Marrickville’s most striking building is painted a breath-mint green. Two pointed fins rise up from the roof like the tips of sails. The fins slope down into a protruding, triangular block at the centre of the facade, forming an angular nose. Attached to the windows of the nose are advertisements for washing powder that have, over years, faded from red to grey.
In the last week new signs have gone up, signs for the impending auction of the two warehouses that make up the green building: “Invest, Occupy or Redevelop”. It’s the last option that has Marrickvillians nervous. The building is a landmark, a moment of novelty among the otherwise functional architecture that surrounds it.
For decades the building has been occupied by Ming On Trading, a retailer and wholesaler of sewing accessories: buttons, zippers, threads, labels. An arrangement of boxes inside the entrance displays some of the miscellaneous goods that Ming On trades in. Tubs of washing powder are stacked up, there are plastic baskets of socks and sticky tape, bird cages hang from the ceiling. Further inside, almost the whole lower floor of the showroom is dedicated to sewing thread. The metal shelving makes narrow aisles, lined with a rainbow of reels of thread. Unspool it all and it would reach to the moon.
The Ming On building is the kind of place that people stop to notice, photograph, and wonder about. What could be inside this bright, strange building? It’s vernacular value is high, but in other systems of worth – architectural, historical – it has left few traces. I find a newspaper article about a fire on the site in 1970, which destroyed the two existing factory buildings: the current building must have risen from these ashes. In the early 1980s, ads for Pacific Furniture exalt the new, unique dynamic collections of lounge furniture available at their showroom there. Then, later, come references Ming On Trading Co. Pty Ltd.
The style of the building – like a rectangle has swallowed a triangle – is less 1970s-functional, more a kind of industrial Googie, the post-war, space-age American architectural style that was given to Californian diners and petrol stations. There’s no functional reason for its preposterous outfit, the fins on its roof and bright green coat, but therein lies its charm, and people’s sense of delight and connection. It’s a reminder of the importance of eccentric spaces, in a city where, increasingly, the oddities are being ironed out.
Inside Ming On Trading, business continues as usual among the millions of buttons and racks of lace trims. Once the building is sold, Ming On will move south west, to Villawood, but apart from the real estate signs out the front, there’s little indication of the change. Heading up to the top floor, I start up the central stairs, pausing at the landing in the middle. I’m inside the triangle that forms the building’s nose, looking out towards Addison Road through the angled windows. Across the road, I notice a woman has stopped walking to reach into her bag. She looks over towards the Ming On building, with its fins and bright green paint, holds up her phone and takes a photo of it, a bittersweet expression on her face.
On an upstairs window of a long-closed shop on Marrickville Road is the fading painted sign for the Mona Lisa Photographic Studio. Its cracked silver lettering makes me think of a logo on a 1950s powder compact, silver letters on a pink plastic case. I imagine that the interior of the photography studio might continue in this powdery style: white carpet, chairs with spindly, gold-painted frames and fluffy pink upholstery, gladioli in a tall glass vase.
At street level, in a stripe above the entrance, are more signs, some in Greek, others in English: another for the Mona Lisa, and one for Finix Discount House, with an illustration of an ascending golden phoenix to accompany it. I peer inside. The two showcase windows to either side of the door are empty, but further back inside the store is a pile of leftover objects: chairs, debris, bedspreads compressed into squares and wrapped in plastic.
The yellow-striped wallpaper is peeling, and wires hang down from the roof, but the space doesn’t quite seem abandoned. A ladder and a broom are propped up against the wall as if at any moment someone might come in and resume the task of clearing out the store. I could see a row of signs on the windows for Blankets, Carpets, Gifts and Crystal. With each word I imagine the store in its heyday, the topography of soft or glistening objects that would have made up its interior. Things bought here would still be in people’s houses, or have recirculated through op shops, or remain at the back of cupboards, never-used wedding presents from decades before.
I am being watched: from the tiled stairwell at the side of the store hangs a framed print of the Mona Lisa. She looks in my direction serenely, with her seeing-but-not-seeing expression, from the wall-mounted glass cabinet lined with flocked wallpaper where she has been, for decades, encased.
A handpainted sign in English and Greek above the cabinet directs all photography enquiries to the shop downstairs. I stumble my eyes over ΦΩΤΟΓΡΑΦΕΙΟ, decoding it as “photography”. I don’t read or speak Greek so later, when I am back home, I type the words on the sign into an online translation site and they come out, after auto-correction of the text, as “information about the photography lost under the story”. I like it. For as I stand peering through the metal grille that seals the premises off from the street, I dream up stories about the Mona Lisa Photographic Studio. I think of the carefully dressed people who once climbed the stairs, walking up towards the portrait photographs that were soon to be taken of them, preserving that day, that moment.
