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.
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.
|"I have a dream": Martin Luther King tribute in Newtown (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:
|One of Sydney's entertainment icons, the Sandringham Hotel, at 387 King Street (Australia, 2007)|
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?
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).
|U-Turn Recycled Fashion, at 2 Enmore Road, 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:
|Exclusive Vintage Clothing, at 383 King Street, Newtown (Australia, 2007)|
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...
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