This is a part of Victoria that I know well and love. The postcodes here are not postcodes of wealth. It is better than that. They are postcodes of pride, standing-up for each other, doing it tough, fierce loyalty, enduring friendships, resilience, dignity.
If you set out from the city by train you will sense it in the crowd. The trains on the western line are usually overcrowded. Often you are shoulder to shoulder packed close to the door. I have never needed to stand. Someone, usually a woman will shout, ‘There’s a lady here who looks as if she needs a seat. Can someone give her a seat?’.
On one memorable journey a man with a walker, standing in a corner holding a walker said, ‘Come and sit on this. I can hold it steady’. I did. Great!
If I was to take you on a western suburbs tour I would invite you to get off the train at Footscray Station and take the escalator to the William Cooper bridge.
William Cooper was a Yorta Yorta elder born in 1860. He spoke for his people in ways that are relevant today. In his years as an activist he lived in Footscray and Seddon.
It was 1933 when William Cooper drew up a petition to King George V seeking a Voice to Parliament. He gathered 1800 signatures then politely handed it to the Prime minister who failed to pass it on to the King. In 2014 his grandson brought a copy to Queen Elizabeth.
In 1938, the Sesquicentenary of Colonization, William Cooper called for a Day of Mourning to remind people of Australia’s black history. In December of that year, appalled by the Nazi slaughter of Jews on Krystal Night William led his people to formally protest at the German Consulate in Melbourne. Jewish leaders have honoured this as First Peoples making a gesture that no other nation in the world had done.
When you came down from the bridge I would show you that the market is in front, just across the road. Nothing posh, whatsoever. No frills. Authentic Asian of Africa of Middle Eastern food served with pride. The vendors ladle out their food in generous helpings and you carry it to one of the tin table-and-chair setting on the grey cement floor.
Beyond the market and into the town you will realize that the African vendors favour one area. It is marked with the flags of their nations, The Chinese favor another and should I want to exchange some banter in Khmer language I know exactly where to go.
Wave after wave of new arrivals have started by renting here, have sacrificed to ensure their children’s education. They know what it is to work multiple shifts in low paid insecure work. When their children have tertiary education, when life is not so tough, many old-timers here have no thought of moving elsewhere. ‘We know each other well’ they say. They share yarns of the past.
They never forget the struggling times. Many of my aging friends, ‘occa’ as can be, have just naturally made space in their hearts for the new young people from overseas; those who need a substitute mum, dad, grandma or grandpa. This is the intimate part of the Western Suburbs story.
Let me give you a glimpse of this …
The evening of a hot day. The mother and eldest daughter and I are together in the family kitchen, while the father works his night shift and the little ones are in bed. We laugh and talk women’s talk while the mother braids her daughter’s hair. This braiding is slow, patient work. The daughter is quietly patient, she hopes to look ‘really cool’ tomorrow. The mother smiles and nods. The room is cool and dim even though outside the sun is just setting. There is a new long heavy curtain with an African pattern. It shields the kitchen from the heat of day. We talk about the ‘little Africa’ section of Footscray and the ‘little Saigon’ and agree that my Anglo-Irish is the odd look in these parts. We are relaxing in her home. Chatting. A neighbour, a talented woman who came from the Philippines and knows well the struggles of the early years has stood by and helped my friend to do what is needed for the Citizenship test. This test is an immense challenge for a mother of six who never went to school in her own country. Without the neighbour’s kindness she could never have passed, and would have been the only one of the family not a citizen. She stood tall and proud at her citizenship ceremony. With the help of the African dealers in town and Kmart she looked spectacular.
Intimate. stories of grit and goodness abound in the western suburbs.