The trees are a clue, visible from Clarence Street above the two entrances to the underground parking garage. The trees’ tall, wintery shapes seem to hover, like the buildings around them are dreaming of a forest. Behind them is a wall with peeling paint and sash windows, seven storeys high. The tallest tree reaches almost to its roof.
The entrance to the arcade on this side of the building is a narrow doorway, easily passed by. So too is the entrance to the garden, which has the look of a service corridor, branching off the arcade and its row of typical city small businesses: a barber, a sandwich shop, a newsagency. But if you pass through the doors you are delivered into a courtyard with trees and palms, and a pond into which a stream of water pours.
The trees that were visible from the street below are planted to either side of the garden, and underneath them are benches and paths, enclosing this garden amid the city high-rises. They surround it, so on one side is the back of the office building on York Street, across the road is the concrete stripes of another parking garage, and above is the St Martins Office tower, the building of which the garden is part.
The tower was built in the early 1970s on the block bordered by York, Market and Clarence Streets. Being across from the Queen Victoria building, with its sandstone warmth and elaborate detail, the St Martins tower has a functional, anonymous presence within the contemporary city. At street level, it is easy to walk past it without noticing it as a place it is possible to enter.
When I did, and found the garden, there was no one else there. It was mid-afternoon, and I could hear the city all around, a roar only partially obscured by the rush of running water from the fountain. The traffic on the street below groaned past, and the air conditioning ducts on the side of the building churned in restless interruption. I walked up to the edge of the pond and the carp swum over towards me, hoping for crumbs. They kissed the water’s surface, their bright orange backs looming up.
The sun had slipped behind the buildings already, so the garden was in shadow, but I pulled my coat tight around me and sat for a while, under the trees, listening to the city as the carp clustered, ever-hopeful, in the shallow water below.
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.
For the past couple of years I’ve been working with the Powerhouse Museum on the Time and Memory project, the book of which was launched at the end of 2018. Soon the project will be finishing up and ahead of this I thought I’d share a behind-the-scenes story from one of my visits to the Observatory.
161 years isn’t a very long time in the history of the land on which the Observatory stands, or compared to the history of the stars which the Observatory was built to examine, but until the introduction of timekeeping by atomic clock in the mid-20th-century, the Observatory was central to the city. It was Sydney’s most accurate timekeeping mechanism, keeping the city to time via precision clocks, that were calibrated through the observed movements of the stars.
The Observatory building stands on the highest point in the harbour, on a rocky ridge between the coves of Warrane/Sydney Cove and Tumbalong/Darling Harbour. Now it is on something of an island, the land around it winnowed away by roads, the city grown into high-rise, but when it was first built, it would have been immediately visible to anyone around the harbour. This, indeed, was its purpose, as the Observatory transmitted the time to the city through a simple visual mechanism: the time ball on its roof.
The time-ball is a metal sphere mounted on a pole atop the Observatory’s central tower. It is now painted yellow, although it was initially painted black, which made it easier to see against the sky. Almost every day since the Observatory opened in 1858, at 1pm the ball has dropped from the top to the bottom of the mast. Now this is continued as a tradition, but its original purpose was to communicate the hour to ships in the harbour. This was so that they could make sure their clocks were running to time, for this was essential to accurate navigation.
It was not just important for shipping: the Observatory held the time standard for all the clocks in the city. Before the construction of the Harbour Bridge the Observatory was the city’s most prominent structure, and in the early afternoon, many eyes went to it to watch for the movement of the ball. Errors in the time ball’s precision were noted in the daily newspapers:
It was a late-autumn evening when I climbed up through the rooms of the tower to the roof of the Observatory, following the two of the museum’s curators up the stairs and ladders that lead to the time ball. On the library level I stopped to look over the collection of astronomy books on the shelves. Their spines were mostly plainly bound, although some of the older ones were decorated with gold stars and comets, such as Hutchinson’s Splendour of the Heavens from 1923.
These rooms once held the Observatory’s archives, the papers, notebooks, glass plate negatives and photographs that recorded observations of the sky and the weather (astronomer Henry Chamberlain Russell’s beautiful cloud photographs, for example).
