How many distinct multicultural experiences can you sample in Sydney in the space of a single weekend? Greg Barton goes on a two-day odyssey to find out.

I was born in a small town, nowhere you’ve heard of. But it’s a place that, as Australians, you’ll recognise.

There’s a pub on the main street. A servo for articulated semis to refuel and keep going. The kind of town where a person’s idea of a multicultural experience – a multicultural choice, if you like – is between Guinness and Emu Bitter.

I’ve heard of “multicultural Australia”, sure, but I’ve always regarded it as something that’s off happening to other people. That is, until Australian Traveller decided to make it happen to me. The AT offices are located in Sydney, and a more diverse cultural setting you’d be hard-pressed to conjure up in this country.

My challenge was to visit as many different places as I could, sample as many different cultures, immerse myself in as many wildly varying ethnic experiences as possible – all within a single weekend, and within just 30 kilometres of the CBD. Just to prove that it’s possible. Just to lay the groundwork, I suppose, for future multicultural tourists wanting to remind themselves that their favourite little corner cafe in Valencia, that obscure Dutch pastry, or that series of bizarre dance steps they almost had down perfect in Delhi is only ever a block or two away, waiting to be rediscovered.

“Piece of cake,” I thought. “I’ve got a mate in Dulwich Hill, not 15 minutes west of the Sydney CBD, who says in her main street alone there’s a Vietnamese restaurant, a Thai place, a Pakistani joint, a Portuguese bakery and cafe, a Greek souvlaki shop, a Vietnamese bakery, a Korean BBQ restaurant, a European coffee shop with tables on the footpath, a Greek butcher, a pizzeria, a Vietnamese butcher, a Chinese restaurant, an Egyptian restaurant, an Arab pastry and coffee house, a Greek jeweller and a luxury handmade smallgoods shop run by a Russian.”

“Not so fast,” said AT. “Try venturing a little further afield. You might be surprised.”

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So I did. And I was.

Day One: Saturday

Hooray For Bollywood

Sydney’s lower north shore is known more for its suburban warrior princesses in tan-coloured 4WDs than for any real or imagined love affair with Indian culture, so when I arrive at the Flamencology Dance Studio in Neutral Bay, I’m pleasantly surprised to be met by Farah Shah, a beautiful young woman of Indian, Persian and Middle Eastern descent.

Shah’s heritage has seen her spend the past 20 years choreographing Bollywood shows. It’s unclear why the often hilarious set dance pieces and incomprehensible plot lines of Indian mega hits like Bride and Prejudice and Monsoon Wedding would ever find popularity on Australian shores, but today’s class is nicely full: around 20 enthusiastic women of varying ages and abilities, and me, the only male in sight. Wonderful.

Shah is delighted by my attendance, because she now has a “male hero lead” for today’s amateur dance extravaganza. What begins as careful stretching on the floor in front of a wall mirror soon becomes an elaborate, hip-swivelling love-tribute backed by pounding Indian techno. Swaying women file past in parallel lines, some clad in gossamer, others wearing tracky daks, one or two wearing bindis, all weaving their hands intricately and in time (sort of).

I’m momentarily transported to that most holy of traditional Indian settings, the Bollywood backlot film set, and wonder briefly whether I’d ever cut it as a leading man. Before deciding, on balance, probably not. I’m just not swarthy enough. Still, $16 is very good for an hour and half of, in Shah’s words, “Bhangra, modern Indian, Arabic and western-jazz-funk-hip-hop.”

My weekend tour has just begun and I’m already feeling positively cosmopolitan. And hungry. So, on the way to my next stop, I swing by the Kirribilli Markets, held on the last Saturday of every month on adjoining bowling greens in John Howard’s neck of the woods. Continuing to be surprised by the north shore’s nod to the multicultural, I’m soon standing in a buzz of variously hued people, in sight of the Sydney Harbour Bridge with its twin Australian and Aboriginal flags flapping in the breeze.

On my left I can sample authentic Dutch poffertjes (tiny pancakes), Vietnamese noodles or Turkish gözleme (a sort of savoury crepe), while to my right my options extend to Indian, French and Japanese. As the various stalls peddling US baseball caps, pashminas from Kashmir and Egyptian camel-leather dolls are erected, an acoustic guitarist strikes up a not-too-bad version of “The Obvious Child”, a Brazilian-inspired song by Paul Simon, a New Jersey Jew, and I wonder briefly to myself: Just where on earth am I? Then I drive to Chinatown.

