You raised four children as a single mother in Melbourne. How did you manage money?
A major motivation for working was to be financially independent. I had to buy bus tickets every term; the kids needed new school shoes at the beginning of the year.
What do you spend too much money on now?
If I want to go to a really lovely restaurant – and I will, every now and again – I’ll say, “Well, blow it! I’m going to really enjoy this!” Especially when I’m travelling. Eat at the best and most unusual places.
What are you frugal about?
Funnily enough, it’s also food. I can’t bear it when I see people throw good food away. I could almost live on a sixpence, if I had to. My mother always had the sense of survival. I might have inherited a bit of that.
Are you technically retired?
I don’t think I could ever retire. I’m not the retiring type.
Even at 88?
No, because if something comes to my door, I will think, “Oh, that sounds interesting.” I will open that door and walk through it. I don’t think about the problems until I’ve said yes.
You were born in Guangdong Province, China, after your Chinese-born mother – who had married your father, an Australian citizen of Chinese descent – was ordered to leave Australia under the White Australia Policy. How did that policy affect your family?
At that time, I wasn’t really aware of the implications; I never knew about discrimination. But reading back on the history now, it hurts. The Chinese were never really acknowledged. Like Aboriginal people, they fought for the country, felt they were Australians, but were denied health benefits and things white Australians had. It does strike you, that sense of unfairness, but the page has turned. You can’t hold that resentment forever.
Has Australia progressed much when it comes to multiculturalism and race relations?
It has progressed, but it hasn’t in other ways. I have struggled in my career. At times, I wished I were not Chinese. I sometimes felt that if I had another cuisine, I would have done a lot better.
That’s interesting. I see you as a pioneer who brought Chinese cooking into many Australian households.
Well, that’s exactly it. Pioneers have it hard! But eventually I realised being Chinese made me different enough. It was probably one of the keys to my success, because I didn’t have a lot of competition. [Laughs] Garbage truck workers would come up every morning and say, “Good on you, Elizabeth! Watch you every week!” I sent a cheerio to them from TV on Good Morning Australia one day, and later they raced up to me on the street and clapped. They never missed a show.
Who do you vote for and why?
When I was younger and influenced by my father, I voted Liberal. He was a real Robert Menzies man and mixed around with a few of the politicians. Then, as my son grew older and went to Monash University, he became a bit of a rabble rouser. He taught me a little bit more about politics and I began to see another side of it. I’ve been voting Labor ever since. But at the last election, I have to say, I didn’t want either. I felt they’d let me down, particularly with refugees.
Where did that leave you as a voter?
Well … I voted Greens! [Laughs] First time I’ve ever done that.
People are shocked when you tell them your age. What’s your secret?
Oh, come on.
I don’t have any secrets at all. I’m an open door. [Laughs]
Not all 88-year-olds look like this.
I don’t have any expensive beauty routine. I am frugal there. I don’t buy expensive make-up.
What do you use then?
A cleansing cream or wash at night. Then a little bit of night cream – when I remember. That’s it. When I wake up, I will just wash my face in warm water.
No expensive moisturisers or serums?
No, middle of the road. Not the worst but not the best. I’ll even go to Aldi for some of it. [Laughs]
How do you stay healthy?
I’m not a slow person; I’m naturally fairly active. Maybe I’m exercising without knowing. All those years of cooking, you’ve got to do a lot of physical work.
I’ve seen you use a cleaver. It’s basically a cardio workout.
Yes, but there’s also the shopping and the prepping. I have never, never trusted anybody – even my assistants – to do the shopping for me. That means it’s up and down different shops, back to your car, loading, unloading, taking everything out of your car, carrying heavy loads. Nowadays when I do it, I think, “I shouldn’t be doing this at my age!” Then I think, “Well, thank god, you can do it.”
Writer, author of The Family Law and Gaysia.