The room below the time ball contains its mechanism, a central metal column with a complicated collection of cogs and levers attached to it. Usually, this is as far as people go. It is here, at 1pm, that the gears are engaged, and the button is pressed to release the ball, and there is generally little reason to go up any further. But we keep climbing, up a ladder and then through the hatch onto the roof. It’s a shift in perspective to be standing up beside the ball, knowing that this is usually a place watched from below, or afar.
Up close I see that the ball is as tall as we are, see the bolts that hold the copper panels together and where the paint has faded and peeled (though since I visited it has been refreshed with a new coat of yellow paint). There’s a hatch on the side of it, and when I point it out, the curator tells me the unlikely-but-compelling rumour neighbourhood children would be given a ride inside the ball on their 8th birthday. Looking down over the streets of Millers Point and The Rocks below, I imagine the story taking hold, kids bragging they’d been for a ride in it, others waiting for the day when they’d have their turn.
The whole spread of the harbour is visible from here. In the west, the sun has almost slipped below the horizon, lighting up the low clouds in the east. As the light quickly fades, the white and red lights of the cars travelling across the bridge seem to increase in brightness.
As always when I see the harbour from this perspective, I can’t help but thinking of time differently. The time ball represents the colonial perception of time, as something to be measured and controlled, but the harbour carries the ancestral time of this land’s first peoples, and the geologic time of the land’s formation. The skies have shifted over the harbour throughout all these times – the clouds, the changing elements, the positions of the stars above – and been observed in different ways. I am one of countless observers who have watched the sunset from this hill, as I stand here beside the metallic sun of the time ball, thinking about the day moving into night, watching the scene below me change.
Big thanks to the curators and editors at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences who have guided me in my research.
After trading for 55 years, Lawson’s Record Centre is closing. At 380 Pitt Street is the last remaining of what was once a row of secondhand record stores on this block between Liverpool and Goulburn streets. When I started shopping there the top three on this stretch were Ashwoods, The Pitt, and Lawson’s. At that time there was a vast vacant lot across from the record stores, the whole block between Pitt and George Street empty. The Anthony Horderns department store had stood here until it was demolished in the 1980s. But I paid the vacant lot little attention. The city had many such holes at the time, on pause between demolition and development. Instead my energies were focussed on the record stores, and what I might find within.
I found records inside them, of course, but as much as I enjoyed looking through the racks, I enjoyed being in the stores themselves. They were cluttered, serious places, dense with records and books, with layers of gig posters decorating their walls. Their mood was one of studious attention to the pursuit of treasure, and I joined the searchers with enthusiasm. When I was a teenager books and music were my lifeline. I navigated the city with subcultural intent, frequenting the record book stores, navigating by the cinemas and arcades.
Approaching Lawsons this feeling returns to me, although the rest of the street has changed and is now mostly restaurants. Through the door I can see the long rows of boxes inside, through to the back wall lined with 7″ records. As I turn to go in I note the handwritten sign in the window thanking customers for their support and announcing that the last day is April 27th. Once through the narrow entranceway lined by vinyl records, I see this date is also marked on the calendar affixed to the pinboard behind the counter. There’s a circle around the last Saturday in April and the words “last day of Lawson’s” written below it.
Knowing that this may well be their last visit, the store is busy with people searching through the records and CDs, heads down, flipping through. As I browse ’50s 60s R&B’ a man beside me explains to his son the system of alphabeticising artists under their first names, one of the store’s quirks.
I turn my attention to the walls and their layers of posters. My favourite, which has been on the wall since the first time I came to the store in the 1990s, is the State Rail fare evasion poster that shows a figure being consumed by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. “There are harsh penalties for those without a ticket”, ran a line of text at the bottom of the poster. No matter how often the LPs displayed on the rack below it changed, the day-glo scene of prehistoric fare evasion was a constant.
Lawson’s too has been a constant, a reminder of an era of the city that now has fewer and fewer traces. Climbing rents have now priced it out of the city, a familiar story for other secondhand book and record dealers such as Goulds, which had to downsize from its iconic Newtown store last year, also due to increases in rent. Another stalwart of the city book and record store circuit, Comic Kingdom, closed in recent years, and the copies of Captain America and Spiderman grow ever-dustier in its unchanging front window.