Crouching Lion, Hidden Monorail

Most cities on the planet have a Chinatown of some description. Sydney’s takes up a huge southern portion of the inner city and is your first stop for Asiatic food and cultures including, but not limited to, Cantonese, Malaysian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, Taiwanese and all things Peking duck-related.

But quite aside from grand features like the Chinese Garden of Friendship on the western border, it’s the random elements of Chinatown you can stumble across at any time of the day or night that really impress. The things that go on when the tourists aren’t watching.

I’m approaching a footbridge joining Liverpool Street with Darling Harbour not 100 metres from George Street, Sydney’s thumping main artery, when I suddenly become aware of a loud drum beating. The sound is drifting down from a third-floor studio occupied by the Pak Hok White Crane Kung Fu school, which holds martial arts classes and traditional Chinese Lion Dancing sessions three or four times a week, right out on the footpath.

When I poke my head around the door of the studio, I’m met by master and chief instructor Peter Kuo, whose age I immediately place at somewhere between 55 and 400. He’s attended by his son Kevin, a junior instructor, and his daughter Elizabeth, the beauty and brains of the outfit.

Waving away any suggestion that I’m improperly interrupting afternoon practise, Peter invites me to tuck myself into a corner of the sunlit studio while his students continue to leap around the confined space. Used for events as major as Chinese New Year or as minor as the opening of a new herbal medicine store, the Lion Dance is useful for chasing away evil spirits and brings good luck to all who witness it.

I’m feeling particularly lucky already for even being here to watch Elizabeth tutor a promising student in the proper drumming technique. “She plays the flute – she’s very musical,” says Elizabeth of her young charge. “We have high hopes for her.” The class then follows her and Kevin out into a small plaza next to the footbridge, where more Lion Dancing is demonstrated, as well as several ritual kung fu forms, for anyone walking by.

Kevin is ferocious with a wickedly curved sabre, and even more frightening with a length of polished wood. I ask him the name of this last weapon. It’s stout and taped at both ends; my guess is it’s a Bo staff. Kevin shrugs: “I just call it a stick.” Elizabeth’s routine, with a tasselled kung fu long sword, is slow and elegant, reminiscent of T’ai Chi. Peter, smiling, looks on proudly and occasionally barks out suggestions, all of which are taken as explicit orders.

The Pak Hok fighting style has been in existence since 1426, the time of the Ming Dynasty. Peter has run his school here for 30 years. His daughter dances when she fights. His son is deadly with a staff but just calls it a stick. And I can’t believe I’m standing in the shadow of skyscrapers, not ten metres from the Sydney monorail.

All Greek (And Spanish) To Me

I want more than anything to visit a traditional Kafeneon, a place where, for centuries, Greek men have met to play games, digest issues of grave import, hide from their womenfolk, and drink coffee that tastes like being punched in the chest. There’s a place about five kilometres southeast of the Sydney CBD that comes very close to recreating that experience – except, and this is nicely progressive, for the no-women policy. It’s the Steki Taverna, tucked just off the main drag in bohemian Newtown, and once you close that door behind you, the sounds of the city quickly recede and you find yourself not exactly in Greece, but certainly in a place with loud and live bouzouki music, with authentic cuisine and – the jewel of the experience – accompanied by the pleasant tones of sturdy intellectual debate.

In the same way that some clubs and bars feature amateur stand-up comedy or musical jam night free-for-alls, the Steki offers occasional open-mike philosophy sessions to go with its tsatsiki and amphoras of retsina. Past themes and dramatisations have touched on Aristotle on the Emotions, the Philosophy of Mathematics and Language, Freud on Empedocles, and pretty much all the Plato and Socrates you can eat. And the beauty of it is, as soon as you feel yourself being steered into a metaphysical cul de sac, or forced by some sneaky sleight-of-reasoning into denying your own existence, you can simply polish off your glass of ouzo, down tools and make tracks for the Spanish Quarter across town, where the intellectual gives way to the visceral.