(Those with Marrickville connections might be interested in the Marrickville Map I made, which includes the Mona Lisa among other landmarks.)
This week, two filing cabinets were bought at an ex-government furniture sale. The purchasers were surprised to find them complete with confidential documents inside. As the resulting scandal unfolds, with its serious implications for national security, I can’t help but come back to thoughts of the two filing cabinets. Two unassuming white metal boxes, the cause of a lot of trouble.
In Canterbury, with the removal of a nearby house and some trees, another set of filing cabinets have captured my attention. Now starkly visible on the wall are the faded outlines of an office scene, a desk, chair and filing cabinets. The chair is of a familiar kind: upholstered in black vinyl with a heavy base of four steel legs radiating from a central stem. The legs end in the casters on which the chair is perched. Its kind still lurks in old offices or can be found stranded in sharehouse backyards furnishing the smoking area near the back door.
In this office the chair has been pushed back from the desk, leaving a space between them, as if whoever has been working there has just stepped away for a moment. On the desk’s surface is a pale square, a large document, maybe a map, its details faded beyond legibility. The green filing cabinet nearby has the G-M drawer open and the file folders visible inside, but no further clues as to the business that has gone on here.
This suspended moment is painted on the wall of a cleaning supplies business in Canterbury. In the corner of the office scene is the logo of the company it’s advertising: Brownbuilt. An additional sign for the office furniture business that sold these items is gone, with only the metal supports that once held it remaining poking up from the roof.
Brownbuilt still make steel office furniture and equipment, with a speciality in the most serious of office storage systems, the compactus. Looking back through the archives there seems to be no storage conundrum that Brownbuilt hasn’t developed a solution for. If you were a television network needing a film storage system, a hotel that needed efficient storage for linen, or if you needed a “car compactus” for your parking lot, Brownbuilt could help you. From their factory in Clifton Hill, Melbourne, and then in their large factory in Kirrawee in the Sutherland Shire, Brownbuilt produced all manner of steel contraptions and receptacles. One particularly entrancing photograph of a Brownbuilt factory shows a row of filing cabinets travelling along a high conveyer belt, dangling from it like bunting.
I know the kind of office that’s on this wall. It’s the analogue kind, with a vinyl and wood varnish atmosphere. In such an office the filing cabinets seem sentient; they guard the office’s memory. Still now, in some businesses that have changed little in decades – mechanics, old-school accountants, or rubber stamp suppliers – such scenes can be encountered.
The activities at this office are paused forever. Whoever was at the desk is an absence at the centre of the image, as the plans or instructions that made them step away are faded, unreadable, and the filing cabinet holds its secrets.
Looking down on Sydney from the window of a plane my eyes move across its landmarks. The window is the shape of a gemstone, an opal ring, in which the image below flashes with ever-shifting details. No sooner have I fixed my attention on the red and yellow cranes of Port Botany then they have receded, replaced by the Kurnell peninsula and the circular white petrol storage tanks of the Caltex refinery, then the remains of the now-much-eroded sand dunes landscape, then the edge of the land, beyond which Sydney disappears.
This time there’s a bright arc of colour striping across the view of the ocean and sky, a rainbow with another, paler double in parallel. The plane seems to fly right through it, like it’s a farewell garland.
A few minutes later and Sydney, that place that can seem so all-enclosing when I am in it, is gone, replaced by ocean and sky. The seatbelt sign goes off and people start to snap the window-shades down. When they raise them again it will be eight hours later, and we will be in another part of the world entirely.
Coming back home three weeks later, it’s dark, pre-dawn, and I can see the suburbs below me in a pattern of lights. I scan for a few minutes until I spy something I recognise – the orange building at the crest of Taverner’s Hill. It’s too dark to see its colour, but its blocky bulk is unmistakeable. It’s a surprisingly prominent and useful landmark, this building that was once a brewery, now a self storage warehouse. Inside it are millions of objects that people have put to the side, giving the building, in my imagination, a denser weight than the others that surround it.
The plane travels over the inner west streets, over Tempe Tip and the barrier of scrappy land between it and the airport, and then bumps down on the runway. A moment later, the “Welcome to Sydney” announcement comes. I like this transition: the plane hovering just above the runway, then the jolt of the wheels against the tarmac and the plane’s deceleration to a point where it’s certain we’re safe and landed, and then the announcement to seal the journey’s end.
Even after only three weeks away things have changed. The leaves are all fallen from the trees, carpeting the pavement along my street. There are more storeys added to the big developments on the main road and by the railway line. I’m jetlagged, the bright Sydney light pulls at my eyelids, and I feel not quite here, not quite there.