For many years Lawson’s has been the last store left of its kind in the city, but now its time is coming to a close. A For Lease sign is displayed in the front window beside David Bowie and Prince. But inside, for these final weeks, it has the same atmosphere of studious searching, looking through, hoping for treasure.
For a guide to Sydney’s record stores see Diggin’ Sydney map of record stores.
In the floral calendar of Sydney, after the pink of the crepe myrtles in late summer comes the velvet purple of the tibouchinas. Like the city’s most renowned non-native flowering tree, the jacaranda, the tibouchina also originated in Central and South America. Yet the tibouchina is still an unfamiliar name to many, even if their iridescent purple blooms are a recognisable marker of the change of season.
For most of the year the dark green leaves and slim branches of tibouchina trees seem unexceptional, camouflaged by other garden plantings. But in March and April, when in bloom, they flare into a mass of intense colour. Like jacarandas, they transform streets into constellations of purple. This purple is richer, darker, as befits the time of year when the days grow shorter, and there’s a briskness to the air, a colder wind. Pale mauve jacarandas flowers are light, airy spring; deep purple tibouchina flowers are the dark of the lengthening autumn nights.
A tibouchina – or as they are were then known, the Lasiandra – formed part of a Horticultural Society Exhibition in 1869; by 1887 they were being grown and sold in nurseries. By the 1920s the tibouchina was a familiar tree in suburban gardens along Australia’s east coast, and the beauty of their flowers was celebrated: “The head-piece of most of the shrubs is just covered with loveliness”, extols one 1928 article, “lasiandra is a gem thing”.
Today tibouchinas can be seen across city parks and gardens, usually in isolation, but in some areas such as in Ashfield and Summer Hill, they have been used as street trees, forming an autumn corridor of bright colour. It is a surprise to turn a corner and encounter such a street, as if colours have inverted, the greens changed to purple, as if they have pulled the last of the summer’s heat from the air, in order to glow so richly.
Maybe it has been a little while since I’ve travelled up this stretch of Parramatta Road, or maybe it happened suddenly, but now there’s a great gap between Pyrmont Bridge Road and Mallett Street, where a whole block of buildings have been demolished. The light is the first thing I notice, how the demolition has opened the streetscape to the sky. I try to remember what had been there. A golf store, that’s right (and before that, a building supplies store distinguished by a window display that included a mannequin on a toilet) and a 1930s bank building with a brick and sandstone facade, a gym, then a row of former warehouses that had been repurposed as furniture stores. It was a bleak stretch: the other side of the road more favoured by pedestrians, with its slightly more appealing businesses – a toy store, vacuum cleaner store, and school with a row of jacaranda trees along the fenceline.
There’s no signage – apart from advertising – on the hoardings that seal off the block, but soon perhaps it will come, extolling the benefits of the Westconnex M4-M5 link tunnel, for which this land has been cleared. This will be a tunnelling site, from where the drilling machinery bore in to create the tunnel that will undercut Parramatta Road Creek on a path between Haberfield and St Peters. On the Westconnex website, a progress bar announces the works for the overall scheme to be now 47% complete. When I click on the “connecting communities” icon, a message comes up: “You are not authorized to access this page”. The benefits to communities may be concealed but other information is more easily accessed. I find out that the start of this year local residents had the opportunity to vote on the preferred colour of the hundred-metre-long construction shed that is to be built here to mask the drilling operations: mangrove, ironstone, or shale grey?
For now, the site is still being cleared, the remains of the buildings and their utility lines still in the process of being removed. The shed of mangrove/ironstone/shale grey corrugated iron is yet to be constructed. As I look across this newly opened stretch of land, I notice there are a few remaining buildings, a small cluster at the narrow end of the block. The wall at the edge of them has a sliced-cake look, and reveals a vertical strip of ghost signs: CASHDOWN, then below, Brown and Dobinson, with the note they have “removed to 145 Australia Street Camperdown”, and below it the tail end of a logo, interrupted by a doorway: “-oid”. Whatever it is, it is “Perfect”, the one full word to remain on this section of the wall.
