I first came to know the Olympia Milk Bar in the late 1990s. Then it seemed a relic of the past that could surely not be around for much longer. Of all the rundown shops on Parramatta Road, of which there were then many, it was the oldest, and made the least concessions to the present day. It had remained essentially unchanged for generations, retaining the same facade and interior it had opened with in 1939. Its most recent changes were the 1970s and 80s chocolate and soft drink advertisements that decorated the walls. I remembered the slogans from the tv ads of my childhood – ‘get a hole lot more out of life’ with Life Savers, and ‘dying for a Solo’ with a photograph of a crocodile, from an ad campaign that had cast Solo fizzy lemon drink as the beverage choice of the rugged.
But I noticed these details later. For a good while I wasn’t brave enough to enter the Olympia. I just peered inside from the doorway. Through the gloom I could see rows of empty chocolate boxes on the shelves behind a high counter, and a blackened neon sign on the back wall, offering Late Suppers. I sometimes caught sight of the proprietor, an elderly man who wore a white apron, standing at the front window, watching the road. The milk bar had few customers but was well known, and rumours about it circulated as people compared stories of their visits. Worried I miss my chance I soon mustered up the courage, and went in with a friend for what would be the first of many visits for tea.
(First visit to the Olympia Milk Bar, c.1999)
On Parramatta Road the traffic surges on, the daily rush of it to and from the city, but inside the Olympia milk bar, time had a different quality. When I stepped inside, the first time and ever-after, I felt the shift into its particular bubble of memory. Sitting at one of the linoleum-topped tables, drinking tea brewed in an aluminium teapot, I looked out at the flare of light of the entrance, like the mouth of a cave, beyond which the cars moved relentlessly. Sometimes the traffic lights would stop the flow for a few seconds, and there’d be a spell of quiet. In these intervals sensed the space of the Olympia around me, the empty rooms above and behind the cafe, and how this was the proprietor’s world, one that was both long ago, and now.
(Working on the manuscript of Mirror Sydney in the Olympia, 2017)
Since those times, much has been written about the Olympia. It has been the subject of stories, news reports, radio shows, Facebook groups, blog posts, and artworks. It has become iconic, the city’s archetypal anachronistic business, an identity something at odds with the very private proprietor, Nick Fotiou, who has been reticent to talk about his life or the history of the milk bar, or to accept help with repairs to the increasingly more dilapidated building.
Until 2019, when the Olympia was closed by the council due to the building being ruled as unsafe, it was reliably open every day, often until late in the night. I looked for it without fail every time I travelled along Parramatta Road. After first visiting in the 1990s and thinking it would surely not be there much longer, it has been surprisingly persistent, so much so its closure was met with a sense of disbelief. The door has since remained shut but with was the same view through glass storefront into the dimly-lit interior, inside which I could see Mr Fotiou sitting at the desk at the back of the cafe.
Then, last week, the door and the windows were boarded up, and the street sign removed. The news came through that Mr Fotiou is now living in a nursing home, and it’s uncertain what might be preserved of the Olympia. For now I imagine it all still there, behind the boards, all the objects in their familiar arrangements, waiting in the dark.
At the end of the week, Surry Hills Shopping Village will cease trading, closing for good on the 10th January. Advertisements for the apartments to be built on the site are draped over the facade, across the building which follows the curve of the corner of Cleveland and Baptist streets. The banners announce that the ‘residences’ are available for purchase, even though construction of them is yet to begin, and beside this announcement the image of a woman in an evening dress promises impending, incongruous luxury.
Below the banners is the familiar former bank building with its striped pillars, and two columns flanking a door with a neon sign above it, for Noodle Star restaurant. Many of the businesses in the shopping centre have already left, but Noodle Star will trade to the end. Every table inside it occupied, and others wait on the inside steps for their takeaway, in the glowing yellow light of the advertisement for laksa that hangs in the entrance as a welcome. Along the side wall are further photographs of the available dishes, an honest gallery of noodles and dumplings.
The mall was built in 1981 on a former factory site, and since then has retained the same functional atmosphere, it main enticement its utility, promising nothing more than a collection of useful shops collected together under the same roof. When it opened it was called Redfern Mall, but in 1992 changed its name, to Surry Hills Shopping Village, the business owners citing the fact that it was closer to the Surry Hills shopping strip on Crown Street than the Redfern shops near the train station. Later other, meaner, names were given to it, suggesting a reputation of crime and vice. But its most abiding story has to be that for four decades it has performed the task of being an ordinary shopping centre. Some locals have shopped there regularly for that whole time, buying groceries, posting letters, visiting the newsagent, buying bread rolls.
