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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Food, Fashion and Fetish in Newtown, the Swinging Soul of Sydney

Every major city in the world has a neighborhood where all of the local personality and lifeforce gets channeled, concentrated laser beam style, then finally ignited into a sun which is singular and eccentric, but also radiantly representative of the metropolitan ethos as a whole. Some cities, of course, have more than one such neighborhood -- in Tokyo there are for example at least two places where the Japanness of Japan gets pushed to its logical extreme, and beyond: one is the anime antnest of Akihabara, the other the Cosplay chickland of Harajuku, by Yoyogi Park. Some cities (eg, Reykjavik, Copenhagen, Amsterdam) are so far ahead of the times it is hard to find a precinct inside them which isn't progressive or kooky cool. Sydney, the capital of the south Pacific, is endowed with only one world-class Bohemia (in my opinion), but it is a brilliant Bohemia nonetheless. The place is called Newtown, and it was recently dubbed "Sydney's most creatively well endowed suburb" by the counterculture Sydney City Hub newspaper. For as long as I can remember, it has long been one of the food, fashion and fetish focal points of the city. The amazing thing is, Newtown is not reflected on any tourist/traveler radars, as far as I can see. Then again, the places which fly under the radar are usually the best places to explore, so perhaps it is fitting that Newtown remains a dark star, known only to the locals. If your aim is to get a feel for the gritty reality of modern Australian life, don't go to Darling Harbour or the Opera House, those places don't live. Newtown is the place to visit, it has a soul, and epitomizes the Australian personality! It won't disappoint you, I promise. I'll stake my reputation on that. Unlike other famous parts of Sydney (for example Bondi Beach), the ocean exerts little influence here. Instead, as in Melbourne, people turn to the streets for their entertainment. Restaurants, shops and pubs are the principal methods of diversion. You can shop for vintage clothes, or see a hard rock band, or have hot wax poured on your nipples at an S&M haunt. All the bands in Australia have names starting with the article "the", it has become something of a cliché. I've never really understood why.

Nonetheless: one thing you have got to keep in mind is that while Newtown is by far the most Bohemian district of Sydney, it is different from Bohemian communities elsewhere in the world. This is Australia after all, and the Australian personality still shines through -- perhaps even more blindingly than out in the Burbs. Along with Darwin, this is one of the last surviving outposts of the classic Aussie larrikin. Instead of openly rebelling against the basic Australian personality, as you might expect, Newtown folks caricature it, camp it up, and basically push that personality to its logical extreme, in the process transcending it. Take the issue of fashion, for example. Australians have always been decidedly daggy dressers, and many honestly don't give a damn how they look ("it is fashionable not to be fashionable," my mate Garnet Mae once complained). In rebelling against this, you might expect the subcultures of the inner-city to go the other way, and embrace European style haute couture, to prove they have more taste than the slobs out in the suburbs. That is indeed what happens, in some quarters (like Surry Hills). The Bohemians of Newtown, however, prefer the natural look -- sans shirt, bare feet, the potency of body odor. Whatever gets you closer to Mother Earth, that's what they go for. Now in an already laid-back society, one might think this is a strange way for a supposedly contrarian subculture to express its sartorial instincts. Like the anime addicts of Akihabara, like the Cosplay chicks of Harajuku, the Newtownians knows that the really contrarian way to rebel is not to oppose diametrically, but to mimic to the point of excess. Not just to ridicule, but to take ownership of the dominant culture, and live it the way it was supposed to be lived, before it got corrupted by The Man. Like the urban tribes of Tokyo, the Bohemians of Newtown know this is how you win the culture wars, this is how the real jihad should be waged. Once you stop attacking the dominant culture and start appropriating it, with a gleam in your eye which suggests you were never against it to begin with, the rules of the game are abruptly changed. You cease being silly freaks on the margins, bereft of influence and power, and recast yourselves as true disciples, the Guardians of the Way. Your way is not the alternative but in fact the Only Way: the Tokyo way, the Japanese way, the Australian way, whatever the paradigm that you are seeking to overthrow. In short, you subvert the system from within, by becoming the system, wearing it like an old coat. Or a pair of faded board shorts, if you happen to live in Newtown.