I stand by the gate, looking up at the sign, trying to decode it, as the works go on inside: digging and churning, clods of earth and splinters of building rubble being chewed by yellow excavators. It would be useful if they could remove a few more bricks from the wall to resolve anothe letter of “oid”, but I don’t try my luck with the asking the man at the gate, who has already shifted the blue mesh that covers the wire so I can take a photo through the fence.
Later I get to sleuthing, find out that Cashdown was the C. Ashdown Carriage Company, that in 1913 it manufactured items such as Buggies, Phaetons, Buckboards, Sulkies, with or without Rubber Tyres, to suit pony or horse.
I feel as if I, too, am “under the paint” as I work to solve the puzzle, inside a network of details. On the way home I go past the building on Australia Street to where the motor garage Brown and Dobinson removed in the 1930s, though it reveals to me no further information. I take the fragments of the words “oid” and “ouer” and they rattle around in my head like an unsatisfying Scrabble hand. But then, like Cashdown became C. Ashdown, I realise “ouer” is probably “quer”, and I guess that “quer” is probably “lacquer”, which means “oid” is possibly an automotive paint.
A chain of associations stretches out, across time, and the city and its transport technologies. C. Ashdown closed in 1919, as the automotive era was about to begin, giving way to the motor garages, petrol station and car dealerships that are still a large part of Parramatta Road’s landscape, as much as it is reshaped, on and under the surface. A hundred years on cars dominate this landscape, and will continue to do so into the future, as the land is carved up to accommodate them. A sign such as this one is a chance to slice a few layers back through the recent past, to consider how much, and how little, has changed.
(update: I worked it out with the help of my fellow sleuth David Lever: the sign is advertising, as I suspected, an enamel automotive paint called “Lusteroid“… though now the sign has lost its lustre…)
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.
The train emerges from the tunnel towards Circular Quay station and the darkness outside the windows is replaced by a long, thin panorama, a horizontal slice of sky and water bracketed by the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. It’s a living postcard, animated by the ferries and the clouds, watched by those waiting on the platform. People lean against the glass barriers to take photos of the harbour, or just gaze out, watching the ever-moving scene in front of them.
I join the throng clogging the top of the steps that lead down to the concourse. I hang back, not in a hurry, and wait until I’m the last to descend. As I walk down, I look above the stairs to where, set high up into the wall, there are ornamental grilles decorated by bronze fish. They have a stranded look to them, a little bit dusty, but with their rainbow sheen still visible.
I always look for them, one of the few decorative features of this station which, since its opening in 1956, has been relentlessly condemned as ugly, interrupting the view of the harbour from the city, and the city from the harbour. The construction of the station and the Cahill Expressway above it was a drawn out and unpopular process. Things came to a head at the 1958 opening of the Cahill Expressway, when despite the premier’s announcement that this was “a striking symbol of Sydney’s growth and maturity”, things did not go as planned.
If Circular Quay station is maligned, the Cahill Expressway is even more so. The railway line and the road above it forms a thick line that cuts across the view, as if it’s a low, wide belt keeping the city in check. There has often been talk of the expressway’s demolition: in 1994 Prime Minister Paul Keating even offered the NSW state government the funds to remove it. Yet it remains, visually intrusive, loved by no one, but not entirely without allure. A side-effect of maligned places is that people avoid them, which can, sometimes, twist their atmosphere into something unusual and interesting.
The Cahill Walk is a good example of this. To get to it I move quickly along the Circular Quay promenade, past people munching through pancakes at City Extra and passengers coming off the Manly ferry. Details flash up: a man wearing a t-shirt that says “winter is not coming”; the round bronze discs set into the pavement that commemorate famous writers. I step over A.D. Hope, Barry Humphries, and Kenneth Slessor, until I’m at a grove of palm trees hemmed in by concrete, that surround a glass elevator clamped to the side of the railway line and road above.
