Tag Archives: Sydney

20 May 2011: Parra Girls

The ‘Female Factory Precinct’ in Parramatta is a cluster of sandstone and brick buildings along the banks of the Parramatta River. The earliest buildings here date from 1821, and have been associated with the control and punishment of girls and women since this time. There are two distinct groupings of buildings here, sited next to each other, which have separate but connected histories.

Parramatta Female Factory (1821-47) was established in 1821, replacing an earlier ‘factory’ at within the confines of Parramatta’s first gaol. The new factory was bounded by Fleet Street and the river. It was purpose-built to a design by Francis Greenway, the first Civic Architect in NSW.

The Female Factory was where unassigned female convicts and children were sent on arrival to Sydney. It contained a factory, workhouse and a penitentiary. Up to 3000 women passed through its doors each year. They were set to work spinning, sewing, weaving and rope making, most famously producing ‘Parramatta Cloth’. In 1827, the women held here led Australia’s first industrial action in response to the overcrowded conditions and lousy food.

Parramatta Female Factory closed in 1847, following the end of the transportation to NSW. The buildings were converted for use as a mental hospital; this medical use continues today as the Cumberland Hospital.

In 1887, a nearby complex of buildings, which had been used by the Roman Catholic Orphan School, were turned over for use as a Girls Industrial School, later known as the Parramatta Girls Home. A replacement for Biloela on Cockatoo Island, it housed girls between the ages of 6 and 18 which were deemed as neglected, delinquent, juvenile offenders, truants, or in moral danger. In the 1930s, it was reported that the aim of the institution was to ‘provide character training and to secure the mental, moral, physical and vocational improvement of the inmate’ and ‘to equip a girl to the take her place in the community as a clean, right-minded, hardworking and respectable women’.

Visit by Mrs May to Parramatta Girl's Home in 1939

Those who were sent here included state wards, Aboriginal girls taken from their families, orphans, girls who were regarded as neglected or abandoned, and those who had committed crimes such as murder or robbery.

This mixed population was an enduring problem for the administration of the Parramatta Girls Home, although some attempts were made to classify and separate the population with the provision of a training school separate to the reformatory.

By the early 1970s, there was growing concern about the harsh conditions and appalling treatment of the girls held here. In 1973, women liberationists stormed the buildings in protest about the state-sanctioned incarceration of girls and young women. Parramatta Girls Home was closed down the following year. It was reclassified as a juvenile justice centre and renamed as Kamballa. Today, the former girl’s home is a women’s prison, known as the Norma Parker Detention Centre.

The play Parramatta Girls, written by Alana Valentine and based on oral history testimony of women who spent time at the Parramatta Girls Home, is on at the New Theatre in Newtown from 18 May through to the 11 June 2011.


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6 May 2011: The Commodore

Chocolate maker, lumper and ex-soldier, Billy Blue (c1838-1834) was an African-American man who was transported to NSW as a convict in 1801 aboard the Minorca.

In 1796, Blue had been found guilty of stealing 20 pounds of sugar while employed as a ‘lumper’ on the merchant ships that plied the Thames River in London. In other words, his job was to manually unload cargo, a skilled and dangerous job, but one that was not well paid. To make ends meet, Blue worked as a chocolate maker on the side.

In the 18th century, chocolate was not eaten in the way we do today, but was taken as a drink. Ground cocoa beans were mixed with spice and sugar and melted into hot water to produce a stimulating and hunger suppressing hot beverage. The concoction was more sought after than coffee.

Following his conviction in 1796, Blue spent the next five years imprisoned on one of the hulks moored on the Thames. Although he was living in London at the time of his arrest, he originally hailed from a free black family living in New York. It is speculated that he ended up in England after the American War of Independence, having been recruited into the British Navy.

At the time of his arrival in Sydney in 1801, Blue was over 60 years old, but was fit, healthy and ready to start a new life. One observer described him as ‘herculean’. Within three years, he had a new wife – Elizabeth Williams was in her in her mid-20s at the time of their marriage – and was set to father six children with her.

