Some call Hurstville in Sydney’s South, Sydney’s real Chinatown. Today, I’ll find out for myself if that’s an apt description.
Hurstville Railway Station
Expecting a sleepy little station, I’m surprised when the train pulls up at a busy, modern platform leading to the bustling food court and shops of Hurstville Central. Immediately the multicultural character of this suburb is obvious. Men glance through their Chinese language newspapers. Red lanterns hang from the ceiling, a labourer of Islander origin chats to his mate and people of diverse heritage order take away coffees.
Walking down Forest Road
I take the escalators to Forest Road. In Memorial Park, locals ignore the metal chess boards fastened to worn wooden benches. An older woman spoons noodles out of a silver food flask while her grey-haired partner pages through today’s paper. The strip of shops consists of Asian stores with bright bilingual signage. The exception is the three storey Meridian Hotel with its VIP Lounge.
Two shopping arcades, almost opposite each other, remind me of the Penrith arcades. The “First Chinese Medicine Fertility Clinic” is in Union Arcade which leads to a parking area and a Karaoke Bar. Hurstville City Centre Arcade is home to medical practitioners, but here they are Chinese Medicine practitioners with drawers and bottles of Chinese herbal medicine.
Chinese and other Asian Groceries
The woman in “The Advanced Store”, quickly points me to a younger English speaking woman who tells me that they are a family business with links to different Asian countries and cuisine, hence their large range of Asian goods. The clientele is mainly Asian, but not exclusively so. Many walk to the shops pulling their shopping jeeps behind them.
In the next store the shelves are lined with unfamiliar products like dried stock fish, dried squid, dried lily bulb, yam and Chrysanthemum embryo (for tea?). There’s also the more familiar cinnamon, star anise and dried chilli and a big variety of dried mushrooms.
There are many signs warning of CCTV inside and outside of shops. Perhaps there is a security issue in Hurstville or just a perception that Hurstville has a problem?
Mr Chao boasts that his is the best BBQ shop in Sydney. A man chops the gleaming BBQ duck with a cleaver on a large wooden block. The chef, Si, poses for a photo.
Coffee Time in Hurstville
It’s time for a late breakfast but it is too early for me to enjoy the Asian food on offer around me. The seemingly only non-Asian café in the street, The Lazy Panda, is over the road. I enjoy a good coffee to accompany my eggs, mushrooms and asparagus.
The Asian couple next to me chat in Chinese. He orders another coffee, saying in a clear Aussie accent “hey can I get another regular flat white”. I wonder what it must be like living with a foot in two worlds.
Another arcade, Hurstville Times Plaza, is home to the new Yen Yen Supermarket. Brightly lit, it has the feel of a western style supermarket. Large aisles, high shelving and long rows of refrigerated goods. The modern Japan Home Centre (and I thought it was Chinese!) on the next level also has a western feel to it. The universal homewares are all labelled with Asian characters.
The Hurstville Community
Woodville park is smaller than expected but unlike many parks has an enclosed exercise station with various pieces of exercise equipment. A number of people are making use of the equipment while grandchildren run around chasing pigeons and generally have fun.
The Community Garden
The Hurstville Community Garden in Wright Street differs from many community gardens in that people have their own individual plots. The garden is thriving with the little gardens demarcated by handmade wooden fences. The few people tending their vegetables and herbs prefer not to be photographed, but one woman proudly shows me her large zucchini on a vine.
Architecture and Heritage Homes
The rows of unit blocks gradually give way to houses. Very few original houses remain having been demolished and replaced by larger modern homes.
There are two heritage listed houses on Queens Road. Yarra-Mundi at number 75 was built in 1897 as a Gentleman’s Residence. Now, it is home to The House with No Steps. It is in relatively good condition, while over the road at number 96, Gladwyn (built in 1893) and now home to a Music Centre and Osteopath, looks rather unkempt.
The homes along The Avenue are older, some have been renovated in a way that is sympathetic to the original features. I get the feeling that The Avenue would have been a sought-out address in times past.
On Kimberley Street, graffiti scrawled on a peeling painted garage door reminds me that there hasn’t been much graffiti around. Maybe the CCTV is working or perhaps the perception of lack of safety is greater than the reality.
Number 62 Kimberley Street is another house of interest. It is a private home built in 1901. The detail in the pressed metal work and what seems to be hand blown glass in the stained-glass window of the front door deserve closer inspection.
A woman in a headscarf sorts her washing on her veranda and greets me with a smile. “Good Morning”. Why did I expect her to not speak English? I chide myself for making a judgement about her origins.
Fruit trees and produce grow in many of the gardens around here. Two olive trees flourish on the nature strip, a grapevine hangs over a fence and lemons and paw paws slowly ripen on the trees. I presume that the residents of these homes are Greek or Italian. Or am I making another inaccurate assumption?
A cyclist does laps around velodrome at Hurstville Oval – the first velodrome I’ve seen in a Sydney suburb.
The Commercial Centre
I have come full circle, and am back in the commercial centre. Next to me at the traffic lights is a police vehicle. They are not the first police I’ve seen around Hurstville, making me reflect on whether I would choose to live here.
Outside the Library, the Hurstville Heritage Walk depicts local identities and other items of historical interest. Nearby in MacMahon Street, a statue of Miles Franklin stands in front of a colourful mural.
The local Museum and Gallery is housed in a Tudor Style building. Beth, the museum coordinator and her assistant are friendly and helpful. The current exhibition is by Alison McDonald who works with discarded plastic.
Two rooms focus on the history of the area starting with the original inhabitants, the Biddegal and Gameygal people. On 26th January 1938, local activist Jack Patten organised a “Day of Mourning” to mark invasion of their land. I reflect on how this debate continues today. I read with interest about oyster farming and lime extraction on the Georges River. The Hawkesbury River, where I live, has a similar story.
On the Corner of Bridge and Forest Roads is another heritage building. A former bakery, the building once housed the Museum and is now an English language school.
As I walk through the train station to the other side, I notice more police talking to a youth whose belongings are strewn on the ground around him.
After a quick tasty Japanese lunch in Ormonde Parade, I return to Forest Road via the railway bridge. Four groups of men sit at tables playing Chinese chess. They have their own fabric boards (in some cases hand drawn), which are similar but different from my black and white chess boards. Pieces move along the lines in different ways. A man invites me to take a photo saying with a sweep of his hand that “they are all over 80”. In reply to my question he adds “Me? I’m 94”.
Overall impression of Hurstville
Hurstville is an interesting suburb. It lives up to the name “Sydney’s Chinatown” but there is much more to it than that. While many people live in units, the community garden, exercise equipment and games of chess in the park provide a sense of community.