As the train approaches Cabramatta I start to have doubts about this project. My challenge is to visit, photograph and document how I experience one suburb every fortnight. Cabramatta is the first.
Why Cabramatta? Well, I’ve been there before and it’s a cultural experience being Australia’s largest non-Anglo-Celtic commercial precinct. I have a vague plan – to walk around the rectangle formed by Railway Parade, John Street, Hill Street and Hughes Street. To try various local delicacies that I have read about in foodie blogs and to buy fabric for a sewing project I’ve had in my mind for far too long.
A touch of Asia in Sydney’s west
I cross Railway Parade and make my way to John Street. Suddenly I’ve been transported to Asia. Close to a third of Cabramatta’s population was born in Vietnam while others are from Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Unsurprisingly shop signs are in Vietnamese and I hear very little English. Televisions and radios in shops are tuned to Vietnamese programs.
Bakeries display the usual cakes but also rows of sweet treats very different from what I am used to. Mixed businesses are crammed with all sorts of foodstuffs, kitchen utensils, plastic ware. I stop at a little shop selling sugarcane juice. The shop assistant feeds sugar cane into a machine, adds ice to the juice and hands me a delicious refreshing drink.
Men sit around tables at a corner café drinking clear tea of different shades of amber in tall glasses. Some women are setting out pre-packaged meals from canvas shopping trolleys to sell to passers-by. Others display home grown bunches of lemon grass and other herbs.
Two sisters giggle as they try to tell me something about their shop being closed for the day. They still have some goods for sale on a table outside. The simple act of buying an iced coffee from them results in an interaction where much is lost in translation. I leave and we are all richer for the experience.
Pai Lau Gate to Freedom Plaza
Ahead I see the lion statues at the John St entrance to Freedom Plaza where men and women gather separately on communal benches. The large monumental Pai Lau or gateway symbolises harmony and multiculturalism and functions as a welcoming monument and as a celebration of freedom and democracy.
Cabramatta may have become a tourist destination, but today I see few Anglo faces. I notice several animal statues, all symbolising something. Lions for strength and protection, pigs for good luck and a giant turtle for longevity.
I wander along the four streets bordering the main shopping area, taking detours through indoor passages lined with jewellery stores, clothes and shoe shops, fruit vendors, butchers, fishmongers and numerous hair establishments.
In the Good Luck BBQ House, the meat is being chopped to order with a large cleaver. The Lucky Gift Shop mainly sells goods associated with good luck. Buddha’s of all shapes and sizes, red and gold wall hangings and lanterns, joss sticks and gold lucky cats beckoning wealth and prosperity with their moving arm. I start noticing that most shops have a simple Buddhist shrine with fresh offerings of fruit and drink. Or at least some decoration in red and gold.
Rolls of fabric propped up on the sidewalk catch my attention. I find what I am looking for and at $4 per metre leave feeling that I’ve got myself a bargain.
It is lunch time. Without local knowledge it’s difficult to choose from the many and varied local eateries. So I stay safe and choose from those written up in many food blogs. Instead Thanh Binh, where I’ve previously eaten a delicious lunch with friends, I choose Phó 54, a small, family run restaurant in Park Street. It’s well known for …well, its phó (pronounced “fer”).
There’s a queue, but a few short minutes later, I am sharing a table with a woman from Cambodia. She has little English, but manages to explain about the condiments and how to mix them with my steaming bowl of phó tái (beef noodle soup). I copy her as she puts noodles into her spoon with her chopsticks and eats from the spoon.
The fresh tasty broth is a perfect lunch. She bids me goodbye with a lovely smile and touch on the shoulder. Sophia takes her place. We chat a while and then out of the blue she says she is going to shout me lunch. I’m confused. Did I understand correctly? Why it is so difficult to accept generosity from strangers? Hopefully we’ll meet again when I visit her local temple in Canley Vale.
Final Thoughts on Cabramatta
I’ve had a rich cultural experience this morning. I’ve discovered new things and made a new friend. Perhaps I would have learnt a bit more on one of the many tours available but I took my time, followed my nose and wasn’t disappointed.
You can too. Take a friend for company, a wheelie shopping bag and the train from Sydney Central. Its only about 50 minutes on the Inner West and South Line and you can make your visit to Cabramatta more meaningful by buying the ingredients to make pho at home with this easy recipe given to me by one of my readers. It takes an hour and ten minutes to prepare.
Update: Cabramatta Hasn’t Changed
Recently I returned to Cabramatta to learn more about local cuisine with Taste Tours. You can read my post on the tour here. My impression is that Cabramatta hasn’t changed since I first visited a few years ago.
Little women still shop with their shopping trolleys, others sit on milk crates selling home grown produce and children chase pigeons in the plaza. The new Dutton Plaza and covered car park has replaced an open air car park, but I didn’t venture in. The local shops and restaurants in and around the plaza are still the same family run businesses.