"I have a dream": Martin Luther King tribute in Newtown (Australia, 2007)
Earlier this month I was down in Sydney for a few days, catching up with old friends, and staying with the aforementioned Garnet Mae, slumlord and director of such no-budget movies as Meat Pie (the one in which a guy with a penchant for kitchen appliances goes too far, loses his organ, and requires an urgent transplant!) I used to run with Garnet back in our uni days, and he introduced me to a lot of Sydney's prized jewels, Newtown among them. This was impressive, as we went to university at Bathurst, 200 kilometers to the west. We had plenty of breaks, however, and I used to enjoy cruising around Sydney with Garnet and his crew on spare weekends, sneaking into concerts, jumping the back fence into raves and festivals, getting into general mischief. One weekend we traveled all the way from Bathurst to Newtown to visit The Kastle, which was becoming infamous back then. I don't know why they called it The Kastle. The Dungeon would have been more apt a name. Sinister looking entrance -- just an anonymous door on a graffiti-splattered backstreet. Kind of looked like an abandoned warehouse. Enter inside and suddenly it was warm and there were tonnes of guys with thick mustaches wearing black leather, dark techno on the decks (this being the early 1990s!), and girls in latex and fishnet stockings. I was expecting it to be a nightclub, but it was more a theater... a theater of cruelty to be precise. Name your vice, it was here: bondage, submission, punishment, BDSM. We were there with our Bathurst bro Stu Ridley and his girlfriend Fiona, and possibly our flatmate Katja, who had accompanied us on the long ride in the car, over the mountains. We were there mostly out of curiosity, but I suspected Stu might have had more questionable motivations. He seemed to be in too much of a hurry to get his shirt off out on the dancefloor, waving his hands in the air, sweat flying out from his orange hair. From time to time the music stopped and a little performance was put on by the staff, a tableau in our midst: there was a shirtless man strapped to a rack as a Dominatrix flexed her whip, waving its strands over his nostrils menacingly, or possibly a guy and two girls engaged in a threeway kiss. It might have been a freak show for Fiona, for Katja, and for Garnet and I, but Stu seemed to be taking an earnest interest in proceedings. He was getting into it a little too much, methought. Suddenly I realized: wasn't it his idea that we came here tonight? Somewhere in the early hours, quite a few drinks later, the music paused one last time and the curtains rose on the final act: a spot of candle wax play. This time around, they put out a call for volunteers. I dug myself back into the crowd ever so slightly, concerned someone might nominate me for the role. I needn't have worried; standing next to me, Stu stuck his hand up, and submitted gleefully for the ordeal. They strapped him up to the rig, handcuffed him, and fitted him with a blindfold. The crowd was going nuts, gay couples nodding their approval, Fiona looking a little embarrassed (or was that pride in her eyes?) A domme stepped forward, and with a theatrical flourish commenced dripping hot wax all over Stu's chest. He grimaced in pain, but there was still a smile on his lips. Where did that come from? I wondered. Who was that for? Looking back on it all, it seems obvious this moment marked a turning point in his life. The beginning of his descent, in fact. If only I could have predicted it at the time!

That was 1993, 14 years ago. I don't know if the Kastle is still around, or what Stu Ridley is doing these days. I'm walking on King Street, the spine of Newtown, whiling away some hours while Garnet is at work, hustling customers on the phone. It's a grey day; the sun is struggling to break through the clouds. At 305 King Street, I stop to admire an iconic piece of street art: the Martin Luther King mural painted by the anarchistic Unmitigated Audacity Productions in the early 1990s. Not quite Banksy, but it is as good as it gets in Sydney. I don't know if the Gothic typeface is appropriate, but it would probably make for a good tattoo. It's about lunch time, and I am feeling peckish. There is certainly no shortage of culinary choices in this vicinity, with Thai eateries, Turkish pide joints, and even an African restaurant all within spitting range. I am actually hankering for Bondi-style Portuguese chicken, which I find at Oporto, on the adjacent Enmore Road, the other side of the railway tracks. I know it's fast food, but I don't care. It's soul food to me, and you can't find anything like it in Japan. I eat a burger and chips, as the wind blows garbage around in a nearby parking lot, and diners watch sport on an in-restaurant TV. I would love to sit and chill, but I have things to do. Hunger satiated, I return to King Street, to take a walk on the wild side.

One of Sydney's entertainment icons, the Sandringham Hotel, at 387 King Street (Australia, 2007)
Newtown is packed with entertainment venues, among them the Bank Hotel, the Coopers Arms Hotel (221 King Street), the Enmore Theatre (52 Enmore Road), the Dendy Cinema, and the Sandringham Hotel (387 King Street). If you want find out what is happening in Newtown, click the Newtown Precinct Page for details. In a newspaper article quoted on the page, Pam Walker writes:
Newtown has long been home to large numbers of visual artists and writers. In the 80s it was the hub of independent music with many a band paying its dues in pubs like the Sandringham. 
Now the area has become the cradle for the performing arts, actively nurturing young playrights, actors and dancers. So exactly what is about Newtown that attracts the creatively endowed? 
The Enmore Theatre's Greg Khoury says that the suburb's artistic leanings go back a long way. In fact, Newtown has thrived since its inception as an artistic outpost to Sydney in the late 19th Century. 