Once settled in Sydney, Billy Blue became a waterman meaning that he transported cargo from ship to shore. His main claim to fame is that he pioneered the first ferry service across Sydney Harbour. In 1811, Blue was appointed by Governor Lachlan Macquarie as the ‘Watchman of the Heaving Down Place’: he was the constable and guardian of the watery domain that touched the shoreline in front of Government House at Sydney Cove.

As part of his remuneration, Billy Blue was given an eight-sided house within the grounds of Government House, where he lived with his wife and young family. He was the favoured ferryman for Macquarie, his wife Elizabeth and their young son, escorting them across the harbour and along the Parramatta River to Sydney’s second the Government House at Parramatta. As his esteem grew, Blue was granted vast tracts of land on the northern side of the harbour.

In 1818, Blue lost his job after he was caught smuggling 120 gallons of rum stored in drums that had been lashed to the side of his boat. By the mid 1820s, although he had land holdings and a lucrative ferry business, he soon gained a reputation as an eccentric.

Billy Blue was a regular fixture around town, attired in his top hat, carrying a carved walking stick with a sack slung over his shoulder. He regularly treated passers-by to a stream of colourful invective and abusive language. In 1824, Blue’s wife died and his eccentric behaviour increased, perhaps this was one response to his grief. When he died in 1834, he was almost 100 years old, but he was not forgotten by the citizens of Sydney.

Blue’s hexagon-shaped house remained a tourist attraction until it was pulled down in the mid 19th century. His name is perpetuated in the Sydney suburb of Blues Point, and in a number of streets in North Sydney.

Read more about Billy Blue and 11 African-American convicts who arrived to Sydney on the First Fleet in Cassandra Pybus’s, Black Founders: the unknown story of Australia’s first black settlers, UNSW Press, 2006.

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29 April 2011: A Beacon in the Darkness

Macquarie’s old and new lighthouse. Barnet’s copy sits next to Greenway’s original in 1884

Sydney today has four lighthouses spread along its coastline acting now as nostalgic guides to ships and sailors.  With GPS, radio, radar and other locating technologies, the lighthouses are now less important to safe maritime travel then in times past. 

However they remain an important part of the maritime history of Sydney (and Australia more broadly) and serve as a significant physical link to the times when Sydney was a marine city and all people came and went by the sea.

The first beacons were simple signal fires, lit on South Head if a ship had been seen off of the coast during the day.  Wood and coal were burnt in an iron basket to show ships the entrance to the harbour.  

Incredibly for a town wholly dependent on the sea, this primitive system remained in place until 1818 when the Macquarie Lighthouse, commissioned by Governor Macquarie and designed by convict architect Francis Greenway was completed.  Standing high on the cliffs at South Head, the light could be seen 22 miles to sea, revolving once every minute and a half. 

The design of the building, with a central tower flanked by two low wings, acting as lighthouse keepers cottage and a barracks for soldiers stationed there.  This design became the basis for most of the lighthouses built in NSW over the next 100 years.  With a road built from Sydney out to the lighthouse by 1819, the Macquarie light became one of Sydney’s first domestic tourist attractions.

Emigrants and ships captains alike looked eagerly into the darkness as they approached Sydney for the light.  One such person, artist Joseph Fowles, wrote in his diary about approaching Sydney on a dark night in 1838:

A man was ordered up to the fore top gallant mast head to look out for the light on Sydney heads-as it can be seen 30 miles in calm weather.  I was upon deck nearly all night looking out very anxiously for the light and at about 2 in the morning it was first seen…the morning was dark & the light shone very brilliant-I continued looking at it till day light by which we were in near land opposite Botany Bay.

Seeing the light meant you were almost there.

Of the four, Macquarie Lighthouse was and remains the main light for ships coming to Sydney.  At the northern point of Barrenjoey another lighthouse was built to guide the coastal ships in 1881.  Built with three cottages for the keepers and their families, Barrenjoey was a lonely isolated station until the early years of the 20th century. 

State Library NSW PXE 711/418

Barrenjoey lighthouse with keepers and their families, 1910.