A few mornings afterwards I drive to the cliffs above the ocean at Maroubra. The sea is rough, crashing white on the rocks below the rock platform above which I sit on a sandstone crag, pitted with holes and cracks. I set out my things: notebook, thermos, paper bag with a brioche inside. As I eat the brioche a magpie hops up to me and I toss it a crumb. Soon its friends arrive and there are six magpies on the rock in front of me, and I’m throwing them crumbs which they snap up in midair. I know these birds. Their territory is the headland, and I often see them on the sweep of lawn behind the cliffs, heads cocked as they listen for insects under the soil.
One of the birds starts to sing, a warbling jumble of notes that bubbles up from its throat. Soon they are all singing, a magpie choir serenading me as I sit here on the rock above the ocean. It is the moment I feel truly home, back in the city where my life takes place.
If there’s one type of place I am commonly drawn to, it is places on the margins: otherwise ignored, or soon to disappear, or discarded. Sometimes these places are also literally on the margins, in the outer suburbs, or on the edge of the city.
The Salvation Army store in Tempe is both. It is literally on the edge of the city, at the very last patch of the suburban land before the outskirts of the airport begins. Inside the warehouse that is the store and sorting centre are the discarded objects of Sydney residents, an abundance of clothes and furniture and bric a brac. Sydney has plenty of op shops, but this is one is certainly the most famous, so well known that it has, with its nickname “Tempe Tip”, become a cultural reference point.
The first references to the op shop as Tempe Tip appear in newspapers in the 1960s. The name was taken from the rubbish dump next door to the Salvation Army depot, and soon Tempe Tip became synonymous with the op shop, rather than with its original identity. Some of the newspaper mentions are utilitarian, advising newlyweds with little money to visit the Tempe Tip in order to furnish their houses. It is also mentioned in lifestyle articles, describing how people gather in corners at parties to talk about Tempe tip and the secondhand furniture bargains they found there. It’s the place to go for props and costumes, too. In 1971 the visiting Zorba Song and Dance company bought 10000 plates to be broken on stage in what was described as the “uninhibited finale” to their performance.
The Tempe Tip is also something of a local slang term, used to denigrate the quality of goods or clothing. If something “looks like it came from the Tempe Tip”, for example, it is no doubt shabby and strange. It was also used to denote poor quality in general. In 1966 the Sydney Morning Herald reviewer of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” declared that:
He has moved into a fuzzy world of songs which abound in personal fantasies. His voice has contracted to a mumble. His accompaniments are a scattered jumble which sounds as though they were recorded at the Tempe tip. We know that artists must be permitted to change their approach, but this is ridiculous.
My favourite articles about Tempe Tip describe the scene on Saturday morning, as people waited to be let inside the gates. In a Sydney Morning Herald article from 1982, “On Your Marks at Tempe Tip”, the scene is described in detail:
The waiting crowd is stacked impatiently behind a cyclone wire fence which heaves, stretches and sags with their weight. Promptly at 11, Charles H. Jolly, in a straw cowboy hat and a pink western shirt, opens the gates and stands back as a 200-strong crowd stampedes in search of cut-price treasure. The battle for a bargain at Tempe Tip, the Salvo’s Miroma thrift shop, is fiercer than the struggle at Harrod’s spring sale: people push, pull, scream and swear territorially over their secondhand goodies.
In the 1980s the Tempe Tip’s opening hours were 11am – 2:30 during the week, and on Saturdays what was described as a “brief, exciting” two hours from 7:30am to 9:30am. Another article describes how :
You had to be young, fit and wearing your running shoes to race people sprinting in to get the best bargains.
The Salvation Army first moved onto this land in 1909, and set up a Prison Gate Farm here, providing employment for newly-released prisoners. A plan for a piggery was approved by the council in 1909, despite the objections from the nearby bakery which worried that “any offensive odours floating about in the air were liable to find their way into the dough when it was in a state of ferment, and would be in the bread when baked”.
The farm activities wound down and the site became a secondhand goods market. The name Tempe Tip came and stuck, and is still the affectionate term for the op shop that is there today. The shop is a large, low warehouse, painted royal blue with red awnings.
Just beyond it is a view of the edge of the airport and planes moving slowly from their hangars. Trucks go past at all times of the day and night, carrying shipping containers back and forth from the terminal at the end of Swamp Road, through a landscape of shipping containers, pampas grass, and the tall yellow pylons that support the landing lights for the runway.
The first time I came to Tempe Tip was some time in the 1990s and I thought it a kind of op shop heaven. The scene inside was much calmer than the crush of waiting shoppers against the wire fence in the 1980s, but it was no less exciting to me, newly moved out of home. I bought armfuls of clothes, baskets of bric a brac and a big round coffee table, a metre and a half across, with a copper top carved with hieroglyphics. A friend of mine with a van, a goth who played in a Birthday-Party-esque band, helped me convey this enormous table home. I liked to imagine the 1970s lounge room this table had once been a part of, something that would be pictured in one of the kitsch home decorating guides that I also bought in abundance from the Tempe Tip.
