The soft cadence of the names that spill from the buildings in Punchbowl are lulling, Alafrah, Mervat, Baalbeck, Dounya, Sallam and Safadi, Akkaaoui, Kheir, Al-Nour, Alsati, Hamze, Khassoum & Moujalli.

This lilting vernacular weaves a cocoon of exoticism, evoking far-flung lands rich in  Byzantine and Assyrian glory, an other-worldly intrigue, of a people swathed in fabric, the scent of wooded spice, jasmine, cedar and pine on their skin.

In reality this weary suburb lacks the ornate promise of this rich ancestry. The roads spill with snarling traffic yet the shops are empty. The surge of noise that catapults around the corners is the grinding screech of movement, trucks, buses, low-slung WRXs and souped-up trolleys trailing angst and piloted by surly teens. The swarm of sound is only tamed by suburban streets that swallow it whole, choking it down into bellies aching with interference.

The air is soupy, a mix of bitter coffee, tar, rose water, cement and heavy pollution. It is a sickening mix and we retreat into the backstreets for a different perspective.

Here, life takes a laid-back approach. A bare-metal car snoozes peacefully beneath a tarp, heavy sun shutters droop contentedly and paint pots line up excitedly at the prospect of a little home improvement:

Beneath a stately power pylon, all gangly limbs and proud purpose, Arabic inscribed Christmas decorations either linger a little too long or are a touch presumptuous, and the beautiful face of the local independent stares confidently out of a green-hued placard calling for True Blue representation. The streets are tired but wide, threadbare lawns are kept shorn and windows sparkle, eyes peeping out at the world from behind every twitching lace curtain. This is the partially covered face of the proud Lebanese community that calls Punchbowl its own.

Soon though, the cool, garlicky calm of Jasmin 1 hauls us in from the sticky asphalt. The walls are alive with frenetic frescoes and gilt-edged back-lit inverted domes, a psychedelic renovation in honour of a Mediterranean homeland thick with Cedar trees, crumbling antiquity and camels, though everything else has a clean simplicity.

Frankly, Michelangelo could have had a go and I would still be here for the toum not the art. This rich, silky, pungent garlic sauce is not only incredible it is free, which spins the Secretary into another dimension. She orders more immediately and continues her frenzied flat bread jabbing.

We order up big. Crisp, vinegary pickles entertain the Tin Lid for a while, but he is soon more intrigued by the woman behind us who is wearing a burqa and her little girl, peeking out curiously from the cool depths of her hijab. They seem as intrigued by his flaxen locks and petrol blue eyes and the kids are soon flicking fatoush at each other, shrieking with laughter. The slightly-smoked baba ganoush is lapped up with hot bread and salty-sweet salad and charred chicken caked in garlic and spice has an earthy glory that sates us.

Picking coffee grounds from my teeth as we leave, in the chintzy depths of a tat shop I unearth a plaster cast Ned Kelly umbrella stand and a full-size BPA-free American Indian, while the Secretary has stopped to peruse the McDonalds halal menu. Then there is Fadi’s, a beauty salon with a curiously confused message. Splashed across the front of the glass windows and doors is an image of sublime Nordic beauty, a perfection of blonde-ness with no hint of the cultural norm that exists here.

I cannot understand why this paragon of waxen beauty would be something the community might covet. Certainly it is a striking image, a visceral beauty-slap, but it is far removed from the cloaked, cloistered faces I see here.

On the door the sign reads:

Private Room for Scarved Women Available

Beneath the scarves and pins and rules, behind closed doors and in private rooms there is a different life, an untrammeled existence in which blonde beauty might be the norm. It is a life I am sad I am not privy to.

We are warned not to drive down Telopea Street. From a distance this run-of-the-mill street has all the trimmings of suburbia, from Hills hoists flying stained singlets and scabby verges, to the car wreck plastered with neon removal notices, devoid of dignity and wheels. Mature trees provide some shade but the whole place has a sunburnt look, gardens abandoned for the cool of the air-con inside. We slink a little closer. Still suburban. Not quite ‘butter-wouldn’t-melt’, but unremarkable none the same.

But then the secretary goes quiet. Strangely quiet. She whispers words to me, plucked from chilling media reports; random killing; stabbed to death because he went to the wrong house on his way to a birthday party; synonymous with gangs, shootings and dawn raids; Moustapha Dib; “what the fuck you looking at?” “I just clicked. Fucking Asian deserved it”; Edward Lee; RIP.

We drive away without a backward glance, eyes on the similarly unremarkable road ahead of us.

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.

My Brother’s Keeper

Gristled surfers, ink-garlanded muscles and snap-thin-bone bodies guard the beach in Maroubra, all intent on getting their share.  The waves boom and crash in this Aboriginal place of thunder, then hiss and crinkle as they meet land, easing to welcome sand-soft toes and a toddler’s giggles.

Strung out between Coogee to the north and Malabar to the south, Maroubra curls beneath the brow of of Long Bay, home to the notorious Correctional Centre and the Anzac Rifle Range. Beneath this insidious gaze Maroubra shines as an example of beach life with white sands in a cursive swoop, legendary surf breaks, open space, chock-full milk bars and a proud working class narrative.