Standing in the carpark to take this photo, I remembered my favourite thing about the Surry Hills mall: how the carpark behind the centre follows the incline of the land, and how the expanse of parking spaces forms a breathing space in this dense part of the inner city. I like how the centre spreads out across its corner lot, not making more of the space than it needs to, and that it is surrounded by eucalypts and casuarinas trees. Inside, I like its easy-listening radio soundtrack that gives it the atmosphere of a wan 70s nightclub, playing Band of Gold by Freda Payne, Sweet Sweet Love – Russell Morris and other such long-ago hits, as it does today in its last days, and as it did in the busier times of its past.
The long, straight stretch of Gardeners Road that runs through Rosebery has houses on one side and shops on the other. Mid-way along the shopping strip is a building much grander in scale than the rest, though now dilapidated: a former cinema with a wide, neo-classical facade. The cinema was called the Marina for most of the time it was operating, but I think of the building as Videomania, after the vertical sign that hangs from the roof, from its latter days as a video store.
Every time I approach Videomania I expect it to have been demolished, and while it does change in minor ways – a mural painted down the side of it in the mid-2010s, and more recently, the front awning removed – it marks the ebb of the years with its rust and peeling paint, resistant so far to redevelopment, though surely not for too much longer. Every few years I stop to take a photo of it, thinking it will be the last one.
This time when I stop I make sure to inspect it closely. On the facade the seashell rendering makes up part of a scuffed canvas, along with bill posters ripped back to reveal their previous layers, and the recessed remains of the marquee above the entrance. Down the side of the building, by the fading spraypainted pink panther emerging from the green snarl of a tag, is a side door with a KEEP OUT notice on it. The door is padlocked but there’s a wide enough hole where a chain’s been threaded through for me to look inside to the cavernous interior. The seats are gone but otherwise its reasonably intact: the stage with its long curtain pulled back, the proscenium arch, the red-painted ceiling. The flutter and coo of pigeons resounds from within. At the far end are signs from its video store days, an arrow pointing to the Greek movies section, the rates for hiring new releases and weeklies.
Gardeners Road is something of a time capsule, from the days before shopping malls and big box retailers. Despite the number of empty stores, their attrition no doubt hastened by the pandemic, there are some that have been there for decades. One such business is Mr Yawn’s mattress shop, which has plastic-wrapped mattresses lashed to the front doors and various versions of its mattress mascot on display.
For many years, passing by Mr Yawn’s, I had wondered why it seemed so familiar. Then it came to me: I remembered the blue, yawning mattress with outstretched arms from the frequent airings of tv ads for Mr Yawn that broadcast when I was a teenager. In them Mr Yawn – embodied by a person wearing a mattress with a yawning face as a costume – would describe the features and specials in a tone of somnolent excitement. The ads usually featured Mr Yawn on the footpath outside the store on Gardeners Road frantically waving his arms to attract attention.
There has been no such media exposure for Giacco’s Shoe Repairs, which trades in an intriguing combination of giant amethyst geodes and shoelaces. When I pass by it is closed, but I peer in through the door at the rows of geodes that flank the counter, trying to figure out the connection between shoe repair and crystals. I’m not saying there needs to be one. When I lived beside Parramatta Road in the 1990s I’d often go by a shop with a sign for “tobacconist and jeanery”, which seemed like an invitation to imagine other such unlikely combinations.
At the western end of the shops is Sam’s MFC supermarket, with a wall of cans of olive oil in the window, priced with a flutter of taped-on paper labels. Inside the smell of olives and spices encloses me, aromatic and comforting, and I browse amid the vats of olives, dry goods and massive bags of spices for a while, wondering if I would manage to consume 6kg of cinnamon even across my whole lifetime.
Further along the street I look in on the Evergreen Spot milk bar, with its melamine booth seats and perspex menu board, sizzle from the fryers, and ‘cash only’ notices in prominent positions.
Usually I only see the exteriors of these places, from the windows of a car or a bus, on my way east or west. This section of the road is so straight and flat that it has the effect of a roll of film or a series of pages, and my attention moves smoothly from one shop or house to the next. Sometimes I look out at the shop side, other times the house side. The houses are on the north side of the street, bungalows on wide blocks with bore water signs in their gardens, a reminder of the flows of groundwater that underlie this land, as water drains towards Kamay to the south.
If it’s night when I’m making this journey it’s hard to discern much in the dark, but I look for Arida’s International Fruit Market, which is the only shop beside the takeaways that stays open late. It’s like a lamp lighting up the nighttime, glowing with fluorescent light and the displays of fruit and vegetables in the interior.
But today as I walk along Gardeners Road it’s bright with spring sunlight, and I can see all of the details clearly.
It is busy in Marrickville, even now with the lockdown measures in operation. On Illawarra Road it seems little different to other Saturdays, although people are wearing face-masks and trying to keep as much distance from each other as the pavement will allow, and there’s an undercurrent of tension that’s the mood of these pandemic times. However there is one Marrickville character who has remained as relaxed as ever.
