I sit down in one of those plastic chairs in the food court of Merrylands shopping centre. My Dad has gone off somewhere and I wait for him with a coffee, nicely watered-down, from Michel’s Patisserie. I see mothers here with their prams, though the prams look more like giant toy cars that seem to enclose their smiling babies. As the day starts to veer toward lunch, office workers appear, in their belted pants and ironed blouses, to grab a quick bite to eat. In the food court there is so much choice: sushi, wraps, fish and chips, curries. I see some hesitant pensioners eyeing the fried noodles. By the afternoon there will be teenagers in their school uniforms hanging around and lining up at the McDonalds counter.
I had come back on one of my visits home to Sydney. I’ve lived away from Australia, in several different countries, for over fifteen years now and I return almost yearly to visit my family where they still live in western Sydney. Having grown up intensely disliking shopping centres, I am surprised that I actually enjoy just sitting here, watching people as I wait for my Dad. Back then, shopping centres represented for me everything that was wrong with western Sydney – soulless consumerism and dull suburbia. Instead I longed for music lessons, dance classes, even soccer games. But the limited public transport in the vast stretches of suburban Sydney meant that I had to rely on my parents driving me to places and they were mostly busy working (though they had time to drive us to Chinese school every Saturday). It felt like we were so far away from everything – at least from anything that was interesting, away from the places where things were happening.
The geography of western Sydney shaped my experience of childhood and adolescence. My memories of that period and parts of my very identity seem to have been defined by shopping centres. They were the places where we would go to for a lot of things – not only for groceries, but also to go to the bank, post office, hairdresser. Some of the memories were good, like Thursday shopping nights when the centres stay open until 9pm. My parents would close the bread shop they owned in St Johns Park and then pack us all into the car to go to a Westfield, usually the one in Parramatta but also sometimes the Liverpool one. It would be our night out as a family, our only real time spent together, as most of the time my parents were busy working. Despite shopping night with parents being a daggy thing to do as a teenager, part of the appeal for me was spending time with my parents when they were not working. Growing up, our family would never go away on holidays. Dinner in the food court was one thing that made me feel like our family did things together. It was a treat we could look forward to.
In reality, those were rare moments of leisure. My parents’ shop was open seven days a week – they fulfilled the stereotype of hardworking migrants. Our family came to Australia as refugees from Cambodia, beneficiaries of Australia’s more lenient policy during the 1970s and 1980s of accepting refugees from Southeast Asia. It seems a long time ago now and a far cry from the country’s current stance on refugees and asylum seekers.
My siblings and I all grew up and worked in the family bakery – the kind of Asian bakery that will be recognisable to many – at a time when so many Southeast Asian migrants were opening bakeries across western Sydney. My family’s Asian-Australian version had lamingtons, meringues, apple turnovers, meat pies, and sliced white bread, but also Vietnamese pork rolls (banh mi thit). We lived in a house behind it and my father would leave every day at 3am, only closing the shop around 7.30pm. We children would spend time there after school, during school holidays and weekends, and when we had nothing to do or there were no customers, for fun we’d bounce a tennis ball against the wall of the supermarket or play handball in the parking lot. The smell of baking bread, the texture of dough and the heat from the industrial oven lives on in the cells of my body.
My Dad also had to go to the bank that was in the shopping centre once a week to deposit the cash earnings from the bread shop. I would ride in the car with him along with my brother and sisters; it was an outing of sorts because I could go to the library that was just outside the shopping centre while Dad was in the bank. Our parents prioritised us going to the library and reading books because they related it to our studies, which they saw as the key to us getting good jobs and never having to work as hard as they did. They didn’t care what we were reading, as long as it came in book form. That was how I first really discovered fiction.
I remember the excitement I used to feel browsing the shelves and choosing books; it was like being in a lolly shop, the book covers a range of colours and sizes that filled my library bag like an assortment of treats. I devoured the Young Adult section and discovered authors like Isobelle Carmody, Melina Marchetta, and Ursula K. Le Guin, amongst others. Afterwards, my Dad would often take us to KFC to get a Zinger Tower burger. I remember layers of bun, hash brown, bacon, and a spicy hot sauce that dribbled down my fingers as I held the burger.
These are nice memories, but my overwhelming feeling at the time was, is this all there is? A sense of limited possibilities and opportunities always dogged me, as if this was all that life had to give, at least to me. Growing up in a period where there was no internet, my imagination as a migrant kid was constructed by the mainstream media I consumed as well as by what I saw around me. And at the time what I ingested through books and TV did not at all reflect my life or my family’s. Some things have changed in the literary world, and now there are books by and about people from migrant backgrounds, including Asian-Australians, in libraries, but the mainstream media is still predominately white: take a glance at any of the main channels and their newsreaders, soap stars, and TV hosts.