Designed by James Barnet from locally cut sandstone the lighthouse is a local landmark for the Pittwater area and still acts as a navigation beacon for shipping.  As Colonial Architect from 1862-1890 Barnet was responsible for many of NSW’s 19th century lighthouses, including the 1883 rebuild of the Macquarie Lighthouse (a direct copy of the Greenway original).

The other two lights are smaller, with the Hornby Lighthouse inside South Head was built in 1858 after the tragic losses of the Dunbar and the Catherine Adamson around South Head.  The fourth is the newest, being the Cape Bailey lighthouse guiding ships at Botany Bay and built in 1950.

The lights are now automated (from the 1930s) and the lighthouse keepers and their families have gone.  But the lights still shine, cutting through the inky blackness of the night at sea, and guiding ships home.

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16 April 2010: Cell Block Theatre

Darlinghurst Gaol was built to replace an earlier prison in The Rocks. When it was ready for occupation in 1841, prisoners were marched along George Street to their new home high on the hill at Darlinghurst, which was at that time at the outskirts of the burgeoning city.

D Block was the second wing to be built as part of Darlinghurst Gaol. Like the rest of the gaol, the cell block was constructed from large, locally quarried sandstone blocks. It was three-storeys high, with 36 double cells and six single cells. There was also a padded cell on the ground floor.

By the dawn of the 20th century, the gaol at Darlinghurst had outgrown its use. It was also no longer at Sydney’s fringe, but was almost at its heart. In 1909, the female prisoners were moved to a new purpose-built gaol at Long Bay. Darlinghurst Gaol was closed by 1914.

In 1922, it was decided to establish a branch of the Sydney Technical College in the former gaol buildings. There was an art school established here, but courses were also offered in handicrafts, wool classing and cooking. D Block, the former women’s cell block, did not form part of this educational campus. An early proposal to use the building as part of the adjacent courts complex was not realised, and the building was left to decay.

Cell Block Theatre 1960s

By 1955, when the East Sydney Technical College became an independently administered entity, it was decided to convert the neglected D Block into a theatre space. And thus the Cell Block Theatre was born.

The Cell Block Theatre was established in the immediate post-war period. At this time, there was a growing middle class who were demanding popular entertainment, which went hand in hand with a lack of theatre space. The largest space available for any type of theatrical or musical production was Sydney Town Hall.

Within a few years, work began on converting the former D Block into a theatre space. The floors and cells were ripped out, leaving a cavernous internal space with great acoustics. It was ideal for a range of performances, from opera, pop bands and dance to theatre, art exhibitions and ‘artists balls’. Because the Cell Block was a ‘hall for hire’ and not administered by a production company, it was a flexible space which fostered a range of avant-garde performances and small theatre companies. Acts that performed there over the years, before the hiatus in the 1980s and 90s, included Ravi Shankar and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

Check out the book on the history of the Cell Block Theatre, and don’t miss the current exhibition at the National Art School, running until 28 May 2011.

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8 April 2011: A Sydney Guide

Guidebooks are a staple for the modern traveller, either a trusty old hard copy of Lonely Planet or a downloaded app of which ever other guide you can get your hand on. Some travellers don’t leave home without one, glued every step of the way to the expert voice.

The books are set out in a fairly standard pattern, a brief history of the place, an overview of the layout, some info on places to stay, how to get around and a list of sights to see. While there has been an explosion in guide books over the past few decades as tourism has boomed, they are not a new phenomenon.

One of the first for Sydney was James Maclehose’s Picture of Sydney and Strangers Guide in New South Wales, published in 1839. Maclehose compiled his guide to ‘convey to strangers a correct view and description of the great outlines of this rising metropolis’.

His guide, written only 50 years after European settlement was aimed at newly arrived immigrants and included useful information about Sydney such as the seasons, when the mails arrived, when steamers sailed and where merchants (Maclehose being one of them) were located. Maclehose included hints to new arrivals, free and convict and gave detailed descriptions of the main public buildings, churches and the grand private mansions and country houses around Sydney. The guide included a map of the town and a series of 40 fine engravings illustrating the text throughout.