Leaning back in her hammock, between two steel palm trees, the Banana Joes banana has the same starry-eyed look of unconcern that she has worn for decades, although she has, in recent years, lost the cocktail glass she used to hold aloft. Rain or shine she leans back, staring up into the sky, on her own tropical island of the awning.
The reclining banana is the mascot of Banana Joes, the independent supermarket that has, since 1984, traded from this shop on Illawarra Road. It’s a family business, run by Joe Khouri, and started out as a fruit market chain, with a number of Sydney suburban stores in Ashfield, St Peters and Campsie. It was fairly short-lived as a chain, and the focus has long been the Marrickville store.
I’d heard rumours that it was closing, but nothing seemed to happen for a while, until the recent announcement that the Easter weekend will be the store’s last. Among the signs on the door and the posters of weekly specials on pickles and giant beans, is a green Woolworths notice, announcing that a “fresh new store is coming soon”, news that no one would be greeting with much enthusiasm. For Banana Joes is a Marrickville shopping landmark, known for its fresh food, capacious canvas shopping bags, slow lift, and reclining steel banana. Just saying its name made going to the supermarket sound interesting.
From the rooftop carpark there’s a view out over Marrickville. I’m not the only person who is looking out over it: a man and his small daughter are standing at the corner, peering down, pointing out familiar places from a new aspect. Maybe this is something they often do, or maybe, in these days of isolation, when one of the few sanctioned reasons for going outside is to shop, any safe opportunity for amusement is worth taking.
Between the carpark and the store an old, slow lift conveys the shoppers who are patient enough to wait for it. Inside the metal interior of the lift posters of the weekly specials are displayed in frames on the wall. This gives it something of the look of a miniature art gallery, inviting scrutiny of the loaves of bread or cans of four-bean-mix or ground coffee that are featured inside. For a time, some years ago, there had been written in black marker on the door the words “smoocher’s lift”: it is obviously special to many people in different ways.
On its last weekend the shelves in Banana Joes are a little barer than usual, but the community noticeboard is still cluttered with the usual leaflets for services like the continental philosophy group, knife-sharpening, and meditation courses. Beside it is a crate inside which are stacked empty fruit cartons printed with mascots like top-hat-wearing avocadoes and smiling oranges. People queue up in distanced lines, waiting to buy their last round of Banana Joes groceries.
I’ll miss Banana Joes, but at least the word is that the banana on the awning is set to remain. In years to come it will confuse newcomers to Marrickville, who might wonder at its significance. But the locals will know, and remember.
When I pick up the book I have requested from the stack of the university library, I see that it used to belong to the Roycroft, a subscription library and book store that once operated in the city centre. Across the book’s plain black hardback cover is affixed the Roycroft’s yellow sticker, with the name and above it drawings of two fish with big eyes and long noses. Below it is the address:
Rowe Street, that narrow street of boutique stores, studios and cafes, emblematic of mid-century Sydney’s artisan and cosmopolitan cultures, was long-gone by the time that I came to know the city. In the early 1970s the street was demolished for the MLC Centre, and now all that remains of it is a short stub of a laneway off Pitt Street, just south of Martin Place, and there is little reason to turn off along it or even to notice it. But Rowe Street’s traces are still around, in the objects that were bought, made or exhibited there, and sometimes I come across them.
The Roycroft was a bookstore and subscription lending library which moved to Rowe Street in the early 1920s. In this photo from around 1950, the entrance to the library is beside the Henriette Lamotte milliners, in which one could make an appointment to try on elite, Parisian-style headwear.
If books were more your thing, you would have followed the steps down from street level to the basement where the Roycroft library was to be found. At the time such subscription libraries were commonplace in the city, often combined with bookstores. Unlike public libraries, these were privately operated, and allowed patrons to borrow books for the cost of the subscription fee: the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts Library still operates on this model.
The Roycroft was known for its literary collection, as well as being a place where banned books could be bought, although to put this in perspective, book-bans were common in Australia in the 20th century, and included such works as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London as well as pulp and genre fiction that was deemed too lurid for the Australian public’s tastes.
In the 1920s the Roycroft was owned by Francis Zabel, who commissioned the artist Adrian Feint to design the logo for the store. She had a liking for fish as an emblem and her personal bookplate, also designed by Feint, featured a similar design. It is reminiscent, too, of the “wise men fish here” sign for the Gotham Bookmart in New York (thanks Melissa for suggesting the resemblance).
The sign for the Roycroft was so appealing that, in 1954, it was stolen and, as far as records show, was never recovered. I can’t but wonder where it might have gone. Perhaps it was a prank and it was destroyed. Maybe it’s hidden somewhere, yet to be found. Maybe it is hanging on the wall of the granddaughter of the thief.
