By Mark Chipperfield
When Cheong Liew, then a student in Melbourne, came to visit his younger brother Khai in Adelaide in 1971 he remembers how refreshing he found the city.
Don Dunstan, a flamboyant Labor MP famous for wearing pink shorts in Parliament House, was embarking on his second term as Premier of South Australia (like a State Governor) – and Adelaide was artistic, edgy and increasingly cosmopolitan.
“I’d been in Melbourne for two years but I found that most of the other Asian students there stuck to their own groups,” recalls Cheong, now 66.
“But in Adelaide I found that Khai had so many different friends from Italy, Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. And people had more time to talk to you. It was a great place for young Asians.”
The brothers had grown up in a large, colourful and talented Straits Chinese family in Malaysia and were keen to embrace the opportunities – and freedoms – they found in Adelaide, a city then roughly the same size as Kuala Lumpur but far more technologically advanced and on the cusp of major social change – thanks to Don Dunstan.
“I don’t think that Adelaide has changed much physically over the past 40 years,” says Khai Liew.
“But culturally and socially there have been huge shifts in thinking.”
First culinary superstar
Although they pursued quite separate careers – Cheong became Adelaide’s first culinary superstar while Khai, created one of the city’s best design studios – the Liew brothers played a significant role in that cultural shift which has transformed Adelaide from a European enclave into a truly multicultural and outward looking society.
Once settled in Adelaide Cheong, who had studied electrical engineering, took a job in a Greek restaurant and became obsessed with food – inspired by the writings of the legendary English critic Elizabeth David.
“I was here at the right time at the right place,” he says modestly.
“Don Dunstan was Premier and we young people wanted to change the world. Most of the restaurants in Adelaide at that time were pseudo Italian, pseudo English or pseudo French. So we decided to cook the food we knew, which was Malaysian, plus other recipes we picked up in books by Elizabeth David and Charmaine Solomon.”
Cheong’s first restaurant, Neddys, made an enormous impact on the eating habits of Adelaideans.
It was the first restaurant in the city to serve exotic ingredients such as offal, chicken’s feet, shark fin and Asian vegetables.
“We were doing roast kidney in suet, calves tongue, lamb’s brain, beef tendon,” he recalls.
“It was an amazing time. You could buy calamari for 40c a kilo.”
Vibrant diversity unleashed
When Neddys closed, Cheong became a cookery teacher at the Regency Park hotel school for several years before taking the helm at The Grange, the flagship restaurant at the Hilton Adelaide – a position he held for 14 years.
“It was the arrival of the first Vietnamese boat people which really changed things around in Adelaide,” he says.
“Suddenly you could buy different types of fish and a much greater variety of vegetables. In the old days you could only buy bean sprouts in a tin. That stopped.”
Cheong’s younger sibling followed a very different career path, but his impact on his adopted city has been equally profound.
While studying economics, Khai Liew, now 62, bought and sold early Australian colonial furniture, opening his own shop in Norwood while still at university.
As a child he had watched carpenters work on his father’s house in Malaysia and became fascinated by the domestic furniture, and simple wooden objects, created by German-speaking settlers in the Adelaide Hills and the Barossa.
“They were incredibly industrious people, driven by the Lutheran work ethic,” he says. “This furniture has influenced my own work considerably.”
Khai’s own designs, which are held in the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of South Australia, the Victoria and Albert Museum and many private collections, draw on diverse influences, including Scandinavian modernism, traditional Chinese furniture, the English arts and crafts movement and, of course, his beloved early colonial pieces from the Barossa and Adelaide Hills.
“I try to stay away from trends,” he says. “Everything I’ve learned, every experience I’ve had, is distilled into my design. I try not to think about what’s fashionable.”
Latest in hi-tech design
Four decades after he opened his first shop in the suburbs of Adelaide, Khai now heads up a large design practice which melds traditional craftsmanship with using the latest technology, such as 3D printing.
His intricate, timeless pieces are now sold around the world.
“My work is about harnessing all of the resources and the skills that we have here in South Australia and then bringing those skills into the 21st century,” he says.
“For me design is all about the creation of jobs and industry.”
Khai attributes his success to the pool of talented French polishers, antique restorers, wood turners, inlayers and other artisans in Adelaide and says it is entirely fitting that the city has been chosen to host the Asia Pacific Space Designers Alliance Conference in September 2016.
“That’s a major coup for Adelaide,” he says.
Despite their long association with South Australia the Liew brothers are still passionate about the state’s wide-open spaces, unique wildlife and pristine beauty – both nominate the Flinders Ranges as a favourite place to take friends visiting from interstate or overseas.
Cheong still remembers his very first trip to the Flinders Ranges many years ago.
“I’d never seen sky like that,” he says. “It looked like wallpaper. Just amazing.”
“I love the Flinders Ranges and Kangaroo Island equally,” says Khai.
“Two very different places but both physically beautiful – majestic and fragile at the same time.”
Given his abiding interest in winemaking and superb local produce it’s not surprising that Cheong’s South Australian bucket list also includes McLaren Vale and Port Lincoln.
“For me there’s nothing better than looking at the fisheries and oyster farms at Port Lincoln,” he says.
“And there’s a guy down there who keeps abalone guts for me – did you know it makes the most fantastic sauce? Just mix it with mushrooms and serve with lamb. Magic.”
International carriers fly direct into Adelaide, including Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific and Malaysian Airlines. Virgin Australia and Qantas fly to Adelaide from all major Australian cities (flights from Sydney and Melbourne are under two hours).