It is too early in the day for a drink, so I walk on, past the pubs. Me being me, I decide to check out the herbal shops. I'm looking for a legal way to get stoned. It's been so long, and I always associate Sydney with smoking a bong. I go inside one business, and locate a pack of dubious goodies called "Tribal Trance", or something similar. The proprietor assures me it will do the trick, but I am not convinced. These synthetic marijuana products are always rubbish, in my experience. Still, I have money in my wallet from my new job in Japan, so I figure it should be worth a try! I buy a bag for AUS$20. And I think to myself: Why is everything in Australia so expensive these days?

U-Turn Recycled Fashion, at 2 Enmore Road, Newtown (Australia, 2007)
Along with herbal shops and their New Age cousins, there are plenty of fashion retailers in Newtown. Suitably enough, many of them specialize in the vintage/recycled/classic end of the market. As I discussed above: appropriate the dominant paradigm, and wear it like an old recycled frock. That's how the game should be played! Some of the boutiques to be found include Kita Vintage Clothing (Shop 2503 King Street), and the local outlet of U-Turn Recycled Fashion (2 Enmore Road).

Exclusive Vintage Clothing, at 383 King Street, Newtown (Australia, 2007)
Just a U-turn around the corner from U-Turn, back on King Street, sits one of the landmarks of the Sydney vintage clothing scene: Exclusive Vintage Clothing (383 King Street). As the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported in 2004: 
Sydney's hunger for vintage and secondhand clothes has fuelled a 15 per cent profit surge for the Salvation Army's retail stores in the last 12 months. 
The workers hit the clearing house floor, sorting the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of clothing that arrive each year. 
The best clothes are sent to the Salvation Army's inner city stores - in Darlinghurst, Glebe and Bondi Junction - where prices and turnover are higher.
Meanwhile each morning, between 20 and 30 wholesale buyers wait for up to an hour outside the Salvation Army's Minchinbury and St Peters factories. They buy damaged or stained clothes which are then cleaned up and sold at marked-up prices at the Paddington, Glebe and Bondi markets or in commercial second-hand stores in Surry Hills and Newtown...

Painting the Bridge

Friday, March 9, 2007

I'm Back in 'Nam (and Man this Place Has Changed!)

Well, I am back in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam -- and after roaming the streets for a couple of hours this afternoon taking in the sites and sights, I have to proclaim: "Man, this place sure has changed, I don't even recognize it!" I had an amazing day which saw me shrug off my Tomomian gloom somewhere over the East China Sea, and then cure my fear of flying on my Vietnam Airlines bird, listening to cheesy pop. Over the past couple of years I have grown a little paranoid about air travel, even though I know how safe it is and all. Every time we hit turbulence on the way to Mumbai or Reykjavík on recent trips I have clutched the armrests stiffly, my heart pounding. It was kind of stupid, but that was how I was. It was a primal fear, irreconcilable to logic. Ever since I read that Naomi Campbell enjoyed flying because that was the only time she could really chill out, I have been keen to kick my paranoia. And it all ended today. In fact, I enjoyed the flight so much I wanted to stay up there in the sky all day, just "cloud surfing", as my old friend Matt Tumbers would have dubbed it. I had certainly hit the jackpot at Narita this morning by scoring a whole row of seats to myself, and this allowed me to slump lazily against the window shortly after takeoff and stretch out, bathed in warm sunshine (it's always sunny up there once you punch through the cloud cover!) It was all very comfortable and just like Naomi claimed, you do really feel removed from the problems of the world when you're at 30,000 feet. If I was rich and had my own jet I would spend my life just cruising the clouds, drinking champagne and dropping in at cool cities which I dig, following the party circuit -- but I guess if I did that people would brand me an enviroterrorist, and shun me. Whatever... it was a very pleasant flight and even when we hit a batch of turbulence over The Philippines I just shrugged it off, and sank back into soothing sleep.