Bits and pieces of Rowe Street can be found in the city’s secondhand stores and auction houses. On my desk I have a print in a white-painted frame, small enough to fit in my hand, of a painting of trees. A tree with a silvery trunk stands in front of a cedar tree with wide-spreading branches. I bought this picture from an op shop, liking the close-cropped view, which makes me feel as if I am looking through a tiny window. On the back of the frame, written in faded fountain-pen ink, is ‘Stanley Spencer, “Cedar Tree”‘, and a sticker showing that it was purchased from Notanda Gallery, at 41 Rowe St.
The Notanda Gallery, operated by the painter Carl Plate, sold prints, posters, art books and postcards, and was one of the few galleries in Australia at which European modern art was displayed, and where art students and artists could have ready access to reproductions of these artworks in colour. This made it something of a hub for artists, where as well as buy prints and postcards, they could browse and discuss art. That the shop fostered a community as well as being a commercial enterprise is a common story for Rowe Street businesses.
Looking at the little framed Stanley Spencer painting on my desk, sometimes I think about on whose wall it might have hung, or what it was about the scene that had attracted someone to buy it in the first place. Spencer is a painter best known for his visionary paintings of the English town in which he lived, Cookham, and his recasting of Biblical stories in these surroundings. But these trees have only their everyday transcendence, in their silvery green and spreading branches.
Soon after the library book and the framed print made themselves known to me, another Rowe Street detail appeared, one that had been with me without me realising it. One afternoon, sitting in the armchair in my office, I dropped a pencil and it rolled underneath the chair. Kneeling down to retrieve it I paused a moment, enjoying the unusual view of the room inverted. I’d never considered the underside of the armchair, which is a FLER chair loaned to me by Kate, who shares my love of secondhand objects. After she gave it to me I’d carried it down the hall and put it in place without further inspection. But now underneath I could see the stamp on the wooden frame, for Kalmar Interiors, Rowe St.
Kalmar Interiors was a furniture and interior design showroom run by Steven Kalmar, one of a number of designers who had migrated to Australia from Europe after the second world war and brought with them current trends in modern furniture design (stories which have been collected in Rebecca Hawcroft’s excellent book The Other Moderns). The FLER chair – made by an Australian company that was influenced by the lightweight, elegant forms of Scandinavian design – is a good example of the kind of furniture that shoppers bought from Kalmar. It’s unfussy but elegant, and I could well imagine it being part of the kind of scene described by Kalmar in his book You and Your Home.
And so it is, with the hats, and chairs, and postcards and books that were brought home from Rowe Street. They formed a part of people’s lives for decades, and as they disperse elsewhere, into other lives, they keep within them connections to this past place, and past era, of the city. Although some Rowe Street objects are held by museums, there are many others in libraries and personal collections. They appear, too, at random in auctions and in secondhand stores, waiting for someone to notice them, and the label which gives the address from where they came. Like it is an envelope, and we can travel to its destination.
It has been a few years since I’ve visited Smithfield. As I travel along Horsley Drive I pass by its landmarks, a Buddhist temple, a front garden planted with tall cacti, and the concrete bunker of the former Smithfield Post Office. I had expected this building to have been demolished by now, but it remains, with a ‘for lease’ sign on its roof, looking as impenetrable as ever under its coat of pale green paint, still broadcasting the postcode and the insignia of Queen Elizabeth from its postal days.
Smithfield is on Cabrogal land, a suburb half residential, half industrial, bisected by the winding path of the Prospect Creek as it flows towards the Georges River. For the most part, the factories are on the north side of the creek, but there’s a smaller area of factories and warehouses on the south side, and it’s into this area I turn into, passing by industrial units with rows of palm trees along the street-front. It is the kind of light industrial street that has places that fix, store or destroy things: building materials warehouses, mechanics, scrap metal yards and wreckers. There’s a generator hire place with a rusty crane on top of a grey shed like a giant metal spider. To one side of the street is a vacant lot, a former market garden now overgrown with high grass and a few remaining panels of colorbond fence beside a stormwater channel choked with rubbish and weeds. Across from it the industrial units continue with a kitchen warehouse and an auto mechanics with a sign for “Smithfield Diff & Gearbox” in jaunty white lettering.
I’m distracted from the mysteries of Diff by the premises next door. Here, instead of another scrapyard or warehouse, is a row of four Dutch canal houses. Painted green with white windows, the facade frames the sign for Holland House, and a mural of a Dutch port with windmills and the nose of a KLM jet painted on it. Had someone asked me to imagine what the most unlikely business to find in the Smithfield-Wetherill Park industrial area might be, I would be guessing for quite some time before I came up with a Dutch supermarket, cafe and cultural centre.
