Neighbours – Big West Festival

Neighbours for Big West Festival (image supplied)
Neighbours for Big West Festival (image supplied)

Leeds St is busy with local traffic as I park my car and walk across it. A pho shop I pass on the corner is teaming with people clustered at plastic tables, hunched over steaming bowls as they eat on the footpath diner. I look over the street searching for number 30, the Dragon’s gym: pho place, pho place, Asian grocer, butcher, mobile phone shop, and finally stairs leading up to Dragon’s gym – a sign of classic gold cursive print upon red.

As you climb up the two flights to enter Dragon’s Health and Fitness, you are met by the echoes of gym room voices against the backdrop of tinny rap music. A smiling woman at the entrance receives me and motions for me to take my place on a stool before the boxing ring where two young men of Asian-descent are sparring.

This is the first stop on Neighbours, a tour centred on Footscray’s Nicholson Street as part of the Big West festival. Conceived by artists and performers Kerensa Diball and Yuhui Ng-Rodriguez and managed by Toni Main (In Helvetica), Neighbours is an immersive, interactive walking tour of Footscray which is intended to allow people to experience the everyday lives Footscray locals, learn about their stories, and understand their personal histories against “a backdrop of change: arrivals, departures, property developments, gentrification and progress”. An ambitious task indeed.

Starting at Dragon’s gym, a small friendly group of festival goers are introduced to Paul “the Dragon” Lee, the Saigon-born founder of Dragon’s gym, who is trained in several martial arts as well as professional boxing. As he spars with a young up and comer, we hear about Paul’s story of growing up in a rough and tough Footscray where crime and fighting were commonplace, until he found salvation through a place at the esteemed Caulfield Grammar school, as well as in his family’s now hugely influential political party. We are then passed on to the freckle-faced ‘Bones’ to go hunting for cardigan-wearing coffee-drinking hipsters – the number one threat to Footscray locals.

We hit the streets with Bones and strike a leisurely pace, met by curious encounters with ‘locals’, as well as bypassing overgrown terraces sounding radio conversations and recipe secrets, an ode to the hum of the street on any lazy Sunday, I’m sure. The group becomes excited like children as we walk along, pointing out folks in vintage costumes along the way, laughing at lazy laying bohemian share-housers, or pausing by the ‘silent auction’ in the front yard of a house – a possible reference to the lack of access to housing for the locals in an increasingly competitive property market.

The first house visit is to Marie and David’s striking villa, which boasts its original architecture and finishings from the late sixties when it was built. A living ode to all things seventies, inside and out, the guests are thrilled as we are warmly welcomed by the couple and they share the story of their home and their love for Footscray, mentioning the multiculturalism as a key factor in its charm. We are then ushered along most entertainingly to visit the local civil celebrant Christine Grace. After a quick wedding on the porch, we are invited in to Christine’s home to hear about her story and her history in the area, including her experiences in marrying couples of different backgrounds, or having her porch filled with Vietnamese women in brightly coloured silks.

Such stories are a real gem of this walking tour, and the quirky ways in which visitors are guided along the journey show both a talent for site-specific creativity, as well as a sincere affection for their subject-matter – in this case, the community of Footscray. Visitors would be hard pressed to find error with the way in which events unfolded – no easy feat for peripatetic performers working in tandem with one another. The tour was engaging at all stops and visitors felt genuinely charmed by those they met and the ways that they met them. For this, the very capable Yuhui, Kerensa and Main ought to be wholeheartedly applauded.

All the same, considering my entrance to Leeds Street amidst the sweaty hullabaloo of bustling Asian grocers, pho restaurants, brightly-clad market-goers, and the number of shop fronts lettered in foreign languages, I remain curious about the cultures and ethnicities that comprise Footscray and the stories and perspectives of those from migrant and refugee backgrounds. Whether by design or due to limits to access, the absence of these stories and references to the influence of these cultures upon the area was strangely at odds with the tone of multiculturalism so strongly echoed along the way. No doubt it is a formidable task to create a tour that is engaging and entertaining whilst also delving deeper into the more intimate stories, possibly laden with hardship, that are endured by so many lower-socio economic diasporic communities. Such notions also challenge the intent of the performative work itself, posing the question of whether it is there to entertain or to educate, to be light-hearted and celebratory, or challenging and possibly confronting.

This is not to say that Neighbours purposefully omits these stories; rather, it points to the ongoing challenge for artists and festival-makers in truly engaging communities of varying and sometimes insulated cultures in the mainstream artistic dialogue, and to remain conscious and diligent of who’s stories are present and yet untold. This is an aspect that could truly enrich the visitors experience and also serve to foster greater collaborations within communities as festivals such as Big West aim to do.

All that said, this was a most pleasurable way to spend a Sunday afternoon and a delight for art-goers. I look forward to the next edition of Neighbours and the next conception by these quirky performance-makers.

This Side of the Tracks (Kerensa Diball & Yuhui Ng-Rodriguez), residents.

Nithya Iyer

Author: Nithya Iyer

Nithya Iyer is a Melbourne-based writer and performer of Indian-descent. Her work regards experimental and experiential arts practices in self-inquiry and connection to the Other. She has performed in experimental, roving and choreographed works in festivals and events across Victoria and New South Wales. Nithya has a background in Bharatanatayam from the Chandrabhanu Bharatalaya Academy and is currently studying a Masters of Therapeutic Arts Practice at the Melbourne Institute of Experiential and Creative Art Therapy.

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