Environment / History / The Personal

Essay: Chinatown by Michael Fitzgerald


Michael Fitzgerald

“Gentlemen, today you can walk out that door, turn right, hop a street car and within twenty-five minutes end up smack in the Pacific Ocean. Now you can swim in it and you can fish in it, but you can’t drink it and you can’t irrigate an orange grove with it.”

I’ve always considered Sydney to be a lot like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. In this 1974 film the most sinister of plot turns take place in the sunniest of daylight as Jack Nicholson’s private detective Jake Gittes tumbles down a rabbit hole of duplicity on the scent of Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray, a femme fatale whose cheekbones could kill. While the dry decadence and dusty orange groves of 1937 Los Angeles are an ocean away in time and place, there’s something about Chinatown’s cinematic slippage that chimes with contemporary Sydney. Both are built around a central conceit, the fantasy of water. And in both cases this fantasy, this fiction, plays out as a glittering mirage, disguising something more desperate and dangerous – a thirst that can’t be quenched. There’s the conspiratorial cloud of grubby land deals centred on the metropolitan desire for water (in Sydney’s case, a harbour view). And a sneaking suspicion that the city’s real decisions are being made out of view; not by the politicians and policemen, but by John Huston’s slithery father figure, Noah Cross, in cahoots with developers – a nepotistic relationship, as Jake Gittes eventually discovers, that borders on the incestuous. Yet through all the murkiness, a sharply sardonic fatalism cuts through – just like it does in Sydney. “Forget it, Jake,” comes the film’s famous closing line, “it’s Chinatown.”

My writing desk is in an apartment 28 floors up in central Sydney. Perched on the south side of the building, my back is turned to the Harbour around which its citizens clamour, cluster and occasionally drown in. Instead I look out as far as the Royal National Park, east to Coogee and a sliver of blue Pacific and west to the smoky foothills of the Blue Mountains. But first my eyes are pulled to the cranes and car parks, the cynosure of Chinatown. It’s the prism through which I see this shifting city. Formerly a symbol of strangeness within the greater monoculture (as it was in Polanski’s film), Sydney’s Chinatown has, with successive waves of migration sluicing the suburbs, turned its otherness into interiority – it’s the city within. Each day, it would seem, its apartment towers grow taller, sleeker and somehow blander, its exotic difference miraculously erased, as the world outside grows stranger and more slippery. “The truth – I said I want the truth,” Jake tells Evelyn towards the climax of Polanski’s film. In the end he finds it in exile, in the flickering neon signs and foreign fragrances of the film’s eponymous place. And it’s through the lens of Chinatown that I watch another city of contradictions twist and turn, sharpening it into focus: the harbour city without a harbour; the emerald city changing its colour and spots. It’s through Chinatown that I can see Sydney more clearly.

Today the cranes are slowly circling a large patch of earth beyond Central Station. Here a beer brewery has been razed to make way for a colossal residential complex – with one famous Sydney thirst eclipsing another. I read with curiosity how the developer is Singaporean and the architect from Paris and that the world’s largest underground water recycling plant will be housed beneath the three glassy towers harbouring 1400 apartments. “We believe in the Sydney story of undersupply,” a spokesman is quoted as saying. It’s here, among the ruins of a brewery, that Brook Andrew’s recent work Local Memory plays out like a haunting. On an old fragment of wall, the Wiradjuri artist has created a memorial of sorts, with 18 black-and-white portraits of people who have once lived and worked at the brewery. Framed by neon, they glow ghostly at night. How fickle we are, Andrew seems to say, and forever prone to forgetting. But there’s a further layer of complication to this picture. The artist’s baptism by fire followed the 1988 Bicentenary celebrations in Sydney, when a new group of Aboriginal activists declared: “WHITE AUSTRALIA HAS A BLACK HISTORY.” Andrew reminds us that Sydney is a city with more than one stratum of memory.

Out over the tops of the cranes and the sky is busy with the steady descent of planes. Their landing place is on Botany Bay, “the birthplace” of modern Australia, and over the red shark-like fins of Qantas planes glinting in the sun I can discern the distant high-rises of Cronulla. “WE GREW HERE, YOU FLEW HERE” was the war cry of the white rioters who, in 2005, turned this iconic Southern Sydney beach into a xenophobic blood bath. And it’s the conflation of sky and surf that makes me suddenly think of the work of Shaun Gladwell and Raquel Ormella.

Bondi Beach is blotted out by a lurid green MEMOCORP sign to the left of my view, so I must visualise Gladwell’s inverted surfer of Pacific Undertow Sequence (Bondi) caught in a break at Cronulla instead. Gladwell’s physical protagonists have always pitted themselves against environments that have sought to define them, and I see his inverted surfer as an artist breaking loose of both nationalism and geography, finding freedom in motion.

The migratory instinct, the urge to transmit from one hemisphere to another is part of Sydney’s cultural DNA, and it’s ingrained in the work of Raquel Ormella whose parents emigrated from Peru in 1967. She sees in the Indian myna bird the perfect symbol for Sydney’s new global citizen – both a blessing and a blight: “we grew here, you flew here.” But with Ormella that anxiety has eased to acceptance. We are all fruitful forms of feral, she suggests.

Just as one plane lands, another seems to take off, angling up into the ozone, adjusting and correcting itself, edging ever upwards to seek release into the slipstream. Thunderstorms have been forecast for Sydney this afternoon, and as I watch a plane tentatively ascend into the darkening clouds I think of the artistic navigations of Bababa International, their Sisyphean desire to get from “here” to “there”, and their deliberate exposure to obstacles and turbulence along the way. Right now, I realise, they are on a residency at the Beijing studio of Shen Shaomin, another against-the-grain “Sydney” artist. At odds with such labels, Bababa and Shen are true internationalists, belonging to no city or creed.

Lightning flashes out west and in the seconds before the sound of thunder reaches Chinatown, I see Khaled Sabsabi’s mesmerising vision of suburbia. The houses are both split-screen and multi-screen, Warholian in colour, but not quite still – a silent wind blows through these otherwise ordinary homes, gardens and lives, something both timeless and eternal. It’s a voice asking us, quietly yet insistently: How do we occupy this place?

Until recently, we have turned to the Harbour for an answer – as if capturing its seductive surfaces and fathomless depths in verse, paint and prose is enough. But the longer I live here in Sydney, the more I see this as a fiction – an escape from the real. Right now nothing is more real or as bracing as the slap of the Southerly Buster as it hits this corner of high-rise, bringing with it the scent of the rain, before the lights of Chinatown finally dissolve in wave upon wave of water. Fluid and filmic, Sydney has never seemed more slippery and yet strangely present. Everything else is a dream.

This essay is published in The Floating Eye catalogue. For more information and to preorder a copy, click here.  


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