|(Photo: Leong Ming)|
It was a striking sight. I was drinking tea at a shaded table on the side of the square when a Muslim woman walked past, dressed head to toe in a black burqa, a niqab covering her face. A few steps behind her was a woman in the typically-colourful robes of west Africa, and then came a little Vietnamese pensioner in a conical 'paddy hat'. They just blended into the passing crowd, nobody stared, and I thought 'This is how the world should be all the time'. Of course the world is not like this all the time, but at the Inala Civic Centre it often is. Which makes it my favourite public space in Brisbane. What makes it relevant to the pages of this blog is the surprising undercurrent of history that makes the Civic Centre what it is today.
Just to describe the place first, the Civic Centre is the outdoor shopping space right next to the indoor (and rather nondescript) 'Inala Town Centre' shopping mall on Inala Avenue in the Brisbane suburb of (you guessed it) Inala. The shops there form a rectangle, facing into an open space about the size of a football field. At first approach it doesn't seem overly promising, but while it might not be the snazziest shopping space in Brisbane, it is certainly one of the most alive.
History is often viewed as something that happened in a disconnected past, but in reality it is constantly shaping the world around us. Every street in every Brisbane suburb looks the particular way it does because of what went before feeding into what is happening now. The Inala Civic Centre has also been shaped by history, not the Victorian or Edwardian type, but a more recent backdrop of warfare and diaspora, and it is everywhere you look.
The first connection to war came with the creation of the suburb of Inala in the 1940s-'50s as 'Serviceton', a new housing project built for returned World War 2 service people and their families. Thousands of homes were built here, little houses on little blocks, cheap enough for those families to make a fresh start after the war. There were also post-war refugees from Italy, Greece, Poland and Russia. In later years a strong community of Seniors formed in the area, and they are still very active today, but by the 1970s many of the original families had moved on and the cheap housing saw the area develop as one of the poorer parts of Brisbane with a bit of a tough reputation that persists today.
|Serviceton housing project, 1952 (State Library of Queensland)|
A massive demographical transformation came with the arrival of thousands of Vietnamese refugees after the end of the Vietnam War. These were the famous 'boat people', and thanks to the cheap houses they made this corner of Queensland their own. Today Inala and the surrounding suburbs are home to the heaviest concentrations of Vietnamese-speaking people in Australia
That influence is quite clear in the Civic Centre, which looks like a 'Little Saigon' because shops with Vietnamese signage and products dominate the place. There are numerous grocer shops with market-style frontages, and butchers, fishmongers selling a massive variety of seafood I'd never seen before, Vietnamese travel agents, movie and music shops, jewellers, hairdressers, vegetarian speciality shops, chemists, newsagents, cafes and restaurants. Even on a midweek morning these food outlets are busy with Vietnamese people, a sure sign of quality food.
There are also many foodstalls here, stacked high with containers of Vietnamese meals and deserts. I'm not sure what some of the food actually is but it all smells great. Adding to the sensory onslaught in some parts is modern Vietnamese pop music. There are always small crowds of men around tables eagerly watching and discussing ongoing games of xiangqi (Chinese chess). come here at Tet (Vietnamese New Year) and the place is going off with firecrackers and lion dancers.
|Xiangqi at Inala Civic Centre, 2012. (Brisbane Daily Photo)|
While the Vietnamese influence is the most obvious at the Civic Centre, the market-like setting of crates of Asian vegetables, herbs and fruit spilling out from shopfronts seems to suit the shopping habits of many other people from around the world. Although most people shopping at the Centre dress much like myself in bog-standard suburban-wear, there is always a healthy sprinkling of of cultural clothing that livens the place up visually. Muslim women in burqas and scarves, their men in white, and sometimes bearded elders dressed as though they have just been teleported from a remote Afghan or Hindu Kush village. There are West Africans in brilliantly-coloured hats and dresses, the occasional Vietnamese person in the famous round-brimmed nón lá (leaf hat). On special occasions and Sundays, Samoan and Tongan men will wear lava-lava skirts, and Indian and Sri Lankan women might do their shopping there in sari's, and Buddhists monks often drop in too.
There of course plenty of Anglo people around, and Inala also has a notably strong Aboriginal community. Go back far enough and there's plenty of conflict on that front too.
What makes it such a sight is the balanced mix and variety of national styles. That mix seems to become more diverse with each passing year. It is obvious that many of these people are refugees from the some of the worst trouble spots of recent decades. Vietnam, Sudan, Afghanistan, West Africa, Syria, north Africa and Iraq to name a few. They have formed their own community groups and religious centres,and the Civic Centre seems to be another place for them to catch up with each other. The community hall is as likely to be filled with the beautiful sound of Sudanese or Samoan congregations as it with pensioners playing hoy or having 'Waltzing Matilda' singalongs (as I heard last week).
|(Photo: Julia's Pantry)|
The Inala Civic Centre in 2013 is a place that has been shaped largely by people returning from or escaping from war zones. They have created a harmoniously multicultural oasis, but as history unfolds around us it will doubtlessly change and who knows what this place will be like in 20 years time? It could well have disappeared beneath some godawful Anglocentric and soulless Westfield shopping complex and Brisbane would be much the poorer for it. As it is now, however, this is just how the world should be.
I'd suggest paying it a visit while it is still here. Any day of the week is good, but Saturday mornings is 'Crazy Time' when it is always jam-packed and you will struggle to find a car park. There is a bus stop right outside, where the 100 Buz is very regular.