Former cartoonist offers Malaysian food and groceries Down Under, promoting Malaysia to Australia
With one restaurant offering Malaysia’s popular food and three supermarkets stocked with Malaysian and Asian grocery supplies, Chris Chu is doing his bit to promote the country in Melbourne.
The 37-year-old who hails from Kuala Lumpur also hangs cartoons of Malaysian life on the walls of his restaurant.
“Some people offered to buy my cartoons but I declined. Instead, I photocopied the cartoons and give them away,” says the cartoonist turned entrepreneur in a telephone interview.
At 18, he became the youngest full-time cartoonist for Ujang, then a popular Malay youth magazine published by Kharisma Publications. As Adonis, he created UMA, a science fiction watercolour comic strip whose main character was a girl named Uma.
Eight years later, Chu, 37, moved to Melbourne where his girlfriend was studying. As djburger, he started a comic strip website whose characters were based on things he loves like Snowy (snow) and Meo (cat). The website became popular in the US, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong. He also sold merchandise featuring these characters online.
“I was also doing comic strips for Ujang in Australia, emailing stuff back.”
His earlier work was featured in the 2012 Cartoon Exhibition organised by the Shah Alam Gallery alongside other professional cartoonists as such Ujang, Alpha, Boy PJ, and Sireh.
Promoting Malaysian F&B
In 2006, Chu and girlfriend cum business partner Sandy Yeo started a restaurant, Coconut House, which serves Malaysian food.
The restaurant now serves 10 staple favourites including nasi lemak, chicken rice and curry laksa. “We are most famous for our KL-style curry laksa, which some customers claim is the best in the city,” said Chu.
Local Australians make up half his customers while students comprise another 40%. Most have an Asian background and find his food affordable.
Chu said that when his restaurant opened, there were only two Malaysian-owned restaurants in Melbourne “so we saw an opportunity to try our hand at the food business”.
In the early days, they slept barely three hours a day. “I was like Superman! After I finished cooking the order, I’d ‘fly’ out and serve it, then ‘fly’ back to cook again.”
He said he wasn’t a good cook initially but managed to “thau si” (in Cantonese, translated literally as ‘steal skill’) back in KL by observing hawkers at work and trying to emulate what he’d observed at home.
As soon as he got the taste right, they would return to Melbourne and start serving the dish. The menu expanded after several similar “outings”.
Why name the eatery Coconut House? “I wanted a name to identify it as Malaysian and what’s more Malaysian than nasi lemak, which has coconut (milk) content? Coconut is also used in a lot of Malaysian food.
“Many of our customers are students and I chose ‘House’ to impart the feeling of going home,” explains Chu, who designed the interior, exterior and layout of the restaurant.
From one shoplot, Coconut House expanded next door after a year and now seats 100 in two dining halls.
In 2012, Chu opened Hometown Asian Supermarket specialising in Asian foodstuff opposite the restaurant (pic). Last August, he added Tokyo Hometown Japanese Supermarket which specialises in Japanese foodstuff. Late last year, he opened a second Japanese supermarket next to the Asian supermarket. The supermarkets stock over 10,000 products each.
“We have a complete range of Malaysian products including curry powder and paste, confectionery, drinks and frozen food,” said Chu, adding that the same customers patronise Coconut House and the supermarkets.
Why supermarkets? “I foresee more restaurants opening in Melbourne so competition will increase. With the rising cost of living, people may not have much money to dine out. It’s cheaper to eat in so they will be looking for the ingredients I supply.”
“There is competition so I source directly as a licensed importer. I am looking to become a distributor as we bought a warehouse and I can supply to other supermarkets.”
These days, Chu is semi-retired but three times a week, he visits all four outlets to check on things and make sure everything is in order as per operating procedures.
He still draws. “I get itchy fingers and want to draw.” His cartoons have been published in JOM, the first and only Malaysian community magazine in Melbourne, launched in April 2012. “I am the first and only Malaysian cartoonist drawing for them until today.”
In recent years, he has made annual “part study, part holiday” trips to Japan where he meets with suppliers; observe and learn the Japanese way of doing business; and immerse in their culture.
He advises budding entrepreneurs to start as young as possible. “Know what you are made of. Don’t be content with just doing a bit; upgrade and improve.
“If you want a successful business, know and be personally involved in every aspect of it. Whatever you don’t know, learn. Never stop learning,” he said.
Chu said his biggest competitor is himself. “I always challenge myself to be better. Don’t look to others and compare (with how you are doing). It’s hard to keep up if you are following. I follow myself and in so doing, I actually lead.”