I was very saddened to hear the Golden Century restaurant had gone into receivership the other day.
For those who’ve been there, no explanation is needed – and unless you have no soul, you’ll understand my sadness. For those who haven’t, allow me to make a very poor effort to explain why the closing of a Chinese restaurant has saddened me.
The Golden Century hosted me many times. A Chinese restaurant in a quarter of Sydney brimming with Chinese restaurants, it stood out.
There were a bunch of reasons for this. Firstly, and crucially, the food was amazing. I’ve eaten in Kowloon and Hong Kong, and this place was as good if not better.
Then there was the fact it seemed to be open whenever I arrived. The wall facing the street was glass, and a stacked head to almost ceiling with live seafood in bubbling aquariums containing fish I’d never seen, lobsters the size of cats, crabs bigger than babies, creatures with spikes I didn’t dare order, and indescribable things that just sat there and blew out the odd air-bubble.
And Lord knows I staggered up its stairs at all times, and in all sorts of states.
I’d been there with my mum, my wife, and my son, for happy birthday lunches. I’d been there with work colleagues from the magazine industry for beery all-arvo nosh-fests. I’d been there with motorcycle industry heavyweights for nuanced meetings which never achieved anything.
And I’d been there in those sinister hours before the dawn with outlaws, gangsters, crooked cops, and stunning, painted sluts in skirts so short and heels so high they caused traffic accidents on the street.
I’d been there with great and good friends, our brains humming with methamphetamine and cocaine, our hands trembling and our teeth grinding, chewing doggedly on delicious but tasteless (to us in our state) salt-and-pepper squid in an effort to eat some type of food after three days of outlaw clubhouse excess.
That’s when the Golden Century was at it’s most fascinating. The place was always full, but late at night (or early in the morning when even the vampires and werewolves have gone home), the patrons were at their most intriguing.
Everyone ate at the Golden Century. Detectives feeding police informers, high-price escorts gearing down after a big night, buck’s nights from Sydney’s far west, hen’s nights from Sydney near east, colourful racing identities, hoodlums, gunfighters, dealers, movers, shakers, and even normal people out for a night on the town.
Chinese gangsters hosting tables of their fellow killers, accompanied by porcelain-skinned girls in glittering cocktail dresses, eating creatures hauled dripping from one of the tanks, then displayed to them for approval before disappearing into the kitchen only to emerge shortly afterwards, steaming with exotic flavours.
I always wanted to eat what they were eating, and once or twice I asked, but was told in rapid-fire Cantonese and broken English it was not available. There were posters on the wall, all in Chinese, which obviously offered foods not designed for the western palette.
There were also bottles of wine priced in their thousands on display, and being bought by all sorts of criminals, Asian and Western. But you could always get an ice-cold Tsing-Tao beer for a few dollars if you’d spent all your money on drugs and strippers, and just needed to get something into your belly before trying to get home alive.
No-one bothered anyone. No-one stared too long at anyone. And no-one grabbed or leered at any of the impossibly hot girls who would dine there with their boyfriends/owners/fathers from time to time.
In fact, I never saw any trouble there – not matter how many tattooed hands clutched chopsticks, no matter how many suspicious bulges I noticed, and no matter how many unzipped bum-bags lay close to hand on the pristine white tablecloths.
I think everyone who ate there after midnight knew that if any shit went down, hundreds of angry, sweaty, and aproned Chinese would emerge from the kitchen armed with those massive oriental meat cleavers that could behead a horse in one swipe, and woks full of boiling rice oil, and carnage would ensue. We had all seen kung fu movies. We knew what to expect if we misbehaved.
The Golden Century was not super-flash, but it was far from squalid. It was spotlessly clean, and it smelled of great food – even if the street outside smelled like a Kowloon sewer. You could never be over-dressed or under-dressed, and you could spend big, or just order some fried rice and a beer – the service was exactly the same.
The waiters were all magnificent. They moved with purpose and grace. They were attentive but unobtrusive, discreet and efficient, and utterly insouciant – as all the finest waiters must be.
There was one older waiter I would regularly see. We called him Old Grim Chang. He was some kind of deity as far as the other waiters were concerned. The fucker was able to carry ten plates at once, expertly capture the wildest fish or the spikiest lobster from the tanks along the wall, and remember what you’d ordered without writing it down – drinks and all.
He never smiled. And he treated me the same way every time – with professional deference lacking any hit of fawning servility. It didn’t matter if I was wearing a suit, or dressed in full battle-rattle colours with a half-naked girlfriend-de-jour on my arm – Old Grim Chang would walk us to the table, pull out the chairs, place the linen napkins on our laps, and immediately ask for our drinks order.
I have no idea if he spoke any English apart from “You like order now?” but I always tipped him handsomely, and I always said thank you to him when I left. He would nod his head as if that was his just due.
It was OK to park your bike on the footpath outside – or if it wasn’t, no-one ever said anything. I never got booked, and no-one ever touched the bike. Hard-eyed men, inside and out, would always look at you, but their gaze never lingered in any way you could consider confrontational. The whole place was like a neutral zone.
Sometimes, you would have to wait for a table. But that was rare, and the wait was never very long, and no-one complained if you sparked up a durrie out the front – which was after they banned smoking in restaurants, and I sure did fill some ashtrays inside the Golden Century before that happened.
Hell, no-one even noticed if you blew a fat joint on the footpath after your meal, or had a bump off the back of your hand before heading off on your next adventure, your belly full of the best Chinese food Sydney ever offered.
My nights rarely started there, but they often finished there, and the food-filled aquariums greeted me on many, many nights – nights when the Cross was just too hot, the cops too feral, or I needed somewhere quiet to lick my wounds and staunch the blood from my face. I remember Old Grim Chang even bringing me some tissues one evening to assist with a particularly nasty punch in the mouth I was dealing with. He didn’t even blink when I wrapped one of the linen napkins around my bleeding hand.
I guess what I am sad about is with the passing of the Golden Century, Sydney has lost another of its iconic eateries – and that’s in a city that didn’t have all that many to begin with. It would have been great to take my son there now that he’s in his mid-twenties, and no longer a teenager, and tell him some tales, and maybe show him Old Grim Chang at his best.
Thank you, Golden Century. You will never be replaced.
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Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.