City News

Miss Chu rolls up for Refugee Week

Founder of MissChu, Naiji Chu / Photo: Edwin Monk

In 1975, Nahji Chu was living in third world conditions at a refugee camp in Thailand.

A victim of the oppressive Pathet Laos regime in Vietnam, Chu spent three years without a consistent source of water and living in rooms made from mosquito nets.

Now? MissChu has become one of the most recognisable food brands in Sydney.

Chu made the journey to Sydney in 1978 under the United Nations refugee program, before trying her hand at making it in Australia.

“I fell into catering because I had failed in being an actor, failed as a photographer, as a fashion designer and failed in having my own rock band,” says Chu.

“I went ‘oh well, I’ll just deal with what I’ve got’. If you get dealt lemonade, just sell it. I went ‘you’re Vietnamese, you’re very good at food, you came from a family of food – you might as well do what you know’.”

In 2005 Chu started the MissChu food catering business in Sydney, using her Vietnamese heritage to fruitful effect.

“If you can’t beat it, use it and flaunt it,” says Chu. “I may as well turn it around and make it really funky. I said I’m going to make being Vietnamese and being a refugee really funky.”

Now known as the ‘queen of rice paper rolls’, MissChu has opened four Sydney stores, two in Melbourne and is set to expand overseas to London later this year.

“We all put all of the things I’ve done in my life into this brand by storytelling, by giving it a historical context, by doing philanthropy things through it … [and] film, music and fashion,” says Chu.

“The main thing about the brand is it’s a vehicle to tell the refugee story, which I thought was really important in this country.”

Chu is an ambassador for Refugee Week, which is launched at Pitt St Uniting Church on Saturday, prior to World Refugee Day on June 20.

Chu is hopeful the “scare mongering” about refugees proliferated by politicians does not overshadow “the people who actually need help”. The most recent incident occurred this week when at least 13 people perished after a people smuggling boat headed for Australian shores sunk off the coast of Christmas Island.

“We have got into the habit of pulling up the ladder behind us and forgetting about the people who actually need help,” says Chu.

“I want to stand up and say that my family came to Australia because we wanted to build a new life free from war, free from poverty and free from persecution. But I think with the prosperity that came with the world – and that includes Australia – we’ve become lost.”

Chu says the first message about refugees is “thank you Australia”, and that broader benefit could be derived from increasing refugee acceptance.

“Don’t be afraid because when you were afraid in the ‘80s that the Asians would take over – we haven’t,” she says.

“We have only made things better for you. If you let more refugees in, you can raise the standard of living and become a more prosperous country. It will take 25 years [but] if we don’t do it, we’re going to fall behind.”