Beer and Other Sins: Counting change in Chinatown

Every time the automatic doors open, Adelaide reminds those sitting in the new Chinatown food court that it is a cold, dry night outside.

It is nearly 6pm on a Friday and the flow of people filtering in for dinner means the doors never close. The gentle breeze it creates carries a chill that circulates the room. No one takes off their coats.

The key feature of the new food court is its bar. Behind the counter a young woman in a bright pink hoodie does her best not to let anyone standing in line wait more than a minute for a drink. She moves quickly and works efficiently, but it’s clear she’s new.

Next to her is Kim Lee, who moves as quickly as she speaks.

“Need any advice?” she asks with a smile as she leans over the bar into talking distance.

Officially Lee is the marketing officer for the entire food court. Mostly, her role involves remembering the things other people forget. Since this place is new and the staff is young, they don’t always know how to mix a gin and tonic, or where to reach for the Sauvignon Blanc. Lee herself is no bartender, she just likes good food and enjoys a drink, so until her staff catch up, she’s around to help out.

In some way, Lee’s new too. She’s a local who left for Hong Kong in the ‘80s after university. It was never her plan to stay away for so long, but once she settled in, she found Hong Kong was a different city every day.

Before she knew it, two decades had gone by. When she decided to come back to Adelaide for good to care for her elderly parents, Lee left behind a bad marriage and a job as the global marketing manager for a German light bulb company.

She’s only been back a year now and she’s noticing change in the little things. Grocery stores now stock bok choy, everyone knows how to use chopsticks and Chinatown has its own identity. Back when she was young, she says, the place used to look more like Lygon Street in Melbourne.

“What I like about Adelaide is hearing the birds sing,” she says. “Blue skies, clear skies, clouds. You don’t get that in Asia.”

When I ask about the recent fire, she says it’s the thing everyone’s been talking about it.

“We’re kind of lucky it didn’t come through to here,” Lee says. “I didn’t know it was that big. I didn’t know until I saw the news reports.”

In early July on a cold Tuesday morning, the block of shops on the other side of Moonta Street lit up the sky in a neon blaze. The firefighters who were called to the scene found themselves navigating a rabbits’ warren of narrow passages and sharp corners as they raced to stop it from spreading.

As news slowly started to spread, people tried to work out what happened and Lee, for a brief moment, had a moment of panic.

It’s been three months since she landed the job and, so far, she has spent most of that time working until midnight to get the place ready to open. One of her tasks was to handle fire compliance. The moment she learned the scale of the fire, she thought it had spread to their building and that she maybe had missed something.

By the afternoon the $3.5 million redeveloped food court remained untouched, but the acrid smell of smoke hung in the air. People had gathered to gawk as carpenters went to work boarding up the shopfronts. At first the cops thought it may have been arson, but later they pinned the cause down to an electrical fault in a fridge.

The fire is sad, Lee says, but if Hong Kong taught her anything, it’s that nothing stays the same for long. All you can do is try to adapt and that’s what people are doing now. It’s only been three days and the Chinatown Association of South Australia have already mobilised in support to hold a fundraiser at $100 a ticket. Meanwhile, the owners of Dumpling King, an Adelaide favourite, are talking about reopening at the food court.

“When the old goes, the new comes and it gets revamped,” Lee says. “You just have to be able to answer the next question before it comes up.”

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