How One Inner Sydney Night Market is Building Bridges With Food

By Tam Allenby 

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For a moment I’m transported somewhere else, though I’m not sure where. With the smell of grilling meat and ground spices carried by the cooking smoke and steam wafting through the air, it could be India or Sri Lanka; Cambodia or Vietnam; Lebanon or Iran.

Really I’m in the Inner West of Sydney- Marrickville to be precise. But at the night Street Food Markets, held at the Addison Road Community Centre each month, it feels like you’re in all these places at once.

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Crowds enjoying the second Street Food Markets at the Addison Road Community Centre, Marrickville. [Photo: Tam Allenby]

You’d be hard pressed to find a more diverse selection of foods in such a small area anywhere in the world. Walking through the crowd, stomach rumbling, I face a tough decision. Should I try the arepas from Colombia, grab a Sri Lankan ulundu vada, or tuck into a plate of Cambodian lod cha?

I decide to make peace with my inner glutton and settle with all three.

Besides, any regret I might experience half an hour into a self-induced food coma would be easily offset by the fact that at these markets, you really are stuffing yourself for a good cause.

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Vietnamese rice paper rolls being prepared by the team at Mama Made Caterers. [Photo: Tam Allenby]
How so, you ask? Well, the event is a joint project between the Addison Road Community Centre Organisation (ARCCO) and the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS). In a nutshell, the aim of the market is to “bring cultures together and support the small businesses of recent migrants and refugees”.

Judging by the good vibes and large crowd that turned out on a cool Saturday night for the second edition of the markets, it was certainly a success. Feedback on the Facebook page was similarly positive.

Having missed the first event held the previous month, I contacted Alex McInnis from ARCCO to ask her a few questions about the aim, history and future of the markets.

She told me that while the last edition hadn’t run so smoothly due to some “teething issues”, with long lines and the stallholders selling out of food, this was more a result of the huge level of support that the community had provided.

“It was just an overwhelming level of support, and stallholders just simply couldn’t cater to so many people… but that’s a good thing. Everyone was really understanding, for a lot of the stallholders it was their first time time trading”.

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Stallholders from the Lakemba Community Market. [Photo: Tam Allenby]
She also pointed to the real value that an event like this brings to the community and to the stallholders themselves.

“They’re just so excited to do something that they’re passionate about. Employment opportunities aren’t always ample and they don’t want to just sit around, they want to do this: earn a living, and be part of something.”

“Beyond the financial aspect of earning a real income, they’re sharing their food, sharing their culture, getting to know other stallholders, getting to know the visitors…”

With the 2016 federal election now less than a month away, and asylum seekers and refugees one of the issues that will define the campaign of the major parties, events like this one can help with the often negative portrayal of refugees in the media.

A 2013 study by the University of Queensland found that asylum seekers and refugees are portrayed in a visually dehumanising manner by mainstream news sources, usually as large crowds or groups rather than individuals or families.

They argue that this “reinforces a politics of fear that explains why refugees are publicly framed as people plight, dire as it is, nevertheless does not generate a compassionate political response”.

Alex from ARCCO would certainly agree with this sentiment.

“Refugees are talked about so much, it’s such a big topic… they’re being talked about all the time but do people really think about who they’re talking about? Someone’s grandfather, someone’s son, someone’s daughter.”

I spoke to Alex only days after Immigration Minister Peter Dutton hit the headlines for his controversial remarks concerning the “illiteracy and innumeracy” of potential asylum seekers, who he argued would “take Australian jobs” or “languish” on the dole.

When asked about this, Alex’s response was insightful: focussing on the qualifications or education level of asylum seekers is missing the point, and can even be considered classist.

“These are people – some of them educated, some not so much – but they’re still contributing and sharing in such an amazing way, and employment is not always the measure of that”.

The third edition of the markets will be held on Saturday the 18th of June, the evening before Refugee Week kicks off for 2016. With more food vendors, craft stalls and a live band all in the pipeline, Alex is firmly positive about the future of the event.

“I think it’s just growing every time”.

Though its easy to let your tastebuds get carried away when confronted with so many delicious treats, a recent update on the ARCCO Facebook page cements the underlying importance of the markets in the current political climate.