In my books, it’s not a faithful recreation of traditional Spanish culture unless you’re flamenco dancing by ten, eating tapas by midnight, and proposing marriage to the waitress before dessert and cafe cortados; if you can hardly understand a word she’s saying because of her thick Barcelona accent, all the better. These experiences and many more can all be had in Sydney’s Spanish Quarter, bizarrely less than half a block from the smattering of Starbucks and cinemas along George Street, right in the heart of the CBD. The Spanish Club is ideal for early or late sangrias, the tapas at Miro and Don Quixote are generous and of the highest quality, and the exuberance of La Campana’s salsa and flamenco classes serve only to quicken the blood.

Although I note, as I leave La Campana to turn in for the night and muster the energy for Day Two of my multicultural tour, that no-one tries to sell me a six-pack of Cruzcampo on the street for five – no, three – euros. It’s the only thing missing from an otherwise flawless Spanish evening.

Day Two – Sunday

Buddha in the ’Burbs

Walking through the backstreets of Glebe in Sydney’s inner west, I come across a sight that’s jarring in its proximity to nearby residential houses: a Buddhist temple, beautifully restored and maintained, closely resembling the kinds of “joss houses” that sprung up during the gold rush of the 1850s wherever large numbers of Chinese immigrants gathered.

The intricate portal for the temple grounds, blazing red for good fortune and flanked by two protective, snarling statues, gives way to a small, neat garden, with the chapel itself situated in the farthest corner. It’s musty inside; incense sticks and candles cover most surfaces. Just inside the door lies a second “portal” allowing spirits to descend from heaven; taking my lead from a young woman visitor and her mother, I’m careful to step around it, rather than through.

Banners, friezes and bronzed masks hang from the walls. A room to the left contains pictures of deceased loved ones, an altar, and two raised cushions for kneeling in prayer.
The young woman and her mother are in the small main room with me, so I retreat to a seat against one wall. I make sure they can see my camera, and the woman smiles. Then she takes up a tall, plain wooden cup filled with long slivers of bamboo and begins shaking it back and forth. A steady rhythm develops and, after a time, one of the slivers flies out and spills across the altar.

She immediately places the cup down, takes up two smooth, palm-sized wooden blocks – like darkened avocado halves – and hurls them at the floor. Their position in relation to each other, to her, to her mother, and even which way up they land seem to satisfy her, and she retrieves the bamboo, wooden blocks and cup. Then her mother shakes the cup, a sliver flies out, she hurls the two wooden blocks, she smiles, she nods, and they leave.

Just when the incense smoke becomes almost overwhelming, an old man appears from a small side entrance, shuffles across the room, hits the ceiling fan switch unceremoniously, grins me a grin and vanishes back into the bowels of the temple. I’ve understood little of what just happened, but that’s fine. They were probably wondering about me, too.

House On A Hill

This is the farthest off the beaten track I’ve come so far – around 30 kilometres north of the CBD to Mona Vale. Nestled in manicured grounds high on a hill, set in gardens of lavender and topiary bushes, the gleaming, 40m-tall Baha’i Temple, one of only seven in the entire world, is almost unbearably crisp against today’s deep blue sky. Where gothic churches can seem dark and secretive, all flickering candles and obscured corners, this House of Worship welcomes streaming sunlight through all its doors and windows, and seems constructed more of air than anything else.

I’m met by a volunteer, Joy – yes, Joy – who invites me to watch a DVD. Keen to explore the real thing, I decline, and I’m allowed to wander into the House itself, which is frankly stunning. The domed structure is nine-sided, nine-doored and covered in nine-sided stars. Natalie, a Baha’i public information officer, tells me this is because the number nine is significant, both in numerology and because it’s the highest single-digit number and therefore represents perfection.

There’s a unity of purpose and spirit within the Baha’i faith, and an emphasis on equality and openness. Those attributes are built right into the temple. The lectern is at the same level as the congregation, the decorations are simple, verging on austere, and on the underside of the dome, right at the ceiling’s highest point, there is an invocation of God in Arabic – “Oh thou glory of the all glorious.” I can only imagine the acoustics of such a structure. “You’d be amazed,” says Natalie. “Our choir is unaccompanied and practices out here on the lawn sometimes, and they sound fine, but normal. Then, when they go inside . . .”

It’s a sublimely peaceful place. I must have driven past it a dozen times without seeing it.

