When the Australian Michelle Garnaut first set foot in Hong Kong in 1984 she loathed the city. Garnaut, then in her mid-twenties, had just spent three months travelling around Thailand. She was young and hungry for adventure. But compared with the pristine beaches of her previous travels, Hong Kong felt overcrowded and chaotic. Most deplorable for the foodie was the lack of good independent dining. “It was a desert!” says Garnaut, referring to the nascent food scene.
Today, Garnaut’s initial dislike for the city has transformed to deep affection. She divides her time between Hong Kong, Melbourne, Shanghai and Beijing – where she is currently, drinking passion fruit lemonade on the terrace of her restaurant Capital M, which is situated just south of Tiananmen Square with views stretching to the Forbidden City. Typically, Garnaut spends no more than two weeks in each city. “Home really is China now,” she says. “I left Australia when I was 21. I’m now 55. What can I miss [there]?”
The Hong Kong of 1984 was vastly different from the Hong Kong of today. Lan Kwai Fong, now a thronging expat bar area, consisted of just a handful of businesses including a nightclub, a hat shop and a small Italian store selling wine and salami. “It had been a street of undertakers,” Garnaut remembers. “It was very grimy. Hong Kong was still a colony and the agreement to hand it back had really just come into effect. It was quite a nervy place – the last days of the empire in many ways.”
Garnaut began her career in the kitchen, studying catering at Melbourne’s William Angliss Institute. She then moved to London to work as the head chef on the English leg of the Orient Express, creating a menu of British stalwarts such as poached salmon mousse. In Hong Kong she was quick to spot that the colony lacked a fine dining culture, a niche that had yet to be filled.
In 1989, Garnaut launched her inaugural restaurant, M at the Fringe, in a historic location on the island. The chic European-cuisine restaurant became a hit with celebrities, expats and the local elite. It has since closed, following an expiration of the lease, but Garnaut continues to keep a flat in Hong Kong.
M on the Bund and The Glamour Bar followed in Shanghai 10 years later. Both made a mark as some of the first upmarket enterprises to open on the then rundown Bund, a waterfront area in central Shanghai. Today it is one of the most fashionable addresses in the city. Then in 2009 Garnaut opened Capital M in Beijing.
“What for me was really important was looking for the right place: we had to feel we were in Beijing – you can’t get more Beijing than Tiananmen,” says Garnaut.
Moving to the Chinese mainland in the late 1980s was an eye-opener. “The biggest shock was how easy it was to be friends with Chinese people,” says Garnaut, who speaks minimal Mandarin but has learnt how to get by without it. “In China communist behaviour made people feel very equal. It’s worn out now as the wealth divide has become stronger.”
A second shock was the sheer size of the cities compared with her hometown Melbourne. Garnaut recalls a car journey to the outskirts of Shanghai. “There was a whole new city centre [in Shanghai] the size of Melbourne! Beijing is the same – drive for about three hours and you’re still in Beijing.”
Most challenging, personally and professionally, has been operating within the one-party state system. Garnaut has learnt the value of tenacity and endurance. “China is a waiting game,” she says. “I think this is the greatest joke. I am the world’s most impatient person but I had to learn how to be patient.”
Despite these frustrations, and Garnaut’s punishing travel schedule, she has discovered that the key to contentment is having a space she can call her own in all three cities: “I can’t feel like I am part of the fabric of the city if I stay in a hotel,” she says. “I have to have things around me: books, music. I feel as long as you have these you can create a home anywhere.
Each of her apartments reflects their city’s distinct character. In Shanghai, Garnaut lives in a flat in The Embankment House, built in 1932 by Sir Victor Sassoon, a British citizen of Iraqi-Jewish descent whose real estate portfolio includes the famous art deco Peace Hotel. “It’s fabulous,” she says. “I am a girl who loves to shop and loves to collect things. It’s cluttered.”
Garnaut’s spacious four-bedroom Beijing apartment, located in a diplomatic residence compound in the leafy embassy district, reflects the capital’s very different roots. “It’s a 1970s communist building,” says Garnaut, whose neighbours include foreign correspondents and diplomats. Since moving in, Garnaut has removed the standard-issue furniture and fashioned the decor in a more eclectic style, including mementos from travels to Mongolia.
Dividing her time between China’s three most cosmopolitan cities has advantages. Garnaut explains: “I try to enjoy Beijing life. In a way Hong Kong has everything. But here [in Beijing] it’s more chilled out. You have really interesting cultural stuff. You can wander through the Forbidden City. You have hills all around you.”
Leisure time is spent eating spicy southern Sichuan cuisine with friends, walking around the picturesque Ritan Park, or listening to classical music at the Forbidden City Concert Hall and recently opened National Centre for the Performing Arts (dubbed “The Egg” for its dome-like shape). However, winters in Beijing, when temperatures can reach minus 20C, can be tough.
Most important for Garnaut is finding small pockets of sanity in a capital that is changing at a rapid pace. For this, she heads to the neighbouring hutongs (alleyways) around Capital M – some of which still stand, despite rampant demolition and redevelopment. “Dashilar [a famous historic hutong] is fantastic,” she says. “Walk down, close your eyes, turn right, and it’s exactly as it’s been for 200 years.”
Photograph: Ben McMillan