The theme for Refugee Week is “with courage let us all combine”- and that’s exactly what we do! In the face of an election campaign targeting asylum seekers and refugees, we believe coming together and supporting new Sydney-siders is one of the most powerful things we can do as a community to break the racism and classism being displayed.’

Coming together through food. It may be a cliché, but in the case of the Addison Road Street Food Markets at least, it’s also a reality.

Gallery: Street Food Market #2 (May 21, 2016)

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Cultural Healing: How one suburban market is building bridges with food

It’s become somewhat of a cliché to say that food brings people together. But for many of Australia’s recent migrants, food really can provide a way of sharing their culture and maintaining an emotional link to the homeland.

This Saturday, the Addison Road community centre in Marrickville will host a night market showing off the food, craft and music of some of these people. Food from a wide variety of countries including Liberia, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Colombia and Iran will be dished up to hungry diners.

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According to the event organisers – a joint project between the Addison Road Community Centre Organisation (ARCCO), and the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Surviors (STARTTS) – their aim is to ‘bring cultures together and support the small businesses of recent migrants and refugees’.

I’m planning to frame my piece against the ongoing refugee issue, a topic regularly covered in the Australian media. Just this week the PNG Supreme Court ruled the Manus Island detention centre as unconstitutional, making it a likely political battleground in the upcoming election and increasing the newsworthiness and relevance of my feature.

As various commentators and academics have noted, coverage of refugees in Australia is so often dehumanising (Bleiker et. al. 2013). We’re so used to reading about faceless boat people, crowded detention centres and the huge numbers fleeing war and conflict that it’s easy to lose track of the human side of the refugee issue. I also think its worthwhile to sometimes focus on more positive stories that cut through the doom and gloom.

My story will hopefully act as a success story that instills hope and optimism rather than fear in the reader.

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On location, I plan to do a few quick interviews with various stallholders. I expect they’ll be quite busy, so I’d also like to exchange mobile numbers and emails to organise a face-to-face or phone interview with one of the interested parties further down the track. This will allow me to hear their story as a recent migrant or refugee, to trace what they’ve put on the plate back to its origin, and to ask them about the connection between food, culture, and their new home in Australia.

I’d also like to organise an interview with the organiser of the market for a wider perspective, that looks towards the future of the event. My questions for this interviewee will provide valuable quotes for framing it in the wider refugee issue.

With more than 3,000 people attending and another 14,000 ‘interested’, the event is likely to draw a big crowd. Combined with the naturally photogenic nature of a food market, this story will be perfect for the online medium. As the iPhone camera is almost useless at night (the event goes from 4-9pm), I’ll bring along a digital SLR camera to take some good quality, high-resolution photos, which I plan to embed as a gallery.

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This feature would be ideal for websites such as the Guardian, Vice, or ABC Online who target a more ‘progressive’ and often younger, more politically engaged audience.

References: 

Bleiker, R., Campbell, D., Hutchison, E., & Nicholson, X. (2013). The visual dehumanisation of refugees. Australian Journal of Political Science, 48(4), 398-416.

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Sydney graffiti: celebrating the artworks in Inner West suburbs

Last month, it was reported that the State had spent about $34 million removing graffiti in 2014. The massive number shows that graffiti is still perceived as significant problem in Australia, even greater in New South Wales.

The New South Wales government official website clearly mentions that graffiti (vandalism) is a “crime” with the concern of “protecting the community.” For the government, graffiti is considered “illegal and an offence” under the Graffiti Control Act (2008) and the NSW Crimes Act 1900.

According to New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research 2014, Sydney was surprisingly at the second place with the highest number of recorded graffiti incidents in 2013. They found 461 incidents at the city with Lake Macquaire at the top position and Hornsby at the least.

In response to the incidents of graffiti, the City of Sydney has established a graffiti management policy “to minimise incidents on both public and private property by prompt removal.” It arranges regular inspection of “hotspots” every day and “aims to remove any new graffiti they find within 24 hours.”

From the facts above, it seems that graffiti is granted no special place in Sydney’s public spaces. The government’s zero tolerance approach makes graffiti to be perceived as something to avoid, to against with or exactly, to report to officials. It places graffiti in a debatable position, especially where artistic aspect enters the public discussion.