‘t Winkeltje, The Dutch Shop, has traded here in Smithfield since 1985. At first it sold only imported Dutch furniture, but soon expanded to a supermarket, stocking the herring, cheese and liquorice that is signature Dutch fare. Inside, the warehouse building has been transformed. There’s a tiled floor, a low ceiling crossed with wooden beams, and wood-panelled walls, against which delft tiles and ceramic figurines are displayed. Under the wooden clogs and orange bunting that hang from the ceiling are aisles stocking sweets, packets of chocolate sprinkles, jars of pickles, containers of chocolate milk, boxes of pancake mix: an entire pantry of Dutch groceries.
Behind the shop is the cafe, and I walk through an archway into a room of dark wood and low, golden light. Fringed lampshades hang down over the tables, which have thick, woven coverings and vases of pink artificial tulips decorating them. Around the edges of the room, in cabinets and on shelves, are clusters of objects, pennants from the NSW Holland festival, coffee tins, wooden skates, copper pots, Dutch joke books, more tiles, more clogs.
On the other side of the cafe the shop continues, with racks of Dutch CDs and LPs, then souvenirs and kitchenware, then the oak furniture showroom that started it all. There are loungeroom scenes set up, chairs and tables and cabinets with trinkets and books in them, as if, at night after the shop was shut, families might materialise to inhabit these settings, sitting around the oak tables to read, eat salty liquorice pastilles and drink hot chocolate. I’m particularly entranced by the cardboard television, of the kind produced as props for furniture showrooms. It is obviously fake – it’s even called Imitronics – but I still touch it to check.
Through another doorway is the Dutch Cultural Centre, a room with a library and display cabinets, and a model of Amsterdam on a table in the centre of the room. It is a view along the Singel canal, lined with houses which, when I lean in to look at it closely, I see have been meticulously detailed with shop window displays and patterned curtains in the windows. It had been built by a man who was a butcher by trade, the volunteers at the cultural centre tell me. He’d designed it based on photographs he’d taken of this set of streets in Amsterdam, and constructed it in his garage, where he had displayed the model until he moved into smaller premises, and it came here.
I peer along one of the streets of the model, where there’s a Bloemist, a florist shop, with a window display of tulips, leading onto a bridge over the canal, over which toy cars are travelling. This is where it is, one of the volunteers says, coming up to me with a city map that has the location of the streets traced out over it. They hand me a photocopied brochure, too, with an architectural guide to the houses and this terse description of the model: “As far as the carpentry is concerned: Number of window frames: 1800. Window panes 7126.”
I think about this as I sit at the corner table of Cafe Klein-Mokum, eating poffertjes, listening to the Dutch version of “Love is in the Air” playing over the stereo, feeling transported, if not to Holland itself, at least to a version of it. It was cosy in here: this was the feeling of gezellig, the menu informed me, and that this is the homely atmosphere created by activities such as playing board games and drinking hot chocolate by the fire when it’s cold outside. But I could not stop imagining that, instead of sitting in the cafe I had previously walked through, I had instead shrunk down to miniature size and was sitting inside a cafe in a canal house in the model of Amsterdam, looking out one of the 7126 windows at the carefully constructed city outside.
As I look up at the Orchards Corner clock – it is 2pm but one of its faces says 5:20 and the other 7:25 – the crackle of a round of fireworks erupts from the direction of Chinatown. I follow the source of the sound, walking down Quay Street until I catch sight of two red and gold lions, cavorting amid a cloud of fireworks smoke outside the noodle shops in the courtyard on Thomas Street. Once the fireworks have burnt through, the lions move on slowly, further into Chinatown, as people descend on the pile of red fireworks papers with brooms, sweeping it up before the wind can disperse it.
I watch until the lions dance across the street, and then turn towards the restaurants on the ground floor of the Prince Centre, the mall that fills the corner block. The restaurant I know best here is the Chinese Noodle house, with its plastic grapes hanging from the ceiling, tapestries hanging on the walls, and the tables in a tetris-like arrangement that leaves only just enough space to sit down at them. For years I came regularly to the noodle house before realising that it was connected to the mall behind it on Quay Street. On the Quay Street side it has a plain facade, but on the Thomas Street side the building tapers to a point, opening up into a courtyard with glass stairwells at either end.
For as long as I’ve been visiting them I’ve loved the malls in Chinatown: the mirrored interiors, escalators and food courts and the travel agencies, hairdressers, fashion boutiques and herbalists, that are collected within. Aside from the busy food courts, the malls have a mood of quiet industriousness, their businesses tucked away above street level, there for those who need or want to find them. The majority of Chinatown’s malls were built in the 1980s, and Prince Centre is a good example, with its pink granite tiles, peach and grey colour scheme, and palm trees. One tree is interred inside an octagonal glass box alongside what is now a drained water-feature, which makes a perfect place to sit to wait for a table in the Chinese Noodle House. Sometimes the proprietor of this establishment comes out with a violin under his chin and plays a tune, using the acoustics of the courtyard to good effect.
