Off Topic and on the record as South Australian identities talk about whatever they want… except their day job. From the moment Poh Ling Yeow arrived in Adelaide as a nine-year-old migrant from Malaysia, the artist and cooking identity knew she was home.
“Basically the reason we moved was because my parents were concerned about the education of my brother and I, as I was proving to be quite the dunce,” she laughs. “I was not a high performer. I think the culture, obviously, is very different with schooling, the focus is very much on academia [in Malaysia] and I was a daydreamer from day dot; I could never focus and I almost suspect I had some sort of learning difficulty. “I just hated school. Hated it,” the inaugural MasterChef runner-up and host of Poh’s Kitchen explains.
“When I look back, I think it’s really funny how you can’t run away from who you are even from the beginning. I remember chopping up my graph paper into noodles and playing Hawker Noodle Vendor when I was supposed to be doing maths. I used to have one of those mechanical pencil sharpeners with the handle on it clipped to my table and the pencil shavings were my garnish, then I’d get coins out and rub them on my maths paper and cut those out for money. I’d just spend my whole time totally not listening in class. Just in my own vagued-out world.”
When Poh’s family decided to move to Adelaide, she knew her life would suddenly make sense. “I felt like I’d arrived home. It’s such a weird thing to say but it was one of the first moments of my life as a child where I had clarity. I felt like I was always confused or upset and the only time I felt happy was on my own. I remember driving home from the airport and I just thought everything [in Adelaide] was so beautiful, even the street signs! I just fitted into school really well. I never suffered any teasing or anything like that as a migrant.
“I had this one girl, I’m looking for her actually, Philippa Pearce, and she took me under her wing. She was just a little mother duck, and watched me all day long and made sure no one was teasing me. She just walked me through everything at school for the first few weeks. She was just my hero.
“I performed really well at school. I think it was because Australia has an understanding that kids have social needs and that their social development is as important as their academic development at school. When I came to Australia I thought, ‘What the hell – they’re in sandpits and doing finger painting?’ I remember feeling royally gipped,”
Poh, whose exhibition Veiled is currently showing at Hill Smith Gallery, laughs. “On my first day of school my Auntie Kim – who is a very special person in my life. She migrated with us and she’s actually my grandfather’s sister who’s lived with my family since her early 30s – and bless her heart, she thought, ‘I’m going to give Poh her favourite dish to take to school’. It just happened to be chicken giblets in star anise and soy. I was quite horrified when I opened my lunchbox. All I wanted was a vegemite sandwich and a box of sultanas, you know? I went through lots of lunches starving actually, because I couldn’t bare the embarrassment of eating some weird warm lunch that I had to eat with a spoon. They were the kinds of things that made me feel so horrified. The thing about Australia is, people aren’t even like that, they’re just curious and they probably wanted to taste it. I didn’t see it like that. I’d just clamp it up, chuck it in my bag and go hungry.
“As a migrant I always felt on the outer. For many years I didn’t realise it was completely self-imposed and I think that has fuelled my art. I always identify with people who are slightly on the outer. I’ve always had really great experiences in Australia. I’ve never really been the target of racism; maybe once or twice in Rundle Mall some yob yelled out a racial slur at me, but the funny thing is, when it happened it took me ages to realise they were talking to me, like later on in the day, ‘I think that guy was talking to me?’ That’s how at home I felt in Australia.”
After they arrived, Poh’s parents bought a newsagency in Collinswood, at which Poh and her brother had to work during the school holidays. “We were the slave labour every school holiday, which my brother and I both resented. It’s funny how full circle all of these things that are ingrained into you at childhood become, even when you hate them, because I’ve just opened stalls [Jamface] at the Adelaide Farmers’ Market and the Market Shed on Holland and all through uni I yearned to play shops again. I just always had this thing in the back of my head that I would love to open a shop and tie it in with food because that slowly became a passion as I got older but it’s essentially what I grew up with. I think it’s interesting that you can’t run away from who you are.”