The Military Barracks from Maclehose's guide. One of the sites to see in Colonial Sydney

Like Maclehouse, Joseph Fowles also published an illustrated guide. Fowles’ Sydney in 1848, was aimed squarely at residents in Sydney who could send it back to England and show how far the town had come. An artist of some note, Fowles sketched the streets and buildings in perfect architectural detail to show London sceptics the progress of Sydney. His illustrations were so good the book is still used by architects and historians today as an accurate guide to colonial architecture.

In 1861 James Waugh published the Stranger’s Guide to Sydney, which included a series of walks designed to allow those with only a short time in the town to see as much of it as possible. A map accompanied the guide with principal buildings marked on it, while at the back were all the essentials such as ferry and boat timetables, omnibuses schedules and Hackney cab stands.

By 1882 when Gibbs and Shallard published their Illustrated Guide to Sydney, they included a specific section called Hints for Tourists, one of the earliest to acknowledge this new market.

What is interesting about these guides, apart from their ability to show Sydney as it wanted to be seen, is the number of attractions that are still on the tourist trail. Maclehose noted the churches including St James, St Mary’s and St Andrews, all still in business and in the Lonely Planet.

Waugh’s second walk took in the Botanic Gardens, the Hyde Park Barracks, the Mint, the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts (now the Arthouse Hotel) Sir Richard Bourke’s Statue and the Domain, while Gibbs and Shallard directed tourists to the Harbour, South Head lighthouse, Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and the harbour side bays, inlets and beaches.

Those with more time could take a train to Richmond, Windsor or up into the Blue Mountains.

Tourists have always loved Sydney.

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1 April 2011: Rugged Angels

Lillian Armfield and Maude Rhodes were the first women to be appointed as police officers in NSW, and indeed Australia.

In 1915, after almost 35 years of lobbying by feminist organisations, the NSW Inspector-General of Police at last advertised for female officers.

It is reputed that there were over 400 applications. The criterion for joining were that the woman had to be over 5 feet 5 inches tall, aged between 25 and 30 years old, have a leaving certificate and be from a good family background. Lillian Armfield had been a mental health nurse at Callan Park Hospital for the Insane since 1907, while Maude Rhodes had been an inspector with the Child Welfare Department, a job she later returned to.

Lillian Armfield, 1915

These two women were employed in the second year of the First World War, but they were not recruited to stem vacancies in the police force caused by men enlisting to fight. Feminist groups including the Women’s Progressive Association led by Annie Golding and the rival Woman’s Suffragist League, led by Rose Scott, were campaigning to get women on the police force to ensure that female officers would attend to the special problems of women and children.

It has also been suggested that the Inspector-General of Police, James Mitchell, was keen to employ female officers in order to save male officers the embarrassment of arresting unruly women.

When Armfield and Rhodes were hired in 1915, they had to sign a contract which specified that were not to be given a uniform. The contract also specified that did not get superannuation or long service leave, and were not entitled to compensation if they were injured in the line of duty. They were classed as ‘Special Constables’, which meant that promotion was slow and also that they were not ranked alongside their male colleagues.

Things did not change for female police officers until the mid 1960s, but even then, women still had to resign if they were married, a situation that didn’t change until the early 1980s, following the passage of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977.

Female police officers such as Armfield and Rhodes were considered to be a type of moral guardian. It was said that their primary duties, in looking after the special problems of women and children, were to ‘prevent crime and to ensure moral rescue’. Their duties included looking out for truants, patrolling ports and railway stations to intercept female travellers who did not have anyone to meet them, to monitor houses of íll repute and to crack down on fortune tellers. Armfield later recalled that she worked from dawn till 11pm most days, which included dawn raids in the seedier areas of the city to rescue young women from opium dens and brothels.

By the mid 20th century, there were 36 female police officers in NSW, of whom 14 of were uniformed, responsible for directing traffic in front of schools. Many of these women had been trained by Lillian Armfield. When she retired in 1950 after 35 years of dedicated service, she did not receive a pension. For more about Armfield’s life and times, check out Vince Kelly’s Rugged Angel at your local library.