I grew up in the Fairfield area in the 1990s and came of age in a period dominated by baggy jeans, Boyz II Men, and Toyota Corollas. This was when Mariah Carey turned from ‘Music Box’ to ‘Honey’; when RnB was piped out of the school’s PA system, and all the Asians in the school listened to Jodeci or Tevin Campbell while the minority white kids had Silverchair and Nirvana stickers on their folders; when the only things that the other Asian kids were interested in were Science, Maths, and Commerce because most of us were told that the only goal was to get out of having to work as physically hard as our parents. I could not imagine that I could grow up to do anything artistic or creative. I thought you had to be from elsewhere, like Newtown, to do these things.
I wanted more than what was on offer as a teenager but I was still unsure as to what it was that I desperately needed. I could not separate this feeling of wanting more from the relationship I had with my parents at the time. I felt controlled by them in every aspect of my life and pressured to be the ideal Chinese daughter: from what I ate to what I wore to how I was allowed to be. In essence I experienced it as a control of my very being – a deep violation. This claustrophobia expressed itself as a longing for freedom, and freedom looked like options and choices that did not seem available to me; freedom looked like what I was not and never would be – the white middle class, the ‘cultured’ class.
I located this claustrophobia in the physical landscape around me: in the relentless suffocating heat bowl that the western suburbs becomes in the summer; in the never-ending houses extending further and further out, weatherboard fibros as well as shiny new ones that all look the same and lack, in my opinion, character as well as taste; in the assumption that no one walks anywhere so some streets don’t have footpaths. Not to mention the depressing, often dilapidated corner shops whose business and trade have been taken over by shopping centres – milk bars, fruit and veggie stores, kebab shops. I wanted the choice of hipster cafes, coffee beans from far flung places, a quinoa salad, being able to walk to my local bookshop (even having a local bookshop).Looking back, I think I was searching for some kind of meaning and a purpose to my life that the things around me didn’t seem to give. I couldn’t escape the feeling that something profound was missing, so I wanted to escape the place instead.
This was also the era when Pauline Hanson first appeared on the political landscape. When the media began to single out Vietnamese-Australians as criminals, simultaneously lumping all Southeast Asian migrants during that period into the category of ‘Vietnamese’ while ignoring all the Chinese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Thai migrants in the area. The media dubbed Cabramatta the ‘heroin capital’ of Australia and suddenly people who were trying to set up a new life for themselves and their families after experiencing unimaginable trauma, war, and displacement, found themselves on the wrong side of the line between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ migrant. Cabramatta was the first suburb my family settled into after arriving in Australia from Cambodia, via refugee camps in Thailand and Indonesia. We were a family of six in a two-bedroom apartment on McBurney Rd, within walking distance to the shops and train station. Fabric shops, butchers, bakeries, pho restaurants; many of these places were run by people that my parents knew from back in Cambodia. I remember a politician in the 1990s called John Newman – himself a migrant from Austria who was later assassinated – saying in reference to ‘Vietnamese junkies’ in Cabramatta: ‘Send them back to the jungle’.
The figure of the migrant is used in Australia as a perpetual lightning rod for the issue of who is worthy to be here and who is not, often wrapped up in the rhetoric of ‘integration’ and ‘assimilation’. The demonisation of non-white migrants ensures that the idea of a white Australia remains unchallenged and works to preserve a white centre; one that claims the authority to police marginalised others and determine who belongs and who doesn’t. But the authority of the white settlers themselves is illegitimate, standing as it does on a refusal to recognise the legitimate sovereignty of First Nations.
So perhaps this uneasiness I felt, this sense of never quite feeling like I fitted in or that this country is mine, was correct. Because perhaps it is what white Australia and the rest of us non-First Nations should be feeling. How we got here to the place now called Australia was only possible because of the extreme violence that this country was founded on and which continues to this day. Perhaps no migrant should ever slide too easily into feeling comfortable with our belonging here.
But growing up, I saw negative media depictions of Asians and migrants and I didn’t want to be lumped into the same category as them. I didn’t want to confront questions of race and belonging. I didn’t want to examine my identity and culture, particularly how I inhabited both a problematic settler culture and the Chinese-Cambodian culture of my family. I was sure that meaning and purpose was not to be found where I came from in western Sydney. When I got older, I longed to be part of the middle-class north shore of the city where my sociology lecturers at university came from, or the cultured and hip people in the inner west, or the white beach-life of Manly. These places seemed to offer possibilities of other worlds where I could finally be other than what I was. People from these places didn’t seem to have deal with questions of belonging and identity. Even the leftie activist types who rallied against the system were sure of their place in the world, always assuming they had a right to be in it as the angry saviours of the world. The people I met at uni during my arts degree seemed to me effortlessly unaware of what was outside their bubble, whether they were the girls in their designer clothes or the white activists in their dreadlocks and slogan shirts.