Safe on the ground and looking for the bus, at Tan Son Nhat Airport, Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam, 2007)
But now I am back on the ground in Vietnam and after months of romantic strife in Japan, I find myself with a date lined up for the weekend (more about that later!) One of the first things which struck me as I deplaned (apart from the humidity of course), was the irrefutable evidence of how much Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) has changed over the past 10 years, since I was last here. When I first visited as a young innocent in 1995, this city was so primitive and crazy I hid like a mouse in my hotel for the first night, too scared to even venture outside. Whenever you dined at a restaurant in the Phạm Ngũ Lão backpacker district back in those days, you would get mobbed by throngs of postcard salesmen/women/children, beggars, shoe-shiners and all kinds of scammers. You couldn't walk around the block without attracting a retinue of cyclo drivers and taxi touts, or be chased by a gang of streetkids, some of them wielding rocks. The cyclo drivers and taxi touts and assorted hawkers are still here of course and they are still out in force, but the difference is these days they take no for an answer. Unlike in the Vietnam of 1995 -- and unlike present day India. Tell them you don't want to go on their city tour/buy their postcards/get your shoes shined, and they will accept that -- they won't complain or abuse you or follow you around the rest of the day, attempting to pull off the long hustle. I like that. Perhaps that is a sign that Vietnam has become richer as a nation -- or perhaps the millions of backpackers and travelers who have shuffled through the place since 1995 have educated the Vietnamese on international street business etiquette. If someone wants or needs to buy something, they will buy it. Abusing the customer or stalking them around town all day (as what happened to me in India in 2005) never gets you the sale -- it only pisses everyone off. Surely I am not alone in thinking that!

The streets of Ho Chi Minh City are just as congested as they have always been, but they look a bit more upmarket these days (Vietnam, 2007)
Apart from the evolution in tout and street hustler behavior, the skyline of HCMC has also evolved -- upwards. Particularly in the Phạm Ngũ Lão backpacker district and the downtown area, this city is starting to resemble a little Singapore. I have got a photo back in my bedroom in Japan of me drinking with a European woman (maybe Swiss) and an Asian-American guy in a bar at the corner of Phạm Ngũ Lão Street and Đề Thám Street in the middle of 1995, during my first timid tour of duty. That bar is gone -- it has been turned into a Japanese Lotteria hamburger restaurant. The yellow wall you can see in the background of that photo is also history -- it has been knocked down or whatever and replaced by a beautiful green park. On humid nights lovers and African guest workers can be seen frolicking in the park, hemmed in on both sides by streams of swarming motorbikes. What a cool place HCMC is becoming!

As soon as I had found a hotel in Phạm Ngũ Lão and had dropped my bags off there, I was keen to challenge Saigon's famous dining scene. I didn't have any particular destination in mind, I just started walking. The first place that caught my eye was the Trung Nguyên Cafe, situated on a busy intersection opposite the Van Canh restaurant (perhaps it was on the corner of Nguyễn Thái Học Street and Trần Hưng Đạo Avenue -- anyway, it was in that basic ballpark.) I ordered deep fried beef and a Tiger. I flirted with the cute waitress as she tried to squat a fly which kept bothering my food ("You're never going to catch it -- those flies have eyes in the backs of their heads!" I implored.) Nearby me, what looked to be a Singaporean family purveyed the extensive selection of Vietnamese coffee beans on display, in a glass cabinet as I recall.

Deep fried beef and a Tiger beer, at a Nguyen Trung Cafe in District 1 of HCMC (Vietnam, 2007)
I didn't know this at the time, but it turns out that Trung Nguyên Coffee is actually one of the big coffee companies in Vietnam, and that their cafe chain is Vietnam's answer to Starbucks! As Greenspun family has reported:
Capitalizing on an emerging, affluent middle-class and the simple attractions of aromatic coffee, 31-year-old entrepreneur Dang Le Nguyen Vu has successfully launched Vietnam's first nationwide franchise. 
Call it Starbucks, Vietnam-style. 
Over the past four years, Vu's chain of Trung Nguyen cafes has grown to more than 400 outlets in all of Vietnam's provinces, from the busy Ho Chi Minh City to rural of Sapa on the northern border. In Vietnamese, Trung Nguyen means "Central Highlands", an area famous for its coffee, and Vu now wants to spread the reputation of his coffee label well beyond Vietnam's borders. 
'I want to have the Vietnamese brand name of Trung Nguyen well known in the world. Our coffee is good. There's no reason we can't do it.."
I didn't know this at the time, but apparently Trung Nguyên Cafe is a good place to sample one of the best coffee brews in the world -- the notorious Vietnamese weasel shit coffee. Anyway, I really love Vietnamese coffee but I was scared of sampling the wares today, because strong caffeine tends to give me migraines. More about this disturbing handicap of mine later! The beef dish was great nonetheless and I hope to return to the cafe later, to see if I can get some of that weasel shit brew! And possibly even hit on the waitress, if she's there again!
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