The past and the present are strange bedfellows, tangling sheets around tired ankles and emitting weathered scent in each other’s direction in contemptuous disregard.
Deep in the belly of this failing relationship an acid reflux bubbles constantly, agitated boiling set to erupt. Channelling an early morning heavy-breathing fetish the past sneaks up on the slumbering form of the present and blasts rancid fetor into its peaceful face. Naturally, this causes the present to jolt awake, rip the rumpled covers off and call for the future, who arrives dressed to the nines in blueprints and potential-spotted planning papers…
There’s a handsome road in Sydney, with a few scars and scrapes, that’s home to a division of classes. At one end the road is darker, eclectic, while a journey towards its northern end gradually becomes lighter, greener, more upscale. In between – strolling, sipping and snacking – are a multifarious bunch of Sydneysiders, from the welfare recipient to the affluent professional. This is Glebe Point Road.
Glebe Point Road, long a haunt of the weary and weird, wears memory like a shawl. Dive bars and razor gangs bleed into artist haunts and fleapit flicks, while poky rooms and crumbling villas morph into “desirable new living options”.
Years ago, I dipped my toes into harbour waters at Glebe’s reach, sitting on the boards at Blackwattle Studios as music pounded behind me and a small, wiry man howled his love to the moon.
Overlooking Rozelle and Blackwattle bays, the warehouses and boat shed that made up the studios dated from the 20s and started life as timber drying stores and boatbuilding yards. The Long Building housed over a hundred people – artists, artisans, boatbuilders, furniture makers, ceramicists, film makers, weavers… you get the picture – and were some of the last working buildings on the waterfront. They were described as “important breeding grounds for creative talent and incubators for small business… in an enlightened city [they] would be considered community assets” (fineframing.com.au).
Naturally, they were eviscerated in favour of luxury apartments, leaving a void where once there were the people and places of a once working harbour. And today, with my venerable mother in tow, I can find no trace of their diaphanous tenure, my memory of them evidence alone.
She is unperturbed, as only she can be, unflappable in any crisis and constructed of a very British forbearance. Beyond her nostalgia for stiff upper lips and a lengthy queue – “it means whatever you are queuing for will be better than if you weren’t, darling” – my mother is a well-dressed and benevolent matriarch, who agrees to come on this trip down memory lane on the understanding there is lunch included.
Once past the Burley Griffin incinerator (now a venue featuring a kitchen – with sink, microwave, fridge, Zip Hydroboil tap – and a small terrace overlooking parkland), we hunt for lunch at Bellevue, itself a relic of an earlier time, but sensitively recommissioned, possibly with Zip Hydroboil taps. Splinters of the past poke through and the larb is tasty.
Much of the Glebe foreshore was reclaimed land, not considered suitable for residential development; because of the harbour access, it was an industrial haven, a bustling waterfront teeming with life. Today nothing is left of the Vanderfield and Reid timber yards, or the tanneries and abattoirs – all capitulating to the capitalist roar for more. Now the water’s edge bristles with new apartment blocks that gaze benignly over deceptively calm waters. Yet beneath the silvery film of the surface lies discontent – you can feel it.
At least there is Blackwattle Bay Park, the result of nearly four decades of campaigns for public access to the foreshore by local residents. But while it is decorous to promenade (whilst avoiding lycra-clad bike-wielding maniacs and sleep-deprived Bugaboo operators), the paths fall beneath the myopic gaze of surveillance, which taints the experience a little.
A remnant of Sylvester Stride’s former ship-breaking yards is preserved, in all its spiked and menacing glory, the clang of steel on dismembered hulks a rich seam layered beneath bird calls and a cantering Kelpie.
And a metal drum winch is a relic of Harbour Lighterage, the workers that repaired the floating platforms called lighters that brought timber into the bays. It is beautiful, rusted flora in this palimpsest of a park.
We turn from the shore, deep in conversation. This pilgrimage to the stomping grounds of Glebe is a window into my past, a glimpse into a world previously only described in lengthy missives scratched excitedly on paper-thin blue air-mail. For my mum, it is the sight, smell and sound of my history. With lunch included.
Glebe puts on a show, tangles of life crowded in tight, skinny malinky streets that lead to tiny cul-de-sacs of calm.
And slices of Asian wonder cast into the mix, from teetering Bangkok style board-ups to the exquisite seclusion we find at a back-street temple.
Sze Yup Temple has grown roots deep into the soil next to Jubilee Oval. Tucked in tight in a dimly lit corner of the city, this crimson and gold Buddhist realm has been here since 1898, a living memory of Chinese settler history.
Incense spirals lazily on the breeze, cleansing the air of noise and need and instilling an innate veil of calm introspection,
I take deep pleasure telling my mum of my appreciation for Buddhism, years spent in Hong Kong, China and with the crinkly-faced Tibetan community of Dharamsala, absorbing the culture and ritual of this sacred belief… as well as Yat Lok roast goose and an abiding love of firecrackers.
The red-brick temple with its fluted gables is dedicated to folk hero Kwan Ti – revered by Daoists, Confucians and Buddhists alike – and is flanked by the Chapel of Departed Friends and the Chapel of Good Fortune. I can’t help but wonder if the departed friends ought to have visited the Chapel of Good Fortune to ward off their departure, but I am silenced by a matriarchal glare.
Inside, there is an intriguing sensory imbalance. To the right of the main temple, which is shrouded in passive offering, tumbles of oranges and lemons and stinking garlands of lilies wreathed in smoke, the Chapel of Good Fortune is whirring.
It blinks and twitches with movement and light, a thousand tiny suns to brighten your fortune. Tiny metronomic clicks guide me to the front, eyes skyward, until I stand before a mirrored shrine. As my eyes descend, they glimpse the broad grin plastered on my face.
To the left, in the Chapel of Departed Friends, a catalogue of dearly departed on the rosewood walls is reflective and stilling. I can’t read the Hanzi, but I understand the emotion captured in a picture, partners caught in time forever…
The Kelpie is also inept at Chinese script, however, she is quick to find the sooty swag of Snickers in a corner. I hurry her out of this rare sanctuary, portal to another part of my life.
Bound by this dedication to the dead, the heartfelt worship, the smoky pall and those who seek guidance, incense clasped between praying hands, Mum and I are quiet as we stroll to the gates. We both, however, notice the sign:
The temple has an orbit of exuberance, yet it is still and peaceful. Flashes of fire and crashing symbols are tempered by strolling Ibis and soulful prayer, and possibly the spirits of many discarded cats.
Climbing the steep streets above the ANZAC Bridge’s strings, Glebe is an old place, weathered with remembrance, reminiscence and ‘how it used to be’s’.
And while the future busily maps out coloured spheres of ‘desirable new living options’, transit solutions, high-density shopping and a new socio-economic order, and the present balefully ignores the old guard, its eyes riveted on what’s next, the past slinks contentedly to the corners and beds down peacefully for the night.
Yet another fabulous and fascinating read! Thank you!
Beautiful – who are you ? This is fabulous
I am a freelance writer based in Sydney. This is a passion project, something that satisfies the urge to write and reflect on the memories of place, but I am also in the process of writing a book about the Australian outback, and was recently commissioned to write a book about Cambodia.
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Great post, brought back many memories for me. I lived in the boatsheds during the early 80’s. I still remember the clang of the harbor buoys and caw of lone seagulls during the night.
Thanks for commenting – it’s sad the way it is all crumbling in the face of the development monster, but the memories will always be there.