The long and the short of it

In this article, reproduced from our latest issue of Ozwords, Julia Robinson investigates Aussie terms for Chinese wonton soup and Chinese noodle soup.

Recently we received this query from a Victorian reader: ‘I am writing to ask about the term “short soup”, as in the Chinese wonton soup. Other non-Australian speakers of English are unaware of this phrase, it seems. Is it uniquely Australian and when did it originate?’ (J. Bookman)

Short soup and its companion long soup are indeed Australian terms for Chinese wonton soup and Chinese noodle soup respectively. The name long soup probably derives from an English speaker’s way of describing the kind of noodle typically found in the dish; long soup contains long, thin noodles. Short soup contains wontons, a type of small dumpling formed by wrapping small, flattened pieces of noodle dough around a savoury filling. The first evidence for both terms occurs in the 1880s, with long soup appearing a few years before short soup. In early evidence they often occur together.

A longtime resident of Sydney’s Chinatown, Norman Lee, explained the difference between the soups, in recalling the people who frequented Chinese ‘cook shops’ in the early part of the 20th century: ‘It was good food—genuine stuff. Most of the customers were Chinese; only the Australian drunks came then. When they ordered plain soup with noodles, they called it long soup. With won tons, it was short soup.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January 2007)

Much of the early written evidence occurs in the context of Melbourne’s Little Bourke Street, Australia’s first Chinatown, established in the 1850s. An early reference appears in the Australasian newspaper, in a full-page illustrated special on ‘The Chinese Quarter in Melbourne’. It is written as an anthropological investigation, and as with many similar newspaper reports of the period, the tone is frequently racist:

Very curious was it to watch them at their meal. In front of each was a bowl of soup of which, by the way, the Chinese distinguish two kinds—‘long’ soup and ‘short’ soup. This was ‘long’ soup, and it seemed to be a kind of chicken broth, thickened with flour. ‘Short’ soup is different—we do not exactly understand in what way. However, the gentlemen pictured above were busy with their ‘long’ soup, drinking it with little earthenware ladles. (21 April 1888)

This and many other contemporary references show that by the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the names of these dishes were becoming familiar to non-Chinese Australians, and were seen as typical of Chinese cuisine.

A good number of references to short soup and long soup are found in court reports of the period. This may suggest that Chinese food was cheap, and that Chinese cooks were catering to a larrikin clientele who could not afford to eat at other restaurants. Fights and arguments between customers and staff were liable to break out over a bowl of soup:

Brawl in a Cook Shop. … Three men went to [Quon Cheong’s] cook shop in Heffernan’s-lane about midnight last Saturday, and after being served with ‘long soup’ broke a saucer and a soup basin, for which they declined to pay. Then they blackened his eye, split his lip open and gave him a severe mauling. (Melbourne Age, 30 June 1910)

In one case short soup was used as code for a sly grog operation: ‘Melbourne, August 24. Two Chinese cook shop proprietors were to-day fined £40 each on a charge of sly grog selling. Two revenue officers called at the establishment and asked for “Short Soup”, and were supplied with several bottles of ale.’ (Hobart Mercury, 25 August 1909)

Later evidence confirms that short soup and long soup were increasingly recognised as standard fare in Chinese eateries, if still considered exotic by many. In the late 1920s the Goulburn Evening Penny Post claims that there are ‘hundreds of Melbourne citizens who regularly relish the Oriental dishes of Little Bourke-street short soup joints’. (13 April 1927) The taste for Chinese food was well-established by mid-century. In the 1960s the Australian Women’s Weekly published a recipe for long soup (with chicken stock, vermicelli noodles, and shallots), and in an article on the favourite food of local pop groups, the Weekly records the lead guitarist of the Strangers commenting in the lingo of the time: ‘I could live on Chinese food. … Fried rice and short soup are rather groovy.’ (14 May 1969)

But what is ‘short’ about short soup? It is not the most obvious way to describe a wonton. Is short soup perhaps a calque—that is, a literal translation from Chinese?

Australian long soup and short soup are dishes in the style of southern China, because most Chinese immigrants who came to Australia in the 19th century came from the southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, either directly or via Singapore. Chinese linguist colleagues tell us there are no corresponding terms in Mandarin or Cantonese for long soup or short soup, but one scholar who is familiar with southern dialects has anecdotal evidence from Fujian of a term for wonton soup that translates literally as ‘flat food soup’. She notes that although the word for ‘flat’ may imply ‘thin’ and ‘small’, it does not directly correspond to ‘short’.*

Short soup does not appear to be a translation from Chinese, even from the most likely southern dialectal regions. In Guangdong province there is a term for soup containing long noodles that translates as ‘long noodle soup’. But this is descriptive, and does not precisely correspond to long soup. We think that these Australian English terms are a binary pair, and that short soup was named in contrast to long soup, in order to distinguish one from the other. Thus short soup does not really describe its ingredients, but rather tells us it is not long soup.

*With thanks to Wendi Xue and Dr Zhengdao Ye for their help. All errors are my own.

Julia-RobinsonJulia Robinson is a researcher and editor at the Australian National Dictionary Centre (ANDC). She has contributed to a number of Australian Oxford dictionaries and ANDC publications, and is one of the editorial team currently working on the second edition of The Australian National Dictionary (forthcoming 2016).

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One thought on “The long and the short of it

  1. Bloody drunk aussies ruining everything for everyone. Thanks for this article, helped me understand why I couldn’t find Wanton soups on the menu.

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