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4 March 2011: To market

Marketplaces are traditionally the centre and lifeblood of a community. In the case of early Sydney, they were the civic and commercial heart of the town, and later the city. The markets were of central importance for this is where produce – fruit, vegetables, butchered meat, poultry, dairy products and other goods – were brought and sold, both retail and wholesale.

Because of this retail activity, the market place was where people gathered, not only to trade or to make a business deal, but to socialise and to be entertained.

Sydney’s first markets were at Circular Quay, but in 1810, Governor Macquarie oversaw their relocation to a more central location further west along George Street, on the present site of the Queen Victoria Building.

Paddy's Markets in 1930 - City of Sydney Archives SRC14699

This site had the principal advantage of location. It was close to the wharves at Darling Harbour, especially the Market Wharf, where good transported by boat were unloaded. The markets location on George Street also meant that it had direct road access to farming districts further west via Parramatta Road.

The creation of centralised markets in the nineteenth century was a way of regulating retail activity in the city – this was a time when there were no shops, arcades or department stores. To this end, Sydney’s George Street markets provided undercover stalls that traders could lease in order that they could sell their produce, as distinct from hawking their wares on the streets.

The regulation of these markets, as well as the hay and corn markets on the town’s outskirts (which gave the Haymarket distinct its name) was one of the chief concerns of the City Council when it formed in 1842. Because corrupt practices had been permitted to flourish before they took control, the Council saw the regulation of the markets as a way of stamping out monopolies by stall holders, and ensuring fair trading practices so that consumers got what they paid for.

But as the nineteenth century progressed, people’s retail habits began to change. The George Street markets were occupying prime retail land, and were derided by many for the ramshackle buildings, the rowdy crowds and the smells and sounds. The pressure was on the move the markets out of town.

In the late 1890s, the markets were torn down and replaced with the grandiose Queen Victoria Building. New markets were established in the Haymarket area, but by the 1970s, these too were taking up prime land. By the 1980s, Paddy’s Markets moved to Flemmington.

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18 February 2011: Bright sparks

There are many things in the 21st century that we take for granted but maybe none more so then electricity.  Our world is run by it from phone batteries to the lights on the street and in our house.   But of course this was not always the case and electricity is a fairly recent phenomenon in the scheme of things.

Experiments in electricity had hinted at its potential since the early 1800s, with the telegraph being invented in the 1830s and electric dynamos powering electric arc lights from the 1870s.  These were so bright however that they had no practical application indoors and were used to light up buildings for special occasions.  Arc lights had also been used by the builders of the Sydney Garden Palace in 1878 to allow them to work at night.

An exhibition at the Sydney Town Hall in February 1882 of Thomas Edison’s electric filament lamp, with the strength of eight candles, excited the public and soon enough individual buildings were being lit.  The first Redfern railway station installed its own generators the same year-Sydney’s first public building permanently lit by electricity.  The GPO followed, replacing its gas lights throughout. Shops and arcades also began installing their own generators, attracting shoppers and curious passers-by.

Still the city streets remained illuminated by gas lamps, the same dull light that had been a marvel in the 1830s. Gas was cheap and with the states coal reserve, easy to make and plentiful.  But gas was also supplied by one company, AGL and this was to be its eventual downfall.

In 1888 the breakthrough came, but not in Sydney.  Tamworth and then Young built their own municipal power stations and lit the streets and homes of their towns.  County cousins coming to the big smoke were amazed to find the nights dark when theirs were fully lit!

AGL, seeing the threat changed the price structure of the gas supply and investigated the possibility of supplying electricity as well.  This was too much for Redfern Council who in 1892 opened their own electricity power station, the first in Sydney.  The power station gave the Council independence from the gas company and made Redfern the brightest place in Sydney.  The power flowed out to the new electric street lamps, into houses and down into the factories in neighbouring Waterloo and Alexandria.

From the mid 1890s the trams were powered by electricity and Sydney finally followed in 1904 with the opening of Pyrmont Power Station, built on the site of the casino.  Finally the nation’s largest city had caught up.  Power stations soon sprang up all over the place.  To feed the power through the suburbs substations were built, often reflecting the style of the surrounding buildings.  Check this out next time you see and old substation.