Here the dog days of summer never fade, wolfishly roaring deep into the night. Thongs and shorts, skimpy bikinis, nanna one-pieces, striped towels, floppy hats and flesh are the uniform of the day. Sandy hands clutch hot chips and rainbow-flavoured drinks, beads of chill dripping into the sand while gulls whirl and collide above, savagely bent on their target.

Families flock to the beach with guttural joy,

“I’ve told ya’s before ya little buggers! Youse gotta wear’em.  Yeah darlin’, that lady’s got boobies… Nah mate, nah. Leave it on yer head… JAYDEN! WILL YOU BLOODY LISTEN! COME BACK HERE NOW… Ah, sodjus”

spilling across the sands. Mums corral slippery kids into bathers and out of picnic baskets, an old couple take the air, long-limbed teens flop lazily in front of each other and a tradie stands solemnly, watching the surf. There’s a retro family feel, people piling out of battered station wagons to escape hot seats, nippers racing into the waves, corned beef sarnies wrapped in white paper and past-their-prime gumball machines:

Back from the sweep of sand the Maroubra Seals sports club stands over the front with an imposing gesture, a mechanic, a hotel and a Thai joint it’s only companions on a strip that should be bustling with business:

There is a palpable sense of space. To the south of the beach Magic Point is an unexpected swathe of bushy camouflage, the towers of Long Bay looming in the distance; to the north, apartment blocks line the front in an orderly if dated line. It sparks a rare thought: where is everything? Expansive beach? Check. Surf club, sports club, RSL club? Check. A sprinkling of diners and caffs? Check. Pub? Check. Thai? Check.

That’s it. That’s all there seems to be. Where are the shops? Where are the cars? Where is the sterile anonymity of the local supermarket with its Argentinian garlic and Brazilian mangos? Too-small-for-you and made of nylon clothes? Red Rooster?

Nope. Not here.

Tiny McKeon Street leads away from the ocean and is dotted with a hamburger joint, a posh neo-European-Australian fusion place, an organic caff and a milk bar. The secretary opts for fish, chips and hot tea [I can always rely on her when tempted to guzzle cold beer and smoke Cubans] and settling down beneath a shady gum we watch as life strolls blithely past. The secretary comments that she finds Maroubra vaguely sparse, that there is an emptiness she cannot put her finger on. I remind her all her fingers are attached to hot chips and she agrees, maybe it’s nothing.

She is right though. There is a shrouded sense of something else, and the scent of a counter culture lingers. Though it is lacking the coastal ostentation of its more northerly sisters, Maroubra is not without pretence. It’s no secret that for all the recent gentrification (of which I find little evidence beyond boarded up work sites, wet concrete and the noise of hidden machines), the suburb is tattooed. It belongs.

Raw with pride, the Bra Boys are Maroubra’s infamously territorial surf mob, known for their clashes with authority, fierce loyalty to each other and an autobiographical doco entitled Bra Boys: Blood is Thicker Than Water that lifted the lid on the darker side of the suburb.

The surfing brotherhood with the flesh-inscribed motto My Brother’s Keeper, worn as an inky lei, is a fierce reminder of the poverty and social dislocation in the area, of the rite of passage from boy to man and then on to the testosterone-fueled angst that lolls on car bonnets, struts the front and owns the sand.

Koby Abberton
Image courtesy of Newsphoto

As a term, surf culture tastes vanilla and invokes frangipani-patterened boardies and Hawaiian Tropic, bleach blonde hair and the smell of salt and sex wax. In Maroubra a darkness lurks behind the stereotype, shadowed with controversy, hard stares and the sense of solidarity ingrained within an estranged extended family.

Image courtesy of Newsphoto

At the My Brother’s Keeper concept store you can buy surfwear emblazoned with slogans and gaze at walls tiled with faded photographs that tell the story of the tribe. There is a message that reads:

My Brothers Keeper is not a Gang, it’s not a Fashion Label it is a Way of Life. It is a belief that nothing comes before your Friends & Family. It is for all Races. Whether you are Australian, Asian, American, African, Middle Eastern, European or from Fucking Mars…

Amidst the clamour of distaste for the Bra Boys, the veiled taints of racism and a pervading fear, it is clear that this is a family and it protects its own. Though the angst sweats uncomfortably in some of the creases of Maroubra, the tribe are part of what gives this place its unconventional, retro beauty.

The early years

Born to surf

[Images courtesy of Newsphoto]

In a forest of houso blocks just metres from the front, the sun shines gently through mature trees, sofas stand sentinel in front yards strewn with life, and kids hang off the gates. There is a vibrancy, of life lived despite its hardships.

Steeped in rank seawater and rust, Maroubra has been described as a ghetto. While it is a hard-edged city surf beach that has a visceral realism, a rare find in a plastic fantastic world and the natural beauty is undeniable, this is a long way from the ghetto.

The pounding waves define not only the bay but the life its people lead. The ocean slamming into the rocks is the inveterate battle of the elements, the shaping-up of the forces of nature. It conjures a sense of perpetual change, of expectation and escape and there is no denying the serpentine break born of this conflict is at the wild heart of this gritty suburb.