On the Quay Street side of the Prince Centre there was, until its partial renovation a few years ago, a cascading crystal light feature and a ceiling decorated by thousands of white scales, which produced a shimmering, seashell-interior effect.
This interior was modernised in 2015, and replaced with a plain ceiling instead, although some of the 80s details persist.
The next mall of this kind is at the corner of Hay Street and Thomas Street: the Citymark, on the lower two levels of a late-80s-era office building. It is a fairly plain commercial building, but upon scrutiny of its facade it looks recognisably dated, a product of the late 1980s, as certainly as shoulder pads in a jacket. To build it, an 1800-seat picture theatre was demolished, one of the many that were built in Haymarket in the early 20th century, when this was the city’s theatre district.
The Citymark cuts through from Thomas Street to George Street, through an arcade of shops selling products such as shoes, cosmetics, and rice cookers. I often take it as a shortcut, but rarely have a need to venture upstairs. As is usually the case, the upper levels of the malls is a tranquil place, with few people around. I startle when I look through the window of a shop with a plain facade and see two headless mannequins in hazmat suits poised for action (the fork and spoon were a clue to its identity: it’s the office for a restaurant delivery service).
Across from this store is China Books, which has a copy of The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar in the window, and a view out towards Dixon Street and the Market City mall.
Of all of the Chinatown malls, Market City has the most conventional interior, and perhaps the most bizarre exterior, a postmodern collage of architectural features. Built to incorporate the shell of the 1909 market building, Market City resembles a rambling castle, with turrets and columns and cupolas, the kind a child might draw to fill up a sheet of paper. At the back of the castle, a residential tower of 48 storeys mushrooms up, so tall and embedded within the overall structure it seems oddly invisible from street level.
I have an affection for the one square window in the brick wall beside the Ultimo Road entrance of Market City, through which piles of folders are visible. It is the only window on an otherwise-windowless long wall, and after looking up and noticing it once, it has been conspicuous to me ever since.
Across Hay Street from Market City is Dixon Street, its ceremonial gates with green-tiled canopies marking each end of the pedestrianised section that forms the Dixon Street mall. The pedestrian mall was created in 1980, when the street was closed to traffic, a deliberate attempt to formalise the area’s identity as Sydney city’s Chinatown. There has been Chinese businesses in this area since the 19th century, although the location of Chinatown had moved a number of times before this: first in The Rocks, then Surry Hills, before settling in Haymarket. Although now Dixon Street is thought of as Chinatown’s centre, its boundaries have shifted and continue to do so. In the early 20th century, Chinatown was thought of as spanning Surry Hills and Haymarket: “a winding dragon with its head in Campbell Street, its body curling up Ultimo Road and its tail in Dixon Street”. The creation of the mall in 1980 settled Chinatown into this part of the city, reclaimed land which was once a swamp with a creek which fed into Tumbalong/Darling Harbour.
The lion dancers are at the end of Dixon Street now, and I watch them tossing their heads, dipping and weaving, as the fireworks bang and sizzle. Throughout their dance, Elder Paik stands at the side of the gates, continuing to spin a green hula hoop from his usual busking position. Paik, who is now in his 80s, is reliably found in this spot, wearing white facepaint and outfits wreathed in fake flowers, twirling a hula hoop around his hips. Underneath the crackle of the fireworks the drummers beat out a steady rhythm, giving the lion’s steps a regular pace.
There is a crowd of people around the lion dancers and so I walk up to the very end of the Dixon Street mall, skipping over Sussex Centre and Dixon House for the time being, until I reach the Harbour Plaza building at the northern end. It is best known as the location of Eating World, the chthonic food court on the ground floor with its rows of worn and sticky laminex tables. For many years the bar here was staffed by a man who had an impressive crest of lacquered hair and always wore a cravat, a style which made me feel I should be ordering a cocktail rather than a chrysanthemum tea.
Underneath Eating World is an arcade which, on this Saturday afternoon, is deserted apart from a few people sitting inside their stores: a nail salon, a foot massage place with decals of huge hands pressing into huge feet, and a real estate agency which had, hung up in the doorway, a lettuce for the lions, a red envelope attached to it with a toothpick.
I could hear from the drums that the lions were approaching, so I doubled back along the mall and into the Sussex Centre, the brighter of the two central Dixon Street malls. Both it and Dixon House have interiors like an Escher engraving, their plentiful escalators producing a confusing optical effect, but Sussex House particularly so, as the levels of shops ascend in a series of ramps that lead up to the food court on the top level. As I walk inside the Sussex Centre I remember that in the 1990s there used to be a Laserdisc shop on the Sussex Street side of the shopping centre (for those who don’t remember them: CDs the size of vinyl LPs, pretty much redundant by 2000). In the 90s I’d pass by it on my way upstairs to have a Happy Chef laksa, sitting at the window facing the old Boyd and Hanlon produce store building on Sussex Street. Until recently it was decorated by faded L and P signs, an advertisement that I enjoyed for its lack of supplementary signage.
