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MissChu believes in Dumplings not Detention
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MissChu believes in Dumplings not Detention
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I'm reading
MissChu believes in Dumplings not Detention
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Articles
12 September 2013

MissChu believes in Dumplings not Detention

We catch up with the Queen of Rice Paper Rolls about refugees, feeling Australian and being proud.

Written by Katherine Wilkinson

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Not one to mince her words, The Queen of Rice Paper Rolls, Nahji Chu, told the ABC’s Q&A, “Turning back the boats is un-Australian… it does not celebrate Australia for what it is, a country of immigrants”. From refugee to entrepreneur, the matriarch of MissChu’s tuckshops and catering business has travelled an incredible road. This year Nahji launched ‘Dumplings not Detention’, a t-shirt campaign encouraging Australians to focus on the blessings of our multicultural society and raising funds for the Refugee Council of Australia.

Dumbo Feather chatted with Nahji way back in 2007 when MissChu’s was just a buzzing Balmain-based catering business. Six short years later MissChu’s business is booming; last year it did a $20 million turnover, today Sydneysiders and Melburnians have a choice of eight tuckshops to dine at and she’s about to open new stores in London, Melbourne and Sydney. “You get dealt lemons, sell lemonade. I got dealt rice paper rolls, that’s what I am.”

We caught up with Nahji to hear more about what she’s been up to and the ‘Dumplings not Detention’ campaign.

Katherine: Can you tell me a bit about the origins of the ‘Dumplings not Detention’ campaign? Who approached whom?

Nahji: The idea, like so many of my creative campaigns, is a fusion of my commercial, political, personal life and history.

The slogan on the t-shirt is basically encouraging people to eat together, enjoy the simple things of life and not worry about something that is a simple humanitarian issue, not a flood of people we need to be tough with…

I approached Vicki Vidor, one of the family owners of General Pants Co, and asked if she’d help spread the message by assisting with producing and distributing the t-shirts through their stores. Vicki and I had worked together on other fundraisers before.  I needed my message to spill into the fashionable mainstream to give it a more positive beat and consumer access point.

What did you want to achieve with the campaign? What has the response been like?

The campaign was always intended to be both a media image and a fashion experience. I knew that the images of the t-shirts would be powerful and potentially go further than the number sold. To their credit General Pants Co was right behind it and is happy with the numbers sold.

Not all responses were positive; some did not like that I tied so directly the refugee cause to the eating of dumplings, which is a core part of my hospitality business. But this commercial tie-in, for me, is part of who I am: a relentless, street-smart entrepreneur. We live in a capitalist society where everyone, including charities, is selling something! Which gets me to the main point: more than 80 per cent of the funds raised went to the Refugee Council of Australia.

Australia can be a very harsh place; you’re either too opinionated, too successful or to others you’re a loser or a dole bludger. These attitudes drive me slightly mad sometimes.

From fleeing your home in canoes to setting-up a tuck shop at the Opera House, yours is an incredible journey; how do you feel about being one of the faces of the refugee issue in Australia? What has your role as an Ambassador for Refugee Week involved?

It is an enormous privilege to have a business that elevates my profile to the point where my refugee story becomes a positive example amongst the river of muck thrown around about refugees by politicians. This issue has been around for as long as I can remember and is the reason I use my refugee visa as the logo for MissChu.

The role of an Ambassador is always to bring public attention and awareness to an issue. I have worked with the Refugee Week team to ensure that my actions were in keeping with their agenda. I’ve basically kept pushing my position with the added confidence that being aligned with them brings.

It’s a delicate topic and I’m conscious of not simplifying the issue, but it does strike me that there’s a lot of irony and hypocrisy surrounding the immigration conversation in Australia. I saw your response to John Ngyuen’s defence of his position on “stopping the boats”, how do you respond to people who talk about “illegals” and “queue-jumpers” and the negatively inherent in the national discourse?

John is free to his opinion and this is definitely not a right wing versus left wing criticism. I would support the Liberals if Malcolm Turnbull were still the leader of the party.

I too came via what is termed the ‘correct routes’; I was plucked from a refugee camp and flown here. However I believe that people smuggling is a criminal issue and being a refugee is a humanitarian one. Somehow the two have become one. Somehow people assume that there are all of these really orderly refugee camps with free space and great facilities that you can wait in. That ‘somehow’ actually is a very convenient and powerful avenue for politicians and the media to exploit. I almost starved to death in the Thai camp we lived in. The experience has left deep scars. Advocating people wait in these places, which can be filled with disease and abuse, is not necessarily the responsible solution either.

When you last spoke with Dumbo Feather you talked about not feeling Australian and the difficulty of assimilating – has this changed at all in the last few years? Has the success of MissChu and the recognition of your vision and brand impacted your perception of your own place in Australian society?

I am Australian in that I formally enjoy the liberties offered by our democracy. However I am foreign by the nature of my childhood experiences, the colour of my skin and shape of my eyes. In the Howard years (which we are probably about to return to) the word was that Australia is a ‘tolerant’ country. I guess I feel ‘tolerated’ a lot of the time rather than entirely at home. But maybe that is the experience every first generation migrant feels.

You told Dumbo Feather way back in 2007 that anything is possible in Australia, since then you’ve opened up eight new tuck shops in Sydney and Melbourne, you’re soon to open in London. What’s next?

As you rightly observe we are in the middle of delivering on a big expansion: stores in Manly, another in Surry Hills, more in Melbourne and yes in London. Ensuring that we deliver them to the highest level possible is the priority right now.

In terms of what’s next, I will continue my investment in the arts and design. This will include a new commission from Lucy McRae, a dance piece reinventing the traditional Dragon Dance and a MissChu artbook cookbook. I will of course continue to deepen my relationship with philanthropic causes such as Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation and HAGAR.

In your DF interview you said, “I want to make Vietnamese people feel proud of who they are in Australia… Because I want to feel proud of what I’ve done.” Are you proud of what you’ve achieved?

If Australia wants to be known as an interesting culture – up and above the Opera House and the natural beauty of the land – then businesses need to invest in clever, interesting and personal design stories to support their business case. I believe this is what I have done.

That is a long way of saying that I, as the founder and creative director of MissChu, am proud. I feel proud to have marshalled so many great talents to achieve a business that anyone can understand and enjoy as uniquely Australian. I really notice the pride my Vietnamese staff takes in the brand, which conveys not just fresh food but a vibrant cultural position.

There are good and bad days.  I do feel that some people still just love the food and would rather see me leave my opinions, politics and artistic engagements behind. “Turn out the lights and let the bitch cook in the dark”. But I truly believe that this combination of all my interests is what makes the company successful, so I persist.

Buy your ‘Dumplings not Detention’ t-shirt here.

Katherine Wilkinson

Katherine Wilkinson is a Melbourne-based journalist and writer.

Photograph supplied

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