There’s a lot of development happening in Brisbane. And all that development creates a lot of food and beverage spaces. Which in turn creates all those restaurants, cafes and bars you’ve been going to.
It’s a packed market, and often the first challenge for a restaurateur is standing out from the crowd. After all, opportunities for second chances in hospitality are few and far between.
You imagine this is what the owners of British Colonial Co. agonised over when deciding upon a name for their breezy Hawthorne grazing spot. It’s a strangely anachronistic piece of branding, but one that could’ve been reasonably explained away by the choice of décor (whether it should be or not, decorating in a ‘British colonial style’ is an established interior design choice).
Since the restaurant’s launch in July it had been running without incident, until someone noticed the following splash page. “Inspired by the stylish days of the empirical [sic] push into the developing cultures of the world, with the promise of adventure and modern refinement in a safari setting”.
This reference to the British Empire, which at its peak counted close to quarter of the world’s population as its subjects, was too much for some people, who took to social media to call out the venue. “Oh wonderful, Brisbane now has a colonialism themed restaurant,” tweeted @hacklocked late on Sunday night. “my favourite part of that british colonial co dining place? the lifesize statue of george orwell beating an indian child with a rattan cane,” added @dannolan the following morning.
Soon, Fairfax Media, News Corp and The Daily Mail were onto the commentary. A good two months after it opened, British Colonial Co. found itself in the middle of a social media shit storm. Earnest online customer reviews earned sarky, snarky objections, which in turn received “political correctness gone mad” push back from others.
The outrage machine had been switched on and the hits came pouring in, all because the owners of a Brisbane restaurant experienced a branding brain fade.
It makes sense the outcry took so long. Hawthorne is a sleepy, middle-class suburb – hardly a bastion of passionate, left-leaning political correctness. And accusations that sites such as The Weekend Edition and Gourmand & Gourmet had reviewed the venue without “questioning their gross racism” are probably unfair when there’s a chance they didn’t even see the splash page.
But was this even a news story? No site touched it until there were objections on social media, a whole two months after the restaurant opened. And at the time of writing, no news organisation has contacted, say, an aboriginal elder or any other representative of the local Turrbal people – actual victims of British colonialism – to check if they were offended.
It’s in contrast to the controversy that engulfed Vietnamese eatery and beer bar Uncle Ho earlier this year. On that occasion, the local Vietnamese community, largely refugees or descendents of refugees from the Vietnam War, staged a protest outside the restaurant, objecting to its offhand, propaganda-style references to North Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh. This was a legitimate news story that affected the community, even if such a clash of ideas was understandable given Swedish-born restaurateur Anna Demirbek’s travels through the northern parts of Vietnam. She likely didn’t anticipate such a backlash from people who haven’t travelled back to the country of their birth, and in many cases, can’t.
British Colonial Co., for its part, has tried to get out ahead of the controversy, first by changing the splash page, and then by releasing a statement to The Daily Mail further explaining its branding. “We believe that our décor and menu has great synergy with Brisbane's climate and the expansive palette of our clientele, who are looking for a melting pot of food and beverages to enjoy in a relaxed atmosphere," the statement read. “We are therefore upset and saddened by today's media reports that our brand is causing offence and distress to some members of the community. This certainly was not our intention.”
In some ways it’s a classic non-apology apology, but then the owners are still likely trying to get their heads around what on earth happened. Either way, will it be enough? The story is dying down, the news organisations are moving on, but at the end of the outrage is someone’s livelihood. In that sense, it’s a bit of an ethical snarl. Do the owners deserve to have their livelihood scuppered for what might have been just an ill-thought-through idea? Uncle Ho (later renamed Aunty Oh) didn’t recover, eventually closing its doors – perhaps because of an initial reluctance to properly engage with the controversy.
Predictably, with British Colonial Co. it was only a matter of time before someone – in this case, Buzzfeed breaking-news reporter, Gina Rushton – asked in a tweet, “Where Else But Queensland?” But restaurants such as Uncle Ho and British Colonial Co. are part of a much wider conversation around questions of cultural appropriation, insensitivity and backhanded racism.
In the Melbourne suburb of Richmond, Thai bar and restaurant LadyBoy has turned heads with its nomenclature’s potential to offend. Even the London-based Economist newspaper has noted the trend, wondering what some might make of Double Happiness, also in Melbourne, with its Communist Chinese propaganda and a cocktail named Imperialist Running Dog; or a now-closed Sydney bar, Starlyn, named after Joseph Stalin, the former Soviet dictator responsible for the deaths of an estimated 20 to 60 million people.
Successful eateries such as Sichuan Bang Bang and Happy Boy illustrate that authenticity and good fun can be mixed without it descending into bad taste. But when news and social media combine to act as an outrage-fuelled kangaroo court, heaven help you if you get it wrong.