest by backpackers, expats, members of the UPF, or effectively anyone seeking to reinstate a vulnerable claim to nationhood.

Alternatively, such aversion can be explained precisely by the paradox of explicating one’s nature. A call to “real Australia” is a call to no one, not simply in the sense that Australian culture, materially and historically speaking, is still undelineated, unknowable, and thus for the moment void; but also in the sense that a call to “real Australia” in the market of multicultural commodities will always remain unanswered, except by tourists, because the market insists upon a subject-objection relation between the cosmo-multiculturalist and the ethnic Other; one must choose a point of identification and Eddy chose poorly.

It is entirely plausible that had Eddy opted into ethnic production and commodified his Otherness, his pursuit of the Australian entrepreneurial dream might have paid off. But that is neither here nor there.

Ultimately, when the discourse of multicultural intersubjectivity is beholden to neoliberal logic, of a choice between commodity and consumer, any hope of rehabilitating the current mode of subjugated race relations to develop what Hage described as an “alter-politics” is annulled.