As I approach the entrance, I notice a man waiting out the front of the op shop. He is wearing a leather jacket with a logo on the back for the “Raging Dads”. His friend, another Raging Dad with tattoos and long hair, leaves the store with an armful of clothes and they push off with their baby strollers, their shopping trip complete. Mine has only just begun. It has been some time since I’ve been to Tempe Tip, but it works its magic over me as ever.
The store has its own atmosphere with the roar of planes overhead, the giant industrial fans suspended from the ceiling, and people intently browsing. A man discusses a Willow patterned platter with his elderly mother, who is holding a plastic bag of balls of mauve wool. A woman sizes up ceramic dog figurines, turning them over to look for maker’s marks on the paws. In the furniture section people move from couch to couch, testing them for comfort. A man with a bum-bag slung across his body like a holster pushes a shopping trolley past me, its contents an insect zapper and books by Deepak Chopra.
In between the planes flying by overhead, and the jangling sound of someone going through the cutlery, the radio plays U2s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. I keep looking. Tempe Tip will have it, even if I don’t know exactly what it is yet.
As part of this year’s Australian Heritage Festival, I’ll be presenting a talk and slideshow about St Peters called “Post Industrial Playground”. It’s on May 10th at St Peters library, and is free, but please register here if you’d like to come along. I’ll be talking about St Peters’ recent past, with a focus on alternative culture: punx picnics, St Peters in pop culture, and weird scenes from Sydney Park. Of which there are many.
If you have spent time in Annandale some time in the last forty years, you would know this piece of graffiti that has been on the corner of Collins and Johnston Streets since 1977:
It’s a lot more faded these days and barely readable – this photo was taken at least 10 years ago. I read it almost like a poem, set out in a stanza, my favourite parts “taking, sneaking” and “what more can I say?” as the ending, like the writer has thrown their hands up in the air at the dishonourable scene that passed by in 1977.
What distinguishes this graffiti is firstly its longevity. It has few remaining contemporaries, apart from the slightly earlier (c.1970) Stop Vietnam War graffiti still visible on the sandstone rock face below the Tarpein Way at the end of Macquarie Street, facing the Opera House.
1970 and 1971 saw large-scale Vietnam War protests in Sydney with the three moratorium marches, the last of which occurred shortly before Australian troops were withdrawn. By the end of the 1970s peace was again the focus of activism, as was environmentalism. The anti-nuclear lobby had grown in strength and marches and demonstrations were held in capital cities across Australia. There were also a series of Rides Against Uranium, with groups cycling from Melbourne and Sydney to Canberra to protest against uranium mining and export.
The second distinguishing feature of the Annandale “taking, sneaking” message is that, unlike most graffiti, it marks a particular event that happened at that place at a specific time. By reading these words I imagine the convoy of trucks travelling down Johnston Street late at night, past houses and apartment buildings where people slept on, unaware of the radioactive cargo being transported through their suburb. But not everyone was asleep.
Friends of the Earth member Geoff Evans describes the blockades that met the trucks at White Bay, “protesting shipments of yellowcake from Lucas Heights being secretly spirited out in massively guarded convoys of trucks speeding through Sydney’s suburbs in the dead of night, only to be exposed by an elaborate network of activists alerted by the Lucas Heights campers, and mobilised through elaborate ‘phone trees’ that could get hundreds of protesters to the wharves within an hour.”
Things came to a head in September 1977. Around 200 protesters, and 240 police (numbers given in news reports at the time) were down at the wharves when the trucks carrying the yellowcake arrived. Some of the demonstrators sat down on the road to prevent the trucks moving through and were dragged off one-by-one by police, and some arrested. There is a painting by Toby Zoates (painted in 2015), who was one of the protesters, showing the scene as he remembers it (or as his “fantasy wishfully remembers” it). He describes the scene of the protest, then the benefit gig he organised to help pay the fines of those arrested.
But who painted the graffiti on the wall in Annandale? I don’t know, but I’m not the first to wonder. In 1993 two filmmakers sent out a request in the Sydney Morning Herald to try and find the writer, although the film doesn’t seem to have gone ahead. In the article one of the filmmakers said: “if we don’t find the person who did it, it will remain an unsolved mystery”.
In 1993 the filmmakers also said:”It’s been there since 1977 – that’s a long time for a little piece of graffiti”. Now it is forty years since the trucks passed by taking, sneaking.
The words are very faded and unless you had seen them there in the days when they were more visible and knew to look for them, you would probably pass by them without noticing. They are painted on a low wall, at calf-height, so I imagine whoever painted them sat on the pavement to do it, daubing each letter with a paintbrush, using the bricks like lines on a page. In their unusual position the words are like a footnote, annotating this place with one of its secrets.