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While I Was There

Chinatown Sydney, 930pm, on a Saturday night.

The corner of Goulburn Street and Dixon Street Mall has a bird’s eye view of the Sydney’s largest ferris wheel, spinning so ever to encourage the chi energy so valued by Asian owned businesses in the nearby precinct. However, that wheel impressed me less than the ceaseless parade of passers-by, mostly aged under thirty, on their way somewhere or casually flowing into food and drink outlets. There was a team with uniformed sports wear, most probably from Brazil. Others were dragging luggage on wheels, as if I was at an airport. Many had a casual air about them, obviously with spare time on their hands and a sense of glee about the evening ahead. Their dress-up or dress-down styles reflected the trendiness of various cities and not all reflecting Sydney.

This particular corner in fact did not echo of iconic Sydney. There was a young Caucasian couple
busking and playing traditional Chinese instruments. Some passer-bys took obvious glances of curiosity into the lit up windows of Meet Fresh, a business packing in the crowds with their offerings of Taiwan desserts, both hot and cold. The largest Chinese styled gardens outside China was just a stone's throw across the set of lights. Twenty somethings patiently queued to get inside for snacks of roti, curry and mee goreng at Mamaks. I overheard more expressions and conversations in languages other than English.

My group of mates rather enjoyed this bustling scene. To me, this is all a result of an open society and the outcomes of allowing market forces to operate. Beneath the veneer of commerce, socialability and progressive attitudes, this scene reminds me of the great cities and city states of history and/ or the present - Hangzhou, Damascus, Venice, Malacca, Amsterdam, New York, London, Alexandria, Xian and so forth. Societies cannot create or demand cosmopolitanism, they can only nurture and nourish it. Then the best talents and ideas flock to such forward looking cities, transform and infuse each other to subsequently - and hopefully, enjoy the benefits of growth and dynamic life.

Woolwich Bay at 1pm, on a Sunday.

Youngsters were sailing around in circles, part of an outdoor class held under a rather cloudy afternoon on the calm waters of the bay near Hunters Hill, Sydney. It was a ritual, a repetitive practice to make them comfortable with the art and enjoyment of this leisurely activity, albeit utilising rather smaller versions of yachts. The more familiar sized yachts were also there, a distance away with older sailors and full blown sails.

Other families and couples were seen preparing their picnic sites on chosen tables, laying out blankets and baskets. A rising breeze and increasingly cloudy sky did not dampen the eagerness or spirit of these outdoor enthusiasts. The two of us had scrambled down pasture like slopes to reach the bay end of Clarke Street. What struck us, on reaching the base, was the panoramic view of calm waters, surrounded on the other side by a more built up skyline. We realised that perhaps we were in a sort of oasis, a green lung set apart from buildings and traffic, a kind of Central Park in New York City, but with access to water vehicles, ferry boats and water front foot paths.

Increasingly, the value of such enclaves shall be appreciated even much more, not just reflected in property prices, premium school fees, unique sports and restricted accessibility, but in other now unimagined ways. Suburbs like Woolwich may have to take measures to stem the rising tide of what it does not desire from neighbouring precincts. It may now be protected by a buffer of water or price affordability. Look around your own suburb - are there things that are special, which in an increasingly overcrowded planet, with greater freedoms of mobility and rising notions of equity and political freedom, that your community and you should treasure more?

George Street, Sydney CBD , outside World Square, 5pm on a Sunday evening.

The firemen in helmets and stand out uniforms had cordoned off the space in front of the retail side of the centre facing Sydney's main city thoroughfare. People were standing around in a non-chalant manner, as if removed from and not concerned with what was happening so close to them. Sirens were blaring from inside the complex but the sounds were challenged by those from the passing vehicular traffic. Then the rains came down with a surprise, although the air was already thick heavy with an uneasy humidity.

I was driving to Alexandria, half noticing the shoppers, wanderers, tourists and students along George Street. City life, I thought, has several facets, opportunities and costs. There is so much choice, there are temptations to spend excessively. Do individuals get to meet more friends,or do they tend to eventually cocoon themselves with mates from the past and home towns? After the initial phase of discovery and indulging in variety, does one get jaded when regime, the costs of living and work pattern demands restrict the usual day's program? Why do Sydneysiders not hesitate to get out of the place on long weekends? Why do I, residing in Wollongong, not hesitate to take the opposite direction?

Sydney has character in its water front bays and hilly roads; carved up quarters offering different cultures and lifestyles; contrasting experiences between night and day, between weekdays and the weekend; a parade of what I call transient colonies, whose inhabitants seem to be in transit coming from and going to somewhere else; an apparent obsessiveness dealing with personal costs of living and chasing the gravy train; and easy access to a range of cuisines and community festivals not found elsewhere within one city. The lifestyles of unique "villages",whether you call them Surry Hills, Bondi, Newtown, Haberfield or Watsons Bay, offer the rewards to anyone putting up with the ridiculous extremes in Australia's biggest conurbation - crowded public transport, expensive but high density accommodation, selfish individuals, unfriendly neighbours, lack of personal time and traffic jams.


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