Hoy Heng: Lest We Forget

Anyone who’s met me will know when it comes to relationships I’m punching well above my weight.

A beautiful, vivacious and stunningly intelligent woman from honest western-districts bloodlines, my wife was educated at an elite Melbourne public school, edited a number of Arts publications and is often less than six-degrees separated from most of Melbourne’s entertainment movers and shakers.

I tell you this because if her husband being a “sports-media” person (with the fingers doing the air-talking quotes and everything) and taking her to a footy game as part of the courtship didn’t raise enough eyebrows, that he hails from Werribee is the pièce-de-résistance in her perceived downward spiral in some quarters.

In the early days of our courtship there were two Steve’s in her life and both of us were from Werribee. In order to differentiate between us in conversation, I was simply ‘Steve’ and the other Steve became ‘Werribee Steve’ – to avoid any confusion, I’m sure (Werribee Steve and I had even been to Uni together).

In a conversation with Werribee Steve one time, my wife turned down an invitation to catch up with him for a drink one Friday night: “I’m off to Master Wok in Werribee with Steve and his parents,” she says, politely declining. “Ahhh!” says Werribee Steve knowingly, “Master Wok: The Flower Drum of Werribee…”

*   *   *   *   *

The Footscray of the 1960s and 1970s was a very different beast to what it is now. The wave of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees for which the area is now synonymous with was only just beginning to sweep through the area. Barkly, Paisley, Droop, Nicholson and Albert Streets buzzed with throngs of people rushing between one-time Footscray retail institutions like Coles, Forges and Fletcher Jones. Highpoint – that coliseum of consumption perched high above Warrs and Rosamond Roads was still a generation away from overtaking Footscray as the inner-west’s prime shopping destination.

In those days, Footscray made stuff; it made world-class ropes at Kinnears on Ballarat Road, it made bullets and bombs at the munitions factories on Gordon Street. It made tyres (the Adidas factory outlet at the Dunlop factory in West Footscray would have to have been among one of the world’s best-kept secrets), it made springs, it tanned hides and stored wool and it housed grain at the enormous Tottenham rail yards, only a drop kick away from the Western Oval. In those days, Footscray even had its own community swimming pool.

At the centre of life in Footscray was the Footscray Football Club. And at the heart of the Bulldogs were its fans, as it remains so today.

Every second Saturday, the faithful – and looking at the Dogs win-loss record of the 70s and 80s, faithful is an understatement – would gather at the Western Oval to watch the Bulldogs and hope. Hope that things would turn around. That names like Templeton, Hampshire, Edmund, Wheeler, Dempsey, Jennings and a young bloke from Braybrook by the name of Hawkins would add a new chapter the legacy left by Ted Whitten, Allan Hopkins, John Schultz, Peter Box and Charlie Sutton.

Instead they got to witness a seemingly innocuous clash which left someone a quadriplegic, numerous hidings at the hands of opposition teams and some of those names in which so much hope was invested – Dempsey and Templeton (not to mention a couple of blokes by the name of Quinlan and Round) – leave the club amid a generation of internecine warfare and administrative negligence.

Like all suburban grounds of that era, be they the Claremont Showgrounds or Glenelg Oval, there were rituals that accompanied the trek to the Western Oval for the faithful.

For some it was catching the same train to Footscray station then the rush to the jam donut trailer on Irving Street before your connecting train to West Footscray arrived.

For others, it might have been a few starters at the Rising Sun, The Plough or the Buckingham Hotel – sometimes, it was all three.

Fans would use the same gate entry at the ground, taking up the same spot on the Gordon Street wing, or the Barkly Street end, or standing in front of the Whitten Stand with the familiar faces who were there every other Saturday and observed the same ritual as part of their passage to the ground.

Certainly an integral part of the ritual for a lot of Bulldogs fans at the time – indeed right up until they moved to Docklands – was the after-match post mortems at the famous clutch of Chinese Restaurants at Barkly Street’s western end.

On Saturday evenings, long after the final siren had blown, places like Poons, Jimmy Wong’s and Hoy Heng would be bursting at the seams with the sons and daughters of the ‘Scray downing their Sweet and Sour Pork in batter, Szechuan chicken or beef, beef in black bean sauce, or combination Chow Mein and ‘special’ fried rice were all part of the Chef’s Suggestions (Singapore Noodles, for obvious reasons, took time to gain acceptance).

If the Bulldogs had a win, then the kitchen could hardly keep up with the number of tables going with banquets. When Footscray lost, diners would just go with a main course, but the demand for beer was significant.

When I think of these restaurants, I’m always taken back to a time when B.Y.O was the ‘new’ thing (“it’s what they do in fancy places”, I remember being told as a young fella), Graham Kennedy had Australia laughing along with Ugly Dave, Noelene and whatever – or whoever – ‘Cyril’ was blanking, 3XY renamed October ‘Rocktober’.

Eskys made of Styrofoam and choc-full of icy cold steel- cans could be taken into Victoria Park, Alberton, Leederville Oval and the MCG and parents’ blood pressure readings skyrocketed if their daughters’ trip to the drive-in involved being picked up in a Sandman Panel Van. Apricot Chicken was considered haute cuisine and your ordinary punter thought a Lazy Susan was an inefficient housekeeper.

These days, a visit to Poons, or Jimmy Wong’s (Hoy Heng, our family’s destination of choice sadly hung up its woks and steamers almost a decade ago) is a trip to comfort food heaven. The décor remains largely unchanged (save for the mandatory changing of the carpet), the staff still wear the (ahem) traditional uniform of black pants, six-button black waistcoat and white shirts and in some cases, still prefer that you just rattle off the menu number instead of embarrassing yourself trying to pronounce Szechuan or Pho (numbers 42, 59 and 176 if you’re playing at home).

As Footscray, Seddon and Yarraville gentrified themselves through the 90s and the early part of the 21st century, not to mention the evolution of the inner-suburban hipster, even the most cursory look at the comments section on Urbanspoon (surely the foodies equivalent of Twitter trolling?) for places like Poons and Jimmy Wong’s illustrates just how much times have changed in Footscray.

Sure, there would have people walked away disappointed in what was on offer in earlier times, but to give these places a whack is to have almost no understanding of their place in the cultural fabric of the inner-west or their contribution to the place’s community.

They’re cheap. They’re cheerful. Richard Clayderman tapes are still on continuous loops providing background muzak. They don’t purport to be the Shark Finn Inn or the Flower Drum. It’s not gluten-free (although it is, probably, #Paleo, but I digress) there’s a fair bit of fructose in the sweet and sour sauce and as for regional produce, no one’s under any illusion that the veggies weren’t sourced from anywhere beyond the Footscray market.

These places are, though, about a time when a community – both real and imagined – would come together to break bread, share a meal, celebrate or commiserate as one; to feed both the body and the soul and remind one another that there was always next week, or next year.

There are still photos on the walls of Footscray greats like E.J and Chris Grant dining at the restaurants, there are still newspaper clippings recalling the heroics of Doug Hawkins, Libba, Chocco Royal and Scotty Wynd on the walls. The pages are browning with age. Like many parts of Footscray they have and they continue changing.

The road I travelled that saw me become an Essendon supporter is another story, but on the occasions when our immediate and extended families catch up at Poons, you can see in the eyes of the ol ‘timers the joyous recollections of the long-gone rituals, the sadness of missing friends and loved ones no longer at our table as they let themselves be transported back to a time that no longer exists outside the walls of the restaurant.

It is comfort food for the souls of the sons and daughters of the ‘Scray.

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