Opinion ARTICLE FOR the Sydney Morning Herald.
There used to be a karaoke bar at the gateway to Dixon Street in Chinatown: opposite the hula-hooping clown and the queue for cream puffs.
You could stop in on a Friday night for free entertainment or a turn on the stage. It was a classic, no-frills Australian pub with a long bar serving Reschs and $5 house red, a couple of projector screens and a raised black platform where all the action happened.
The competition was fierce, and you had to get in early for a spot among the regulars. Raj was one of the most memorable – a jovial guy with a booming baritone that reverberated off the schooner glasses. He’d sing Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond and spin you around on the dance floor.
The bar is gone now, in spirit at least. A soulless pokie pub with fluorescent lighting and more screens than a Harvey Norman store stands in its place. And no one sings there anymore.
This is the story of so many former Sydney institutions; the old Market City food court where you could find the city’s best honey chicken; the poolroom of The Surrey Hotel with its mirrored ceiling and tasteful amateur nudes; the original No Names restaurant in Darlinghurst that served pasta with complimentary cordial refills; the sticky floors of Selina’s at the Coogee Bay Hotel where INXS and David Bowie played to wild crowds (now the subject of a controversial knock-down-and-rebuild proposal).
These changes are taking place against the backdrop of the slower, though no less tangible, erasure of entire areas. Redfern and The Block. The main drag of Kings Cross. Millers Point. And now, Chinatown.
There’s a plan in the works to lease 3000 square metres of floor space in Sydney’s iconic Paddy’s Markets to Doltone House, a wedding venue and catering service with a slew of high-profile locations around the city. The move would see souvenir stores, jewellery merchants and fashion retailers replaced with high-end restaurants serving yuzu cocktails and kingfish ceviche with green oil.
It’s all part of the sameification of Sydney; every new venue seems to be owned by the Merivale group and every struggling retail strip is a potential Woolworths location. But don’t worry, they’ll keep the facade. The places that are deemed disposable by developers often provide crucial services to marginalised and lower-income communities. When public housing residents are cleared out to make way for luxury apartments, as in the case of the Sirius building, it sends a clear message about whom this city is for.
There are of course economic drivers behind the development of Paddy’s. Slick bars and restaurants would provide a new revenue stream, and the building’s managers say it’s the only way to save the markets from financial struggles brought on by COVID-19 and consumer behaviour change. But what do we stand to lose by getting rid of another one of the city’s less celebrated landmarks?
“There is a long history of markets in Chinatown, with the suburb of Haymarket named after the original hay markets in Campbell St, Sydney,″ says Kevin Cheng, co-founder of Soul of Chinatown, a community organisation that advocates for the area. ″While we always welcome innovation and new ideas in Chinatown, this should not be done at the detriment of history, culture, and community.
“Paddy’s Markets remains an important place for Chinatown, especially for fresh produce, but also for interstate and international visitors. It would be a shame to see the strong history of markets in Chinatown being watered down and sanitised.”
Slogan T-shirts, stuffed koalas and bootleg Vans might not seem like cultural paraphernalia worth preserving, but it’s this very scrappiness that makes Paddy’s so special. You can weave through the aisles enjoying the sensory overload, stock up on fresh produce or buy a hidden gem from a shrewd stall operator, some of whom have occupied the same spots for decades.
Down the road from these stalls, the Dixon House shopping and food complex sits empty, ready for the demolition crews to come through. It will be replaced by a 17-storey building with a rooftop garden. Local dining institutions Marigold and Golden Century also closed their doors recently, with customers queueing for weeks to enjoy a final meal. And just last week, Zilver announced it had been pushed out by developers. The popular yum cha restaurant called the decision “devastating” and “irreversible” in a statement.
Bargain hunters won’t be able to get their fix in Glebe either. A mainstay on Sydney’s Saturday market scene for 31 years, the Glebe Markets announced its closure on Instagram this Wednesday to a public outpouring of grief. “They are so much more than just a market – they are an essential part of our community,” one commenter wrote.
Stallholders say they were blindsided by the decision and there’s a plan in progress to save the Glebe Markets from becoming another fondly remembered pastime.
There’s more at stake in the redevelopment of Paddy’s Markets than cheap sunnies and phone cases. The very essence of a place changes when commercial interests win out over character, culture and community. These things take time to slowly gestate over decades. It’s the flickering neon sign that marks the entrance to your favourite food court, the waiter who knows your order and the old men posted up outside observing the street.
This sense of place can’t be manufactured by putting in a new strip of laneway bars and calling it a precinct. Because who wants to go out for cocktails in a soulless city?
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