I press the elevator call button and soon the doors open in front of me, puffing out a cold, air-conditioned breath in welcome. I step inside, the doors seal me in, and the noise of the quay recedes. I’m inside a bubble, ascending, above the tops of the palm trees now, the view of the Harbour Bridge coming clear the higher up the lift rises.
At the top, the doors behind me open and I turn to face the four lanes of traffic on the expressway. A long, concrete walkway extends beside it like a grey ribbon.
Never, in all the times I’ve been up here, has there been many other people here. It’s one day of popularity is New Year’s Eve: a ballot operates for tickets to watch the fireworks from here. At other times, you might very well have it to yourself. This morning there’s almost no one else but me, apart from an occasional runner jogging by. It’s only a slight change of perspective from the Quay below, but has a completely different mood. If it weren’t for the incessant traffic, and the way the path trembles underfoot when heavy vehicles go by, it would be a tranquil, pleasurable place to be, rather than the exposed and sometimes slightly eerie experience it is to walk here.
The traffic speeds by, having just come off the Harbour Bridge. I watch the intent expressions of people behind the wheels of their cars, notice a man on his motorbike singing as he rides along, and feel the path shudder when a demolition truck goes by, the word CHOMP in orange across the front. On the other side is Warrane, the bay dominated by a gargantuan cruise ship with a steaming funnel like a kettle just come off the boil. The poisonous smell of the diesel fuel drifts across. On the front of the cruise ship is a man in overalls, tethered to a railing above, holding a paint roller on a stick, repainting the ship’s nose. The expanse of fresh white paint follows him as he moves slowly along.
Walking up here, alongside the expressway, is to have a feeling of floating mid-air, looking into the thicket of city buildings to one side and the harbour’s expanse on the other.
Below where I am on the Cahill Walk, the crowds of Circular Quay mill and disperse. Up here I’m alone, with traffic and jackhammering and construction noise filling the air as I look towards the building sites on the city’s edge. Behind them are dozens of office buildings, thousands of windows, each framing a view of the harbour. Anyone looking out of them at this moment would be moving their eyes over the same scene as me, watching the harbour, the ferries, the shifting clouds, that familiar scene, slowly changing.
Thank you dear readers for following Mirror Sydney in 2018, a busy year for me, with the book out in the world. It was a delight to meet some of you when I had launches and talks, and I look forward to more in 2019.
At the edge of Chinatown is the Sydney Trades Hall, a Victorian-era office building, four storeys high, with an octagonal tower jutting from the corner like a lantern. When it opened in 1895, this area was near the wharves, railyards, and industrial areas on the city’s fringe, areas that employed many of the workers who belonged to the trade unions who had offices inside the building.
On the main staircase there’s a list of the union offices that once were found within Trades Hall. It’s an index of the city’s past occupations, among them bread carters, sailmakers, glass bottle makers, food preservers, Pyrmont Sugar Workers, milk and ice carters. The building would have been a lively place, with all of these offices, a literary institute library, and nightly social activities, concerts and dances and meetings.
Now the building is part-offices, part-museum, after being refurbished in the 2000s. I’ve come on a tour as part of Sydney Open, the annual weekend on which buildings of historical and architectural interest are open to the public. On the ground floor I walk in past an old, wooden elevator with a banner for the Lift Attendant union displayed inside it. There are other such banners hanging in the nearby hallway, for cleaners and for watchmen, and a framed painted list of offices, with a delicate painted hand pointing upstairs.
The building houses objects related to its history: the signs that once hung in the hallways, the banners that unions used in marches and processions, and the certificates and banners used by the unions to signify or reward membership. The large painted banners are ornate and symbolic, decorated with gold leaf.
Their painter was Edgar Whitbread, who worked for decades, well into his 70s, at a small studio in the glass-domed Victoria Arcade. His name can be seen printed modestly at the base of these banners, which were once used in the processions and demonstrations that would bring thousands of people onto the city’s streets. Their detail and meticulous craftsmanship are surprising to the contemporary eye, and we can imagine them held aloft, as the workers they represented marched with them.
