The SeeToh family has run the same Chinese takeaway in Queanbeyan for 44 years, long enough to watch generations of locals pass through for birthdays, anniversaries, or just home dinners.
But after a shock diagnosis of stage two breast cancer, Vanessa SeeToh is finally hanging up the apron, along with her husband, to spend more time with family.
“It is with a heavy heart and great consideration that we are announcing the end of an era,” she says.
“Running a business has become too much of a burden and prompted us to consider the importance of health and spending more time with loved ones.”
Canton Chinese Restaurant was a poky takeaway shop on Crawford Street when Vanessa’s dad, John SeeToh, bought it on 1 July 1978.
“He was a chef in Singapore before that but came here for work,” she says.
“He liked the Australian lifestyle. He thought it a more relaxed place for a family to be brought up.”
Even if his English was limited, food was something John knew inside and out. He began reinventing the restaurant, starting by adding a sit-down dining area and squid on the menu.
“Initially, everyone turned up their nose, but our rock salt chilli squid has grown to become a very popular dish,” Vanessa says.
“And because of our south-east Asian background, my dad introduced Malaysian and Singaporean food to the community – a first for Queanbeyan.”
They were also the first Chinese restaurant in the area to offer a home delivery service – quite an innovation in the 80s.
Vanessa and her three siblings, all under 10 at the time, were put to work in the kitchen, helping with everything from peeling onions and washing dishes to cutting vegetables.
“And then by watching my parents cook, we gradually stepped in and took over.”
Vanessa and her husband took over the bulk of the work when her parents retired in 2000. Her mum is still alive. John died in January last year, but Vanessa says his recipes live on.
“We have been hand making the same dim sims since we commenced 44 years ago – delicious steamed morsels for everyone to enjoy.”
Vanessa’s breast cancer diagnosis arrived suddenly earlier this year. The rigmarole of chemotherapy treatment forces her to rest at home much of the time, which meant her husband was left to run the restaurant on his own.
“It was too hard for him,” she says.
She says the news has been met with plenty of emotion from the Queanbeyan community, many of whom have parents or grandparents who have also dined at the restaurant.
“Because we have been in the local dining scene for so long, we have a lot of loyal customers that become good friends,” she says.
Several celebrities and politicians have also come through the door over the years, including Lorrae Desmond, country singer Kasey Chambers, One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, and Katter’s Australian Party leader Bob Katter.
“We will miss our beautiful regulars who have become friends through the restaurant, and it is very satisfying knowing that all the hard work that goes in makes people happy,” she says.
Her husband and son will stay on until the end of September to help the new owners with the transition. Beyond that, her uncle and son will continue to work in the kitchen.
As for Vanessa herself, she has been “inundated with support”.
“Lots of well wishes, flowers, gifts and meals, although the problem with being a chef is that people are scared to cook for you,” she says. “But the support from the community has been very caring and loving.
“It’s a rough patch to go through, but I’ll stay strong and kick this cancer in the butt.”