My favourite Chinatown mall is Dixon House, on the corner of Little Hay Street. Built inside the shell of what was formerly a Myer warehouse, it was completely remodelled in 1983, when it was bought by the heiress to the Tiger Balm fortune, a Hong Kong businesswoman named Sally Aw. She sold it in the 1990s, and then it was sold again last year, and described in the article announcing this as a “D-grade commercial building”.
Building grades are probably not the same as movie-grades, but even so, I will spring to Dixon House’s defence. My love of it comes from it being an 80s time-warp, with mirrored ceilings and columns, pink walls and carpet, artificial plants and a collection of small, independent businesses. Like Eating World its basement food court has a worn atmosphere, although it does have the additional novelty of the mirrored ceiling.
At the Dixon Street entrance are two directories that list the businesses inside, some of which seem to no longer be in residence, including the enigmatic Dockets and Forms Australia Pty Ltd. Escalators lead to the upper levels, and underneath them is a watch store, with a Seiko neon sign of a diamond. The usual Chinatown mall collection surrounds it: travel agencies, fashion boutiques and hairdressers. At the Sussex Street entrance is the tiny office for John Wong, Chinese Soothsayer, which has photos of him with prominent past politicians and at local events in the window.
I step onto the escalator, entering more deeply into Dixon House’s peaceful, mirrored world. Mirrors reflect off mirrors, so the journey up the escalators appears to be transporting multiple versions of me forwards, backwards, upside down and into other dimensions.
In the back corner of the top level is the legendary Ching Yip coffee lounge, a Hong Kong-style cafe-restaurant. Enter through under the pink neon sign and you find yourself in a pink and grey, laminex and vinyl oasis, soon examining a menu printed on pink paper, listing hundreds of items, from Hot Lemon Coke and Hot Tea & Coffee Mix to rice, pasta and borscht. In the corner, a cake fridge glows, its contents mostly lemons.
When I come to Ching Yip I usually have jam toast and tea with lemon (it seems important to help out with the lemons), and while I consume these I take in the cool, quiet, pink atmosphere. Tinkly musak plays in the background, and I stare over at the line of tropical fish ornaments behind the counter, and the ads for Fanta and the laminated pink menus offering the afternoon special. Often it’s busy in Ching Yip, but I’m here at an in-between time, and so mostly my company is the artificial palm trees and the framed pictures of flowers and sailboats.
After I finish the tea I leave Ching Yip and descend down via the mirrored escalators, heading towards Dixon Street. The lion dancers have moved through and gone, leaving a trail of the red paper from the firecrackers in their wake. The red scraps mix up with the pink petals from the crepe myrtle trees, which are blooming for this last, humid month of summer. Both the red paper and pink blossoms seem to promise good luck for the new year ahead.
The quote about Chinatown being in the shape of a dragon is from Shirley Fitzgerald Red Tape Gold Scissors. Some of the Dixon House backstory I learnt on tour of Chinatown conducted by King Fong, thanks to Philip E for inviting me.
When people enter Gould’s Book Arcade on north King Street, Newtown, for the first time, they walk in a few steps then pause, beholding the complex interior. Like an M.C Escher puzzle, Gould’s is a maze of books, a million of them or more, extending back in rows for as far as the eye can see. There looks to be no end to the books, that they might stretch back to infinity. But Gould’s Book Arcade is at an end, at least in its current form. Its last day at its present location, where it has been for 29 years, is this Sunday. Then the moving and downsizing begins, as the store moves on to smaller premises at the south end of King Street.
A sign at the entrance announces that there’s a moving sale: 50% off. I pause, as I always do, to take in the scene of plenitude. I’m standing under the painted copy of the Diego Rivera mural, Man at the Crossroads, that hangs on a side wall. Rivera’s original mural had been painted in the lobby of the main building of the Rockerfeller Center in 1933, only to be destroyed, chipped off the wall for its communist themes, as Rivera refused to remove the portrait of Lenin.
The replica mural in Gould’s Books is a statement of intent: Bob Gould’s name is equally as connected with left-wing politics as bookselling. An entire wing of the store is stocked with political books with titles like Dynamics of World Revolution Today and Socialism and Survival. Although Bob Gould died in 2011, after a fall in the shop, his political legacy, and his bookstore, live on.
Gould’s has its own topography. The heights of the mezzanine level with its view over the landscape of shelves below; the gloomy recesses of the Australiana aisle, where I activate the torch on my phone to crawl around on the lowest levels, in search of 1970s Sydney photobooks; the narrow aisles of “serious fiction”; and the Cat Pathway at the back of the store, the only surface where there isn’t a stack of books, although the cat is no longer in residence.