I longed to be white, more precisely a particular kind of white, but I always knew I never could be. I had the perpetual feeling of never being able to completely relax because you cannot if you don’t belong anywhere. Shopping centres were such a ubiquitous part of my life growing up that, for me, they were indelibly tied to this feeling of tension and unease that arose from my migrant identity. But I didn’t want to be linked to an identity that came from growing up in an area in which shopping centres seemed to be the epitome of life. I wanted more – I was so greedy for life.
I left when I was 22 and never really came back. I bought a one-way ticket backpacking to Nepal, then on to India before settling into a job in the UK for three years. There was no plan, I just knew I did not want to come back to Sydney and always found work so was able to continue to stay overseas. Following this was a few years in France, Melbourne, Morocco, Singapore and finally the Czech Republic. That was over 15 years ago. It was only after repeatedly going away and coming back to visit, that slowly over the years I began to appreciate shopping centres and the role they have played in my life.
When I go back to Sydney, shopping centres are now a place where I appreciate going grocery shopping with my mother, knowing that it is precious time spent together doing something in preparation for what she loves: cooking. It is where I come to get a coffee with Dad and sit in the air-conditioning when we want to get away from the house and the heat of the day. It is where I will run into old school-mates whom I haven’t seen for decades, and where I can feel some sense of continuity in my life, as erratic and choppy as it is has been.
Perhaps it was only after having the freedom to leave, the freedom to have lived elsewhere and tried other lives that I could finally come back to appreciate shopping centres as also being spaces of possibility. But possibilities of what? From what I can see they are places which, for better or worse, have replaced the town square. They have become, in their own right, a public shared space beyond mere consumption.
The notion of consumer choice as shaping identity and self-actualisation was promoted during the Cold War in the ideological struggle between the US and the Soviet Union, where a particular formulation of economic development connected growing affluence and levels of consumption to the development of democracy. John Brewer writes that ‘Goods (were) made for the good life – not just one that entailed comfort and choice but also a life of political virtue’. In this way, a conception of democracy was explicitly linked to consumerism and the ownership of goods, and the propagation of this (American) way of life was viewed as a way to win the cultural Cold War. In a classic text from the early 1960s, Political Man, Seymour Martin Lipset argued that only mass affluence ensured that ‘the population [could] intelligently participate in politics and develop the self-restraint necessary to avoid succumbing to the appeals of irresponsible demagogues’.
Therefore, it is important to note that while shopping centres might function as a type of commons, they are also explicitly organised around particular notions of the good life that are linked to certain political aims – aims such as the entrenchment of a capitalist market system where consumption is an antidote to the alienation of modern life and to workers’ experiences, where consumption’s connection to an insatiable and unsustainable economic growth goes unquestioned, not only in terms of its ecological impact but also on the people behind the things we consume, the people whom we have encountered only through the things that they make because it has passed through their hands, often on the other side of the world. As Purnima Mankekar and Akhil Gupta contend, the ‘stuff’ that makes up our lives here in ‘developed’ countries circulates and is made possible in ‘developing’ countries only uneven development and through structural inequalities between nations and an interconnected global economy.
As such, shopping centres are a very limited version of the commons and a far from radical one. The invention of the suburbs, and its correlate of shopping centres and consumption, were also ideologically linked to particular political aims in Australia, as Fiona Wright has observed in her essay collection The World Was Whole. The suburbs were created in response to, and as a solution to, the perceived social ills of poverty, crime, and radical politics connected to the inner city. In the lifestyle they encouraged, one which entails an ownership of goods and unmitigated consumerism, the suburbs were meant to improve the moral, physical, and political character of inhabitants: ‘Suburban homeowners, it was thought, were unlikely to radicalise’, Wright tells us.
Shopping centres, therefore, are not spaces of liberation – that is expecting too much of them. What I am contending, however, is that they have a value. As much as they are about consumerism, aren’t all art galleries, museums, cafes, bookshops also places dedicated to consumption? Isn’t that increasingly a part of ‘public space’ in modern capitalism? Instead, shouldn’t we be paying more attention to the different ways that people are using these spaces? What I see is that shopping centres are sites for some people for their social relationships to occur; communal spaces where people can gather together and relationships are built, sustained and grown.
In Prague, where I live now, I sit in nice hipster cafes that make their coffee with beans from places like Ecuador or Guatemala, cafes with nice décor and artwork on the walls where the music is some kind of bland electronica or else its opposite, an exotic-sounding ‘ethnic’ music. This is where I go to socialise and spend time with people, or sometimes go to write.