It was in the 1960s, the heritage officer leading the tour tells us, when the building was under threat of demolition, that thought was given to whether the banners should be preserved. That they were owes much to the Trades Hall secretary, Lorna Morrison, who advocated for their restoration. The banner had been stored in a part of the building that was at the time opened up as a walkway between the original building and the new Labour Council building behind it, a grey office block with painted advertisements for the on-site broadcaster, 2KY radio, on it.
Other objects on display, he said, were found piled up in the basement during the refurbishment in the 2000s. These objects now tell the story of the building, but also of the world of work, and how Sydney’s workers have shaped the city.
These rainy grey October days have seen me looking through my papers, trying to arrange them in some sort of system. I’m a haphazard archivist. The activity of sorting rarely leads to anything but me surrounded by books and papers, sensing how each one resonates with its own story, so it’s impossible to discard any, and easy to become sidetracked rather than instilling order.
Today I’ve spent the day sorting the Sydney Scraps category, which is an unruly mixture of pamphlets, guidebooks, photos, postcards, and miscellaneous ephemera. They resemble the bundles of papers one returns with after an international holiday, the importance of each scrap heightened by its dislocation from everyday life. In this case, it’s a time-traveller’s dossier, each scrap accrued from a visit to a Sydney of the past.
First let’s visit Sydney of the late-1950s, via a pamphlet produced by the prolific New South Wales Government Tourist Bureau. Such pamphlets were intended to be functional documents that informed the visitor to the city of the potential activities and experiences to be had during their visit. They usually made an attempt to describe the city’s character and atmosphere, as well as create a sense of excitement and anticipation. This combination can lead the time traveller into some unexpected terrain.
What expectations does this view of the city’s business district create, with this sensible Martin Place streetscape? They may not be the adjectives offered within:
By far my favourite part of this pamphlet is its itinerary for ‘8 Fascinating Days in Sydney’. It is not the suggested activities, so much as the breathless way in which they are described that makes me wonder: was the 1950s really a time when people expressed their frustration at leaving the camera at home by “whipping the cat”, when they had ventured out on a “memorable junket”? As for “penetrating the blue fjord of Middle Harbour”, and “lofty forest clad mountains come kneeling to the very edge of the Pacific”… I have spent a good while trying to imagine who might have written the copy for this brochure and believe them to have been an avid reader of romance novels.
In 1970 the New South Wales Government Tourist Bureau has a more down-to-earth copywriter, although the brochure cover image is the opposite, revelling in the view from Australia Square as diners enjoy the “smorgasboard brunch” in the foreground. As well as a lovingly-rendered illustration of the Kings Cross Village Centre, there is a chart of costs which has the time traveller excited at the 18c middies that await.
The New South Wales Government Tourist Bureau also produced weekly guides in the late 60s/early 70s, with listings of shops, restaurants and entertainments. In the introduction to the 15th-21st June 1967 issue, Lord Mayor John Armstrong praised the city’s unique features, including its “adequate facilities for sporting activities”. No risk of hyperbole there.
My main attraction to guides of this nature is that they enable me to go shopping in the past.
The forlorn-looking tiger, please. The guide also includes what is now a ghost tour of Sydney’s arcades: only the Strand remains.
Visitors would have read these pamphlets and those like them, have laid back in their hotel beds reading over the listings of coffee spots and theatre restaurants, have crushed them into handbags and into suitcases as they packed to go home again, some keeping them as souvenirs of their time in the city. I often wonder by what sequence of events they have made it into my possession. There are rarely any clues to know what the travellers who kept these brochures thought of the city, but in one case, I know.
This 1920s guide to Sydney used a sketch of the then not-yet-completed Harbour Bridge for the cover. It’s an interesting little book, given to me by my friend DL, and has delicate, tissue-paper fold-out maps that show the city streets, ferry routes and suburban shires. It really warrants a post of its own, but for now, it answers the question of what at least one Sydney visitor thought of the city.
On the first page, in pencil, the name F.M. Smith is written, with the date, 22/2/33. The Harbour Bridge was complete by then, but perhaps that wasn’t quite enough to win over some visitors. The only other annotation in the book is on the page set aside for the ‘Visitor’s Diary’. What was F.M. Smith’s impression of Sydney?