Even Littler Italy

These days, Sydney’s main Little Italy precinct is centred around Norton Street in Leichhardt, southwest of the CBD, and was fed predominantly by the Italian immigration boom of the 1950s and ’60s, following WWII. But before that, as early as the 1920s, a small area in eastern Sydney halfway between the city centre and King’s Cross marked Sydney’s original Little Italy. Stanley Street remains its focal point and happily, this morning, there’s a hearty Italian heritage festival in full swing.

The tinny drone of small fleets of Aprilia mopeds mingles with the sound of hundreds of espressos being ordered and noisily consumed. A fruit-laden fountain has been erected, diverting foot traffic around food stalls. A wandering gondolier-clown, sadly missing his gondola and singing a song about how keenly he misses it, pauses to consider sampling some Tuscan bread before settling on a brown paper bag full of blood-red oranges.

Artists display Venetian paintings in an alleyway. A guitarist and an accordion player thread their way through tables set right on the narrow street, and whenever they pass out front of iconic Bill & Tony’s pasta joint, do they break into a rousing rendition of “O Solo Mio”? You bet your biscotti they do.

Although the coin-filled fountain is no Trevi and most of the cafes feature iced coffee on their menus – something a genuine Italian restaurateur would rather slit his own throat before subjecting his customers to – it’s a marvellous atmosphere. With the glittering ultra-modern skyline close enough to reach out and touch, it’s the perfect way to taste Italy without for a second losing sight of Sydney.

Ginseng Bathhouse

Wandering directly from Sydney’s original Little Italy, up William Street through sections of the city sprinkled with buildings constructed in the 1850s, it’s a surprise, to say the least, to suddenly find myself in the traditional Korean surrounds of the Ginseng Bathhouse in King’s Cross. With separate areas for men and women, complete nudity all day long is the go here – and a very liberating experience it is too.

There’s no unnecessary muzak to fool you into a state of faux serenity; this is a place of serious work, the focus of which is your utter relaxation. There’s nothing but the gentle rushing sound of the Ginseng spa, looking for all the world like an enormous vat of Korean herbal tea for soaking in, the occasional sloshing of hot buckets of water being thrown over shiatsu massage clients, and the creaking of loosening bones being heavily – but carefully – trodden on. During my two-hour visit, I’m expertly walked on, scrubbed, drizzled with essence of cucumber, rinsed and bent into all manner of shapes by a portly middle-aged man in a deep-tissue Korean massage experience so intimate I’m surprised that we don’t share a cigarette afterwards.

I’m put through sharp moments of necessary discomfort during the various massages and manipulations, but never have I felt more cared for. Warm towels, hot baths, wet and dry saunas, cold plunge pools . . . within 15 minutes of walking into the Ginseng Bathhouse, it’s easy to forget you’re still in Australia. Within 30 minutes, you begin to forget how your limbs are put together. Within 45, you wonder why you’re not doing this once a week, every week, for the rest of your life.

Look Around

I stumble out of the bathhouse in a daze, leaving Korea behind, while just up the street a knot of people presses against a bar window. Inside, TV screens show a painful replay of Ricky Hatton, a fighting Englishman, putting the sword to Kostya Tszyu, our transplanted Russian.

My weekend of meandering up and down Sydney streets hunting for multicultural experiences has come to an end, and something has just now been revealed to me. Earlier, I walked from Chinese Lion Dancing straight into the path of an organised march down Sydney’s main street marking the anniversary of the massacre in Tienanmen Square, with hundreds of local residents representing dozens of nationalities commemorating the tragic events in Beijing 16 years previously.

Later, an extremely well dressed Italian woman zoomed out ahead of traffic on her Piaggio, flamboyantly flaunting the road rules as though she were back in Rome dodging cats. That same evening, I walked past a Frenchman in a finely cut suit and beret playing the saxophone in front of a bank, right around the corner from Prague, a restaurant specialising in authentic cuisine from the Czech Republic.

The experiences I’d been assigned to find … after a time, they just started presenting themselves. And while it’s impossible to represent here all of the cultures currently co-existing in this city – there were, after all, more than 160 separate ancestries registered in Australia’s last census – perhaps that’s the great thing about Sydney: once you’re aware of it, multicultural is everywhere you look. Taking part simply becomes a matter of walking out your front door.

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