Such cafes, which are often associated with a middle-class, bohemian and intellectual lifestyle, are seemingly the opposite of the spirit of shopping centres with their crass consumerism and aspirations for the good life filled with material goods. But I want to give recognition and value to the fact that there can be different spaces for community, different places to cultivate relationships.
For the first time I can see a glimpse that the psychic space offered by a shopping centre can be nurturing, can be a cultivator of experiences and memories. It is perhaps also a testament to growth and change in my own sense of identity, and in my concept of identity in general, that has occurred with my constant leaving and returning to Australia. I have come to a realisation that any kind of maturing cannot be done without an acceptance and appreciation of how places have formed me, how the places of my origin are carried within me no matter where I live now. But at the same time to recognise that the need to continue growing is ever present, the desire is always there for the freedom to continue exploring a future identity that is still in a state of becoming. Realising that identity is not fixed or static – more precisely, that identity is always a double movement that is both anchoring and expansive.
Someone who is allowed to expand can perhaps feel more relaxed about digging into her roots, or rather, allowing her roots to dig into her. And perhaps this is what we are constantly mediating in our identities – a tension between accepting the past that is inevitably a part of us and at the same time a continual opening up toward possibilities which are always other than our past, directed toward an as yet unknown future. This tension always feels like a remaking and reshaping of ourselves. As Virginia Woolf once wrote, ‘For a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.’
Perhaps I ended this on a much too triumphant note. I’m writing now a few months later when things have changed again in my own life. Due to an illness in the family, I’ve moved back to Sydney more or less permanently. My move back here was a completely unexpected event, something I had not planned to do. The family illness combined with moving back overwhelms me. I am now contemplating the fact that I may not be able to leave again for the foreseeable future.
This reality brings a different taste to things.
I go back to the shopping centre, walk the streets of the suburbs near my family’s house, and a familiar feeling of constriction comes back.
What is it that is suffocating me, even now?
Everything takes longer to get to in Sydney because the city is so physically big. The public transport here is not adequate, especially in the outer suburbs of western Sydney where it can take twice as long to get somewhere if you don’t have a car. I never learned how to drive and I resent that I might need to. I resent that living here even requires me to have a car. Wanting to go visit a gallery or a bookshop has to be relegated to a weekend trip because it will be too late to go after work, so most of daily life here is structured around work, home, work, home. The endless suburbs where people return to their boxes, and where the most common, common spaces are shopping centres; where consumption becomes the easiest choice for our leisure time. I feel frustrated by the lifestyle I have to adopt here, begin to hate it as I feel it weigh down on my body and mind with the inevitability of gravity.
All those other things that I was, that I grew to be in other places, they seem to disappear with the full force of this place, my place of origin. I said that maybe we carry our places of origin within us always, long after we’ve left, and perhaps it’s similar to the ways in which we carry our family of origin within us, long after we’ve left them. But now, coming back, I realise that sometimes we carry them as wounds. Wounds that our bodies try to grow around, try to assimilate back into themselves, but the wounds are still there like a lump. What I’m left with is that unease which makes me want to perpetually jump out of my own skin, perpetually want to hide the parts of me that don’t fit into this particular space, that don’t fit anywhere, neither back here or in hipster places.
Shopping centres suddenly lose their feeling of spaciousness. I’m not claiming shopping centres as the saviour or solution, just as I’m not claiming that my western Sydney Asian-Australian identity will save me – if anything it often feels like it will drown me. Sometimes I doubt a self can really keep on changing, if we are really capable of reshaping ourselves, extending and moving beyond what we originally were, or whether it’s a delusion we tell ourselves in order to feel some kind of control, some kind of agency. What if identity is instead something that can stretch – but only so far – like an elastic band pulled too much snaps itself back into place. And what snaps identity back into place might be things like illness, death, grief.
But whatever it is, somehow I have to make peace with it, find a way to inhabit space, whether it is the food court in a Westfields or an indie bookshop in Newtown. Maybe one can feel both affection and disgust, both a warmth for and always a desire to be away from something, or some part of ourselves.
Brewer, John. ‘Microhistory and the histories of everyday life’. Cultural and Social History, 2010, vol. 7, no 1, p. 87-109.
Lipset, Seymour Martin. Political man: The social bases of politics. 1959.
Mankekar, Purnima and Gupta, Akhil. ‘Future tense: Capital, labor, and technology in a service industry: The 2017 Lewis Henry Morgan Lecture’. Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 2017, vol. 7, no 3, p. 67-87.
Woolf, Virginia. The Death of the Moth, and other essays.
Wright, Fiona. The World Was Whole. 2018.