In one of the many news articles that were published last year, when news of the store’s relocation was announced, the sad tale of the cat – run over – was revealed. The articles ran to the same theme, differently inflected depending on the political leanings of the newspaper. There is no longer space in gentrified Newtown for huge, rambling bookstores.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by Gould’s, even in its last days. The stock has only barely perceptibly thinned-out. I follow my usual route, down through the arts and crafts books, Introduction to Copper Tooling, How to Make Stained Glass Lampshades, then into the Feminist section, with its row of dark green Virago editions with bitten apples as their logos, then on through fiction, and upstairs, past the political books, to the very front corner. Here Karl Marx watches over me as I flip through the 80s-era posters of puppies, tall ships, and star signs (only Pisces and Sagittarius remain).
During a deep session in Gould’s, time seems to dissolve. It is many hours later when I emerge blinking back out on the street, and wait for the bus home under the red sign and the faded, peeling movie posters that have canopied the street for decades. The names of some can still be made out but most, by now, have worn away.
By the time I reach the end of Blackwall Point Road in Chiswick, the view of the harbour expands to a panorama. I’m facing north, towards the concrete arch of the Gladesville Bridge, and to the east, a glimpse of the Harbour Bridge can be seen above the trees. On this sunny day, the water sparkles, and the yachts moored on it hint at the leisurely life that is one of the city’s presiding dreams.
But there’s something in the foreground that’s distracting me from this wide harbour view. It came into sight after the final rise, where the road widens to make a bus terminus and turning-circle. A curved strip of shops, with ten concrete loops dividing up the awnings, like a row of dropped stitches.
The shopping centre was built in 1972, after a former box factory site on the headland was developed into apartment buildings in 1968. An advertisement from 1972 suggested it was suitable for a “milk bar, butcher’s shop, supermarket (with liquor supply), greengrocer, chemist and delicatessen”, although no mention was made of its unusual design. The same copywriter described the features of the apartments: every apartment was “picture window equipped”, and promised “quiet living midst gardens and trees”.
They were right about the quiet. As I walk past the brick apartment buildings of Bortfield Drive, there’s barely anyone out, just a woman reading a book on her balcony, and a man walking a bug-eyed spaniel towards the waterside park. I take the path into a slip of park now called Armitage Reserve. The headland, with its apartment complexes, interspersed by small reserves with colonial names, has been divided up like a pie. Its abiding identity is Wangal country, the clan whose lands are the southern side of the Parramatta River, the clan of Bennelong.
There’s a concrete path along the foreshore and I follow it, looking out over the sparkling water, towards the facing headland, and then back to the details of the apartment buildings beside me. Two ducks float in a chlorine-blue pool; a grove of agave plants grow unchecked at the edge of a mowed lawn; an unsympathetically pruned frangipani tree produces a shadow in the shape of a cat.
When this area was developed, it was a peak time for breezeblocks, those ornamental brick feature walls that augmented so many domestic structures in the 1950s and 60s, and connote an endless suburban summer. When, years ago, I found out they were called breezeblocks, after them being so ubiquitous in my surroundings that I didn’t even think of them as a separate entity, I thought it a perfect name. As a breeze is a soft, compliant thing, as is the ease of life that a breezeblock structure hoped to produce.
The path loops around and I find myself back at the shops, where a bus is waiting, in between trips, its engine idling. Taped to one of the poles is a lost pet poster, for a lorikeet, with a photograph of the bird and a phone number to call in case of a sighting. As I read this, shrill sounds from above make me look up, and I see a flock of rainbow lorikeets flying over, dozens of them, towards the boughs of a blue gum tree, where they disappear into the leaves.
Back along Blackwall Point Road there’s a small, old store, with ads for tea painted on the side.The shop has been closed for more than 30 years, but was once run by the Tulley brothers, whose name remains on the awning, L. Tulley, General Storekeepers, Est. 1928. The shop is bookended by tea advertisements: Bushells on one side, LanChoo on the other.
On the Lan Choo side is a giant packet of tea, as big as a fridge, its claims to quality, economy and quick infusion carefully repainted by the team that restored the signs in 2004. A photograph exists of the Tulley brothers standing inside their store in 1987, Jim, age 83 and Bill, age 78, surrounded by the products that made up everyday life, such as Pascall Chocolate Eclairs (35c), packets of Bex ($1.50), and Tom Piper canned meats ($1.10).
The curtains are drawn across the windows, and the frosted glass gives no glimpse of the interior. When I go to peek inside, there’s not even the smallest gap to look through, and a handwritten sign, in capital letters with curled edges, tells me politely that the store is closed.
I walk on, past the houses with their breezeblock fences, and their miscellany of decorative details (red brick, iron lace, spiral stairs, classical statues). One house has a magnolia tree with boughs that stretch halfway across the driveway, obstructing one of the doors of the double garage. The tree is in full bud, about to erupt into flowers, as winter wanes, and warm days return.
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.)