Current Issue #488

Beer and Other Sins:
A dose of humanity at the Silver Star Cafe

Beer and Other Sins by Royce Kurmelovs

“No one has ever come to talk to us about the business before,” says Mei Choong of the Silver Star Café.

The bar at the back corner of a China Town food court is open seven days a week from 11am until 4pm, except on Fridays when it shutters at 9pm.

Mei and her husband bought the place in 2008 from the previous owners who opened it 10 years before that. Mei barely drinks, but figured serving beer and wine was easier work than dealing with perishable food.

Buying the bar meant more than buying into a business. Operating a kitchen in the food court comes with certain responsibilities. Everyone knows everyone and they help each other out where they can, as best they can.

Then there are the regulars. One group of old men have been coming to the bar since it was owned by the previous owners.

Twice a week they come in to hold down a table and sip their wine while they talk about their holidays and their health conditions. Over the last decade, she says, she has watched their numbers thin as they’ve moved into nursing homes or passed away.

“I’ve watched them age,” she says. “They’re lovely. I think it’s a really good thing they still make time for each other.”

In that sense working the bar is a good job, no better or worse than any other, though Mei says business has been slow of late.

“It’s been really dead,” Mei says. “There’s no one in here. Business is down 50 per cent. All because of the virus.”

At the time of writing, information about coronavirus, or COVID-19, remains incomplete. What is known is that the disease spreads almost two-to-three times faster than the common cold and kills many more people than the average flu, particularly those above 65-years-old and the sick — though the exact rates depend on which country generated the statistics.

Today there may now be 100,000 recorded cases worldwide, yet the rate of transmission and the number of deaths varies according to population size, access to quality healthcare systems and the willingness of governments to act quickly. When the governor of Wuhan lied to cover up the outbreak, the virus bloomed. When the Chinese central government mobilised, it quickly contained the spread according to an independent team from the World Health Organisation.

Italy, however, hasn’t been so lucky, though with the whole country currently under quarantine there are no reports of people avoiding Lucia’s in the Central Market. Meanwhile, the indifference of the Trump administration means the majority of new cases within Australia have come from the US — a country where getting tested costs up to $1000 for the uninsured, yet no travel ban has been issued.

“No one wants to come outside. Everyone is afraid of the virus,” Mei says.

In that way the Silver Star Café is a working case study on the lessons COVID-19 has taught about a world more interconnected than ever before. When the Chinese province of Hubei began to cough, a food court at the end of the world in Adelaide emptied out.

The result was predictable. Education-related travel services make up Australia’s fourth largest export according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. That means the students who keep businesses turning are simply not around as world governments have answered the outbreak by locking down their borders.

It’s the kind of thing that makes Mei frustrated. Two of her five bar tenders have been caught overseas, but the government has taken its time to announce a stimulus package while saying nothing to undo the xenophobia.

“No one wants to come outside. Everyone is afraid of the virus,” Mei says.

“I mean, have you seen the government trying to support Australian businesses to say it’s okay? I haven’t,” Mei says.

The worst part, Mei adds, is the racism. A cocktail of fear and ignorance makes people behave in stupid ways. Though she hasn’t experienced it directly, her staff has.

Behind the bar she introduces Karen who says the other day she was at work while wearing a mask, not because she was sick but because she was being cautious in a work environment around food and drink.

A woman who looked about forty came by with two kids. When she clocked Karen in her mask, she asked if she had “the virus”.

“Because of my Chinese look,” Karen says. “What gives her the right to tell me what to wear? What if I had been wearing a burkha? Who cares what I wear? I should be able to wear what I want.”

None of that mattered though, at least not to the white stranger to who told her to “go back to her country”.

“I’ve lived in Australia for nine years,” Karen says, fighting back tears. “I’m a citizen.”

She starts to cry openly when she tells another story about how, when she was waiting for a bus, some kids told her she had the coronavirus and threw rocks at her.

That’s when Mei hugs Karen.

“I wasn’t around when it happened, but if I had been, I would have said something,” Mei says.

“Those people are ignorant and cruel. They forget, Australia is multiracial. The person they are talking to could be Australian born, so where are they going back to?”

Royce Kurmelovs

Royce Kurmelovs

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Royce Kurmelovs is an Australian freelance journalist and author of The Death of Holden (2016), Rogue Nation (2017) and Boom and Bust (2018).

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