The pilgrimage

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”.

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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” (


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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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Glebe puts on a show, tangles of life crowded in tight, skinny malinky streets that lead to tiny cul-de-sacs of calm.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.







This Savage City

Back in this savage city and the air is edible, a crunchy mix of asbestos, diesel and grit, drizzled with a 9-5 sauce and served with a side of 24/7 connectivity.

Rhys Pope

My attorney, with a wry grin, suggests I ditch the soft-edged romanticism of desolate expanses and pubs with no chrome and head to the arrhythmic heart of Sydney’s urban degeneration.

You know. To cheer me up.

I rope in the secretary. Notebook at the ready, a sharpened lead behind her ear, she has no intention of allowing me to dissect the urban rot from the darkened confines of the local pub. Which is bittersweet.

Tally-ho she calls, her bristling efficiency our standard bearer as we board the one-time Smack Express, our destination flickering in the distance like a neon flare.

Cabramatta is known affectionately as Cabra. To those who have little affection for it, it is known as an ethnic ghetto, a no-go zone that is the poster child for the perceived failure of multiculturalism in Australia.

At the end of the Vietnam war Vietnamese boat people bound for Australia acted as the crash test dummies of a new policy of multiculturalism.

It is a moment in history that finally buries the infamous White Australia Policy and transforms a nation. The years that follow are as dramatic as they are turbulent – a people struggling to find their place in a foreign land. In this one tiny Sydney suburb, the 80s and 90s see the arrival of street gangs, a heroin epidemic and the first political assassination in Australia’s history. The Vietnamese people are vilified and demonised. Cabramatta… represents all that is wrong with Asian immigration.

                                          Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta

This social experiment created a culture of impoverishment, and became a case study for what can go wrong. At its heart was the institution of family and the crumbling of traditional familial roles – nurtured in a suburban hothouse this led to a generational and cultural chasm. The description of a 5T gang member says it all:

By the age of 11, he was arrested for carrying a sawn-off shotgun and in the next couple of years was suspected of the murder of two rival gang members.

(5T stands for the five Vietnamese words tuổi trẻ thiếu tình thương which roughly translates to childhood without love.)

But time has healed much of this pain and the streets of Cabra have always welcomed me, Today, in spite of an oleaginous hangover, the hot breath of Asia embraces me with the scent of scorched meat and sugarcane.

My liver grumbling rudely, I suggest a little snack, my longing for the sweet-sour-salty-crisp-smoky-tang causing me to salivate inelegantly:

We over-order and lose sight of natural caution, ending up with ‘broken rice with shredded pork chop’, a side of flash-fried goat’s intestines and cubist carrots.

But once high on the tart juice of Little Asia, we venture on.

The scrabble of life is raw here. Hawkers and vendors spruik and holler, a tangle of shops sell Korean, Thai, Lao, Vietnamese, Khmer and Chinese life, from the exquisite to the prosaic. Tiny arcades crammed with glaring, beeping, whirring, flashing neon bristle in competition with each other, while every other shop is a gastronomic experience, a market selling mock duck, chicken’s feet and beancurd, or a fabric joint that sucks you into a nylon vortex.

In this pumping heart the spiral of supply and demand is tightly wound, a bargain to be had at every corner. But as we step out into weary veins that sidle into the suburbia beyond, the manky scent of dystopia wafts towards us.

Lives are started, lived and lost on these streets, and here life is cheap. There is no obvious ostentation, rather a sparsity and neglect that howls of poverty and sad resignation.  A woman at the bus stop eyes us up and down, a yelping kid climbing up bald ugg boots to reach a plastic bag full of coke and chips. Her expression says it all.

Towering over the Hughes Street playground, a notoriously septic site at one time that was devoid of children and haunted by addicts and dealers, the blank eyes of a block stare down.

A torn sign barricading a smashed window asks if this is my new rental home and I have to resist the urge to call L J himself to decline in staccato words of one syllable. There is bleak resignation here, hidden behind knock-down walls and empty windows.

The Secretary questions my myopia. Her mind like a steel trap, she asks whether the community here has a different set of ideals? What is aspiration? What has value?

I grudgingly admit she is spot on. I blame it on the hangover. Life in Asia often looks grimy and jumbled, a third-world to our first. Yet, I know that life to be one of the best – robust, exciting and filled with family and joy.

Flecked with satellite dishes the houses here hold flocks of families: aunties, uncles, cousins, grandparents, in laws and more. They are utilitarian and devoid of decoration, but they are crammed with life. Cars line front yards, swing sets and slippery dips are bright spots of colour and there is a sense of a hidden world.

There is no need for a spiky plant in a colourful pot to welcome you in, no requirement for twitching net and floral curtains. The houses are tired, sleeping on the job, backyards bald and scorched, but that cannot hide the vibrancy of the community behind the facade.

In 2000, a mob of first-school kids wrote a letter to the local Councillor about the Hughes Street playground. They said,

[The playground] is not a safe place because of the number of syringes lying around… We have been approached by addicts and have seen them in the yards of our units.  Some of us have also seen addicts with knives and we are scared.  We have come across people lying on the ground with their lips turning purple and stuff coming out of their mouths.

Today, the Cabramatta community gardens frill the edges of the park, verdant and deliciously alive. An elderly Italian Nonna, sheltering from the sun behind an advertising hoarding, eyes us indifferently, before peering over her leafy charges and settling back to the local rag.

The playground is now a green idyll, a meeting place that whispers of the future rather than a barren space lost to the past.

Around the next corner Buddhist flags entwined with the Southern Cross fly high, streams of colour adorning a huddle of temple-houses:

Gleaming in their devotion (and avid appreciation of concrete animals), the temples are the antithesis to the concrete blight, a lush appreciation of the natural and spiritual worlds. It’s as if they represent a communal backyard, filled with aesthetic beauty, adorned, decorated and proud.

Despite obvious poverty and hardship, Cabramatta is a rich pluralistic community that is proud of its culture and its heritage. If multiculturalism is about communication within an immigrant society and between this society and the wider population then the conversation here is getting louder by the day, a stream of insight into how it can be.