Stu Thaung is the owner of Canberra’s well-known Mandalay Bus which his Father George founded in 1953 after migrating from Myanmar (Burma at the time). I have met Stu once or twice before while ordering satay waffle fries from him, but when I go to speak to him he greets me as though we are old friends. He remembers everyone’s names and the names of the people they were with the last time he saw them – a remarkable feat for someone who sees a steady stream of people go past his service window every night.
Customers have started to pile up and I stand by as they order from the Burmese-inspired Chinese-Australian menu and take a seat on the milk crates, wooden benches, and old mismatched leather seats that surround the bright yellow vehicle. The bus has transformed this parking lot in the middle of Canberra into a destination of its own.
When Stu finally gets away from the service window he tells me about his father, George’s early life in Canberra and how the bus started when George noticed there was nowhere in the city to eat after 10pm. He goes on to explain the prolonged racist and violent attacks on the business that reached a peak during the annual Summer Nats event in 1992 and forced the bus’s closure. But despite the physical and emotional trauma Stu and his family have suffered here he remains passionate about his work and about his place as someone who contributes to the vibrancy of the Canberra community.
When he reopened the Mandalay Bus in 2013 he says it got a lot of support from people who wanted to see Canberra recognised as “a cool place to call home”. When asked if he thought he was contributing to Canberra’s cool new image, he replied, “Well I think Canberra was always this cool place full of diverse people. They come from all over, think they’ll only stay for a little while, but end up never leaving. I think there’s lots of culture here but we are only now getting to see it all come to the surface.”
The Mandalay Bus has been a staple part of Canberra’s image of itself for a long time now; even throughout its period of closure it sat idly in the car park in Braddon, cementing itself amongst our ideas about this city. Perhaps it will always partially represent the destructive nature of intolerance, and we should not forget this part of our history. But Stu drives the Mandalay Bus’s narrative now, and ultimately he appears less interested in telling a story about racism and intolerance than he is in having his business reflect his own values and unwavering commitment to diversity in this “cool melting pot city”.