Chinese arithmetic: not that hard, really

Chinese abacus

Chinese abacus



At BB’s Orient Express, the Chinese restaurant at which I enjoy a smorgasbord-style lunch once or twice each week, the ladle-wielding owner/manager cannot count.

No, that’s not strictly true. I ask for a three-choice meal, and she always adds something extra to my plate – a fried wonton, an extra dumpling, a morsel or two of crunchy-battered fish (so melt-in-the-mouth tender) …

There’s no charge for a cup of Chinese tea – or for the little bowl of chicken and sweetcorn soup that often gets added to my tray.

Occasionally, when she’s been busy and someone else serves me, she brings soup to my table as I’m preparing to leave.

A couple of times, she has brought a little white paper bag to the table, and she squeezes my shoulder as I peek inside.

Today, it was after two o’clock when I arrived. Most of the regulars had gone back to their offices and meeting-rooms. I placed my order, handed over my Eftpos card, then reached for a pair of chopsticks. When my plate arrived, there were six dumplings instead of the standard-issue four, and, perched atop the heaped plate, a succulent spring roll with a tender, crunchy wrapping. And soup, of course.

Chinese arithmetic can be very persuasive. In the long run, all my return visits add up.


Chinese arithmetic has a reputation for being difficult for western minds to comprehend – hence the phrase, “Hard as Chinese arithmetic.” The Urban Dictionary explains what the phrase has come to mean, but that is another (tangential) story.

On New Year’s Eve

In 2011, Ouyang Yu, from Victoria (Australia), won the Community Relations Commission’s award for his book The English Class. Picture: Adam Elwood.

Ouyang Yu reminds me, as I read,
of my lunch today
at a familiar Chinese restaurant.
In my mind’s ear
there are fragments of voices – familiar
sounds, yet incomprehensible –
the laugh-laced talk
of three young Chinese men
sitting down to eat
where usually they serve.
Today they are not in uniform: it is
holiday time, and they are relaxing.
I look across the room at them,
smiling and waving; they respond
with grins and greetings.
As I am getting up from my meal,
the boss crosses the floor
and we shake hands.
“Happy New Year,” we say.
“See you next year.”

(31 December 2012; amended 02 January 2013)


Ouyang Yu (born 1955) is a contemporary Chinese-Australian author, translator and academic.

Ouyang Yu was born in the People’s Republic of China, arriving in Australia in 1991 to study for a Ph. D. at La Trobe University which he completed in 1995. Since then his literary output has been prodigious. Apart from several collections of poetry and a novel he has translated authors as diverse as Christina Stead, Xavier Herbert, Germaine Greer and David Malouf among others. He also edits Otherland, which is a bilingual English-Chinese literary journal. (Wikipedia)


Ouyang Yu. 2012. Loose : A wild history. Adelaide, SA: Wakefield Press.

“The novel combines fiction with non-fiction, poetry with literary criticism, diary with life writing, with multiple stories weaving in between, told from different points of view by different characters.” (Wakefield Press)

Iron cross

“More than a century since they opened and more than a decade since closing down,” reported The Dominion Post earlier this month, “work is under way to transform some notorious Courtenay Place toilets into a pizza, coffee and gelato bar.”

iron cross (15 Nov 2011)

iron cross (15 Nov 2011)

The story reminds readers that “Before being closed down in 1999, the men-only toilets were a notorious pick-up spot …”

My photo (dating from November last year) was triggered solely by the appeal of the iron grille, a mere detail set into the lovely old arts and crafts–style brickwork.

The strangest spice

Sichuan peppercorns

Sichuan peppercorns

When food delights it does not delight in words; it delights in a way that exceeds, or slips past, or twists around words. People who write about music have this same problem, which is why both fields seem to turn out so many gossipy profiles: you can’t describe a transcendent song or dish, but you can easily describe the marital or financial peccadilloes of the person who created them. (Jon Fasman, writing for More Intelligent Life)

Merlot: one noble grape

Christmas being the perfect season for self-indulgence, I resolved (early in December) to release from my modest wine-cellar something lovely for Christmas. One of the oldies, but not too costly, I had reasoned; so I looked through the candidates and decided on a 1998 Pomerol – my singleton bottle of Château Franc-Maillet.

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, I took time out to taste the wine with friends. Earlier in the day, the cork had come out beautifully clean and smelt young and fresh. The wine, too, seemed youthful, with acid and sweet cinnamon prominent – especially at first. There was certainly plenty of fruit – cherries as well as plums. 

Later in the day, the dense complex of flavours began to unfurl, including chocolate and coffee, and some savoury notes were apparent. “It’s the best red I’ve ever tasted,” one friend ventured.

Sampling the wine over three days, I was able to experience and enjoy its development. And it was an ideal accompaniment to my evening meal on Christmas Day: hot-smoked salmon in a creamy Alfredo sauce with fresh egg pasta and a medley of green vegetables.   Continue reading