On Sunday I ate at a Filipino restaurant. This was a first; prior experiences of Filipino food had been solely at friends’ houses. Restaurants were simply just not around. In fact, some googling seems to indicate there may be less than 10 in the entire state of NSW.
Which is strange considering the population of Australians of Filipino ancestry. The 2006 census gives 92300 people who speak Tagalog at home. This compares to 53900 speakers of Turkish. And Turkish eateries are ubiquitous.
Ethnic restaurants are one of the standard features of the experience of immigration. Why has it not occured with the Filipinos?
I asked the proprietor. He said that there were “a few out west” (this was in Dee Why) that served lower quality cut of meat with “more bone and gristle” to Filipino diners that “mainstream” customers wouldn’t like. He had chosen Dee Why, and was using modified ingredients to appeal to mainstream diners.1
I didn’t press the point (the place was quite busy) but I found this unsatisfactory. After all, the “few out west” appears to be a couple in Lidcombe and Blacktown, which is where there are larger populations of Tagalog speakers, but that is still astoundingly few compared to other ethnicities, including smaller ones. Why the discrepancy?
I’m generally wary of explanations that involve preferences since they seem like non-explanations to me – they appeal to something (tastes) that are only observable in terms of the consumption patterns you’re seeking to explain in the first place, and it’s a poor explanation that explains a phenomenon based on the phenomenon itself. That said, they are particularly weak in this instance. To attribute diners of a non Filo background with a lack of taste for Filo food is to mistake the causality with other cuisines. There, ethnic cuisines became popular with the broader population only after the restaurants were founded to serve diners familiar with the food. It is only after exposure from these restaurants that the cuisines enter cookbooks and TV shows and get bastardised packet mixes in the supermarket. Even now, most cuisines will have restaurants that predominately are patronised by people of that ethnicity. This is true of Vietnamese or of the massively proliferating choice of regional Chinese cuisines (it’s more than Cantonese!); strikingly it’s still true of the very widely popular Italian. But these restaurants exist nonetheless. So it’s difficult to attribute the lack of establishments to non Filo preferences. The alternative is to say that the Filipino population is far smaller that other ethnic groups or has a special disinclination to eat their own cuisine at a restaurant. The first is easy to refute, the second seems absurd.
So I think the answer must be supply based.
There’s a reason ethnic restaurants proliferate. A diaspora community is always more likely to go into business. Even when domestic institutions aren’t explicitly exclusionary, as was the case with European Jews and SE Asian Chinese, alien customs, culture and language make them difficult for migrants to enter. So they are more likely to choose self employment as a result. Hence the stereotypes of business acumen amongst said Jews or Chinese, or the Greek greengrocer or Indian service station owner. Additionally, a important part of the skills required for a restaurant (cooking a cuisine) has already been learned by being of that culture. Sometimes this can extend to neighbouring cuisines which have been picked up, such as the plethora of Japanese restaurants that are more likely to be run by Koreans instead of the relatively small and middle class professional Japanese community.2
Why is the Filipino community different, despite having a good supply of Filipino cooks?
Perhaps the clue lies in another statistic from the census. 61% of the speakers of Filipino at home are women. If we assume that a large portion of these are children born here and who are gender balanced, this implies the adult population of migrants is even more skewed. No other language on the list is that skewed.
What might this mean? We don’t need to resort to inate differences in gender to see how this might explain the restaurant question. One possibility: If these women are married, we will have a migrant group that is disproportionately made up of people whom are less expected to be main breadwinners in our still patriarchal society. This gives them an option of avoiding the workforce or entering low skilled part time work – options not socially acceptable for men who, alienated to some extent from most paid employment, gravitate towards self employment.
Alternatively, it may just point towards a feature of the community. A large part of the Filipino diaspora has left the Phillipines specifically to find work in low skilled sectors abroad, just as the 19th century Irish diaspora spread towards labouring jobs Unlike the Irish however, the low skilled jobs around today that they seek, in aged care or domestic service, are “feminine” occupations, both in the Phillipines and abroad and for both cultural and yes, preference, based reasons in supply and demand. The women leave because they can find work and the men stay because they can’t find work and war does not force them to leave; unlike any of the diasporas escaping from war ravaged Europe, the Middle East, Indochina or post Tiananmen China. Hence the gender discrepancy. If you’re in a low skilled job, you need not take the risk of self employment. Those for whom these jobs are less accessible are back overseas and therefore aren’t starting restaurants.
Unfortunately there are other communities that are not refugee in origin (although many, if not most are). For instance the majority of the non-Cantonese Chinese community is not related to the class of student admitted by a teary Hawke in 1989, but despite coming in the same era of feminised low skill work, the splits is 51-49 female to male if we take “Mandarin speakers” as a flawed proxy – we have an astoundingly large selection of differing regional Chinese cuisines to eat is restaurants as well. We’d also need to explain why the Philippines is apparently the only country exporting low skilled workers here – something beyond my capacities although I am sure it is possible.
But I can’t think of a better explanation as yet. You?
1 It is worth noting that the only other diner who seemed to be of a non Filipino background was dining with someone who did appear to be so.
2 Anecdotally, in the past at least, many of the astoundingly large number of Thai places were run by Vietnamese, which may explain why they could become a seeming plurality of independent takeaways in the Hunter and Sydney despite a relatively small migrant base.