However, if we wander around Sydney’s Inner West suburbs like Newtown, Enmore, and St Peters, we will eventually understand why this debate occurs. You will see many kinds of graffiti and murals spread out along King Street, particularly on the side walls of the store building. Some are perfectly maintained and positioned; some are just “harassed” by the intense and messy spray inks.

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Yes, it is what differentiates the suburbs from other areas in Sydney. The Newtown Precinct website embraces the street art by including it as something to explore in Newtown. It suggests readers to “walk down King Street and feast your eyes on mandalas, oversized people, birds with hats and plenty of owls.”

The word ‘feast’ seems to connote enjoyable experience that we can get by seeing graffiti, murals and other forms of street art in the bohemian part of Sydney. Not as something distracting, unlawful, or dangerous. The statement even ends with “If you have a blank wall, there is a perfect piece of street art for you.” So, does it mean that there is a possibility of optimistic approach on perceiving graffiti?

Tugomir Balog, the owner and founder of May Lane Street Art Project, is one of the Sydneysiders who joins the conversation.

“Well, I think it [graffiti] cheers up people going to work in the morning. It’s nice to have a bit of color rather than just gray walls. I think it could… it does booze sort of spirit. You got that kick in the morning, just something dynamic,” he said.

Mr Balog, who runs a mounting, framing and laminating service business, initiated the May Lane Street Art project fifteen years ago. In 2005, he officially started the project at St Peters and set it as an outdoor gallery space. It consists of five panels hung on the window alongside the building of his office.

Tugomir Balog or 'Tugi Balog' in front of an artwork by artist KDC Mofor Space Monkey for May Lane Street Art Project. Photo by Felkiza Vinanda Marwoto. Taken on 14/5/2015.
Tugomir Balog or ‘Tugi Balog’ in front of an artwork by artist KDC Mofor Space Monkey for May Lane Street Art Project. Photo: Felkiza Vinanda Marwoto

He established a website of his project and invited several artists “to use the entire space as their canvas, or to focus on the panels which are then kept each month as part of a larger documentation project.”

“Demand was there. The people were painting in the Lane and I just want to give them more permanent space,” he explained why he created the project.


(A documentary about May Lane Street Art Project. Created by Trazlen Video and Film Production. Source: YouTube)

According to an article published by CNN four years ago, May Lane Street Art Project was considered as one of the ‘legal’ walls for street art in Sydney. For that reason, the project has attracted a number of media coverage.

However, Mr Balog said he closed the project because “it’s not working anymore.”

“Because demography of neighbours changed. All these yuppies came in… younger people with the… no idea… they came from regional Australia, they want their peace and quiet on the weekend. And this area [St Peters] is not fringe, city fringe anymore. It’s actually… you know, cities. So, dynamic is talking different,” said the man who is currently negotiating with Marrickville City Council to restart the project.

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The creation of May Lane Street Art Project reminds us that graffiti and other forms of street art has certain relationship with people who dwell in the area. Besides it acts as “mood-booster” for the bystanders, graffiti also shows the dynamic of environment and how it influences individual’s experience of place.

Dr Samantha Edwards-Vandenhoek, a design researcher from Swinburne University of Technology and creator of Sydney Graffiti Archive, said,

“I think everyone’s understanding of the environment and the spaces that they experience whether they’re walking to work or whether they live there, whether they’re tourist is quite different. We have a different perspective. …So, my work is about challenging how people understand and experience place. They may see graffiti and got ‘Oh, that’s awful. That’s vandalism’ and yes it is. But, what if we thought about it differently and what if we try to understand what people were trying to communicate? And it may change their experience of that place and what that graffiti does.”

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Instead of being seen as “cultural damage”, Dr Vandenhoek pointed out that graffiti can be used to bring back a viewer’s “memories and experiences” of place. Her approach on seeing graffiti as “artefact” or “something in the past” may provide a practical solution to the problem of constant graffiti removals in Sydney.

In fact, graffiti can actually add vibrancy to a place especially the Inner West suburbs, where it is much more celebrated and embraced as a cultural practice.