Down Nicholson Street Mall, past the pho and noodle shops, Cheap n’ Chic is closing down. A FOR LEASE sign has been plastered across its windows. The walls, once crammed with goods, are now bared white. Only a few bags hang off the hooks.
I browse while the Vietnamese community radio airs a saxophone’s mournful solo. People take their finds to the till. The woman behind the counter thanks them. She drops their money into a takeaway container. One by one, the coins smack against the plastic, ringing like gunshots.
This is how things roll in Footscray. Immigrants staying at the old Maribyrnong Migrant Hotel have always been attracted to the region’s cheap housing and proximity to manufacturing industries, and the central business district gets a makeover with each migration wave.
In the years after the Second World War, it belonged to the Europeans until refugees from Central and South America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia took over. During my childhood and adolescence, Footscray was a Western-suburb frontier where people ‘speak no Engrish’, especially the Fresh-Off-the-Boat mums who dangled their half-naked toddlers over the gutter, the stench of piss overriding that of rotten apples.
My parents took me with them on their shopping trips, introducing me to other Footscray idiosyncrasies: durian, eight-dollar haircuts, Made-in-Japan audiovisual fetishes, Forges, Chinese Chess, and frontyard karaoke. While Ma bought the essentials, Ba would babysit me. We’d window-shop at the books and records stores around Dennis Street: Lang Van, Khai Tri, and Nguyen Ha. Ba bought the latest Paris By Night, while I picked up gyrating dance moves from Lynda Trang Dai.
For years, my parents continued their fortnightly ritual. In Little Saigon Market, amongst the stallholders crying out the six o’clock specials, and the thrifters sifting mountains for the glossiest fruits, they would close their eyes and attend to the sweet voices of Saigon mothers, ‘Hong gion, hong ngot, hong gion, hong ngot.’ Persimmons, crunchy, sweet, crunchy, sweet. Or the harsher cries of Hanoi students as they freshened up greenery never seen inside a Woolworths store.
My parents started to feel less at home, however, as the Vietnamese moved out of Footscray and fresh waves of immigrants flowed in from China, India, Bangladesh, and the Horn of Africa. At the heart of Little Saigon, an Indian man started minding the Gala apple cart, ejecting his throaty addition to the Vietnamese chorus: ‘Apple-two-dollar-two-dollar.’
During such transition periods, Footscray is at its most diverse. Hopkins Street is a mishmash of the past and present. T. Cavallero and Sons’ pasticceria continues to sell cannoli next to the Vietnamese pho shops. A few doors down, Awash Ethiopian Restaurant offers wat with injera. Over time, ailing businesses like Cheap n’ Chic will make way for halal butchers, yoghurt houses, and Pakistani grocers, while Footscray continues to serve as the new immigrant’s town.
But a different kind of wave threatens to wash away this cultural ecosystem. According to the 2009 Footscray Strategic Report, more and more skilled workers, students, and university-qualified residents are settling in the area. Average household incomes are on the rise and so are real estate prices.
On a grocery run, I spot a new development shadowing Little Saigon Market—a concrete monolith on the corner where the Chinese chess-players used to meet. And next to the Italian solicitors, the Ethiopian cafes, and the Vietnamese electrical repair shops, the Barkly Theatre is being converted into sixty luxury apartments. The artist’s renderings of the restored theatre haunt me on the train ride home. In the foreground of one, a couple is inspecting their new foyer: the man might have been lifted from a Mills and Boon cover; the woman is blonde and pretty. No Nguyens, Patels, or Pastores within sight.
The Strategic Report describes it as the ‘gradual gentrification of Footscray’, and the State Government and Maribyrnong City Council are encouraging the change, allocating $52.1 million towards its renewal as part of the 2030 Transit Cities Program.
Upgrades for Nicholson Street Mall and a new pedestrian bridge at Footscray Station are nearly complete. The new bridge dominates the skyline. In its space-ship curves and its glass and Swiss-cheese sheeted-metal, there’s promise of blue skies and safer streets. If the Government and private investors have their way, Footscray will assimilate and become the new Fitzroy, Richmond, Northcote: ethnic on the outside and white underneath.
Months later, my partner and I meet up with friends at Napier Street’s revamped Station Hotel. Clothed in uniform black, the waitresses look much like the nonnas who once patronised the market down the road. On questioning, they speak with authority, demystifing menu items such as parfait, Terrine de Campagne and Chateaubriand. There are bottles of red beside Crown Lagers. Designer wallpaper. The gilt-framed blackboard specials are written in English rather than Vietnamese. Our friends like the steaks here, which are done by The Botanical’s executive chef Sean Donovan.
‘It’s not Footscray,’ my partner declares. I want to tell him that it is, since it sits opposite the Town Hall. But I know what he means.