Canberra’s oldest Chinese restaurant is celebrating its 60th birthday! Happy’s Chinese Restaurant was opened on the first of December 1962, by the grandfather of current owner and operator Gavin Chan.
Arriving in Australia in the 1950s, Mr Happy earned his nickname because he was too shy to use English and instead would smile at people. He opened the first Happy’s Chinese in Queanbeyan in 1958, with the Canberra location following a few years later.
Gavin started washing dishes in the restaurant after school when he was about eight. He wasn’t planning to take on the family business. But in 2007 when moving back to Canberra with his young family, the timing was right. He said when Happy’s first opened, Chinese food wasn’t common in Canberra.
“A lot of people back in the day didn’t really know about Chinese food and didn’t want to try it,” Gavin said. “So you had to have an extra page on the menu with pub food such as chips and t-bone steak.
“But the culture is more accepted now. People travel a lot more now and understand the different types of Chinese cuisine.”
He said it was now also much easier to source Asian ingredients in Canberra. Specialty items including fresh rice noodles and Chinese vegetables such as choi sum or gai lan used to be difficult to find.
These days the steak is long gone from the menu and diners come to Happy’s for their Cantonese classics.
Gavin said customers were more adventurous and attitudes towards ingredients such as tofu had changed dramatically, but there were still plenty of people who loved old-school favourites including sweet and sour pork or his childhood choice: honey chicken with fried rice.
“To be part of Canberra for 60 years is quite humbling actually,” he said.
“We get so many customers who might just come in once a year now but they’ve always been a part of the business and I’ve known them since I was a kid. It’s hard to describe how special that is.”
As iconic as the bright red signage in Garema Place, the Great Wall of China mural in the basement dining room has been catching the eye of Canberrans since 1975. Gavin’s Uncle Jason took six months to paint the large mural, and it’s a favourite among customers.
COVID-19 restrictions were tough on the business, like much of the hospitality industry. But Gavin said the restaurant persevered and was able to survive thanks to loyal customers who ordered enough takeaway to see Happy’s through.
It also gave his daughters the opportunity to get more involved in the business, adding a silver lining to the situation – and another generation to the history of Happy’s.
“I’d love for them to take over one day, but who knows what life will bring? I don’t want to put any pressure on them.”
Gavin said the team would put up balloons and celebrate the 60th birthday with staff and customers who he hoped would take the opportunity to pop in to say hello.
Happy’s Chinese Restaurant is downstairs at 1/17 Garema Pl, Canberra.
It’s open for lunch from 11:45 am to 2 pm Wednesday to Monday, and for dinner from 5 pm Thursday to Sunday.