Literally ‘drink tea’, yum cha became popular in Australia in the early 1980s, first taking hold in the Chinatown establishments in Sydney and Melbourne. The Cantonese tradition seems to have come to Australia via Hong Kong. For most Australians, it’s more about the food (choosing from many small dishes that are presented on a tray or trolley) than about the tea itself.
Nightclub proprietor and restaurateur Denis Wong is credited with introducing yum cha to Sydney at his Mandarin Club in the mid ’70s. Denis and his brother Keith owned the famous Chequers nightclub in Goulburn Street, Sydney. It attracted the fashionable crowd and was at one point voted one of the top ten nightclubs in the world by variety magazine. Chequers operated from 1953 to the early 1970s.
In 1963, the Wongs opened the Mandarin Club, an all-night venue that was popular with entertainers and ‘colourful characters’. It also attracted Chinese families to the fifth floor restaurant. In his family history, Robert Yen tells how they would go to the Mandarin for yum cha on Sundays, walking up many flights of stairs to the restaurant, grabbing a ticket and waiting for a table.
In 1979 the Australian Women’s Weekly featured recipes for ‘what the Chinese call Yum Cha’. It gave the seal of approval to a new kind of Chinese eating experience. By the end of the 1980s we were becoming increasingly enamoured of the many small dishes on the circulating trolleys.