Electricity was a novelty for a good while; hotels advertised that every room had electric lights up till the 1920s.

Possibly one of the strangest applications was put to use by an enterprising operator at the Sydney markets (Paddy’s Markets).

Test your voltage: the electric battery machine at Paddy's c1912

Playing on both the wonder of the new idea and the inbreed macho of the Aussie male, a battery was set up attached to a dial showing the voltage and two handles to grip.  For a penny you could grab the handles and have yourself zapped, holding on for as long as you could.  To impress your mates or your girl you could electrocute yourself-and they did.


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11 February 2011: What the dickens!

Charles Dickens was a 19th century English writer and social commentator, the author of Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and Bleak House, among other novels.

Dickens never visited Australia but his connections to Sydney were strong, both while he was alive and in the afterlife. Two of his sons emigrated here in the 1860s, and went on to have an influence on the political and cultural life in NSW: his youngest and most favoured son Edwards was a member of the Legislative Assembly.

But his most famous link to Sydney was that a number of characters from his novels were said to be inspired by Colonial identities. Most famously is the character of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, who was said to be based on Eliza Donnithorne of Newtown. Both were abandoned on their wedding days, and were rumoured to have never cleared away their wedding banquets and wore their wedding gowns for the rest of their days. Truth or fiction?

The other link to Sydney is a statue of Charles Dickens, one of only two in the world. It was carved after his death and placed in Centennial Park in 1889, even though he specifically stated in his will that no statues or other memorials be made of him be made.

In 1972, the statue was removed from the park, and put into storage. IN the ten years between 1978 and 1988, Dickens lost his head, and after this time, he went missing.

In February 2011, on the 199th birthday of Charles Dickens, the restored statue – with a brand new marble head – was  placed back into the park. Viva Boz!

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4 February 2011: Chinatown on the move

Chinatown in Sydney’s Haymarket is one of Sydney’s most vibrant and exciting precincts. The streets are always busy with people coming and going, restaurants bustle with each other for attention, exotic foods and aromas take you briefly out of Sydney and into the world. While it may look like Chinatown has always been here, the Chinese community, like others, has moved around Sydney, migrating through the streets over 160 years or so. One of the earliest Chinese settlers was a man, Mak Sai Ying, who arrived in Sydney in 1818, settling in Parramatta where he ran a public house called The Lion.

Small numbers followed through the 1820s and 1830s, mainly working as labourers, carpenters and some shepherds. After 1842 and the Treaty of Nanking which ceded Hong Kong to England, more Chinese men began coming to Sydney many as indentured labourers bound for farms in NSW and Queensland.

About 2500 Chinese men had passed through in Sydney by 1852. A small community began to appear in The Rocks around the same time and was well placed when the numbers dramatically increased after the discovery of gold in 1851. By 1861 about 13000 Chinese lived in NSW, although only about 200 were in Sydney.

The Rocks, being the first port of call for most, meant it was here that Chinese guesthouses and lodgings first appeared, followed by Chinese merchants, dealers and other tradespeople fitting out those on the way to the gold fields. Inevitably not everyone made their fortune in gold and some of the Chinese returned to Sydney.

Many took up work in the market gardens that ringed the city at Rushcutters Bay, Alexandria and Waterloo. The gardeners would sell their produce at the Belmore Markets in Campbell Street, the site of the Capitol Theatre, staying in lodging houses around Campbell and Goulburn Streets. Gradually this became the focus of the Chinese community in Sydney, with the majority of Chinese living here by 1900.

As The Rocks wound down in terms of its Chinese community, the Haymarket area expanded, heading east into Surry Hills, around Wexford Street in particular. Chinese churches and temples were built, shops and traders moved in, as did gambling houses, opium dens (still legal then) and more lodgings.

The area got to get a bad reputation as a slum and a place of vice. This was driven more by xenophobic and anti-Chinese sentiment then reality, but it had an effect.

In 1905 when Sydney Council was granted the power to resume city areas for improvement and development, the Chinatown around Wexford Street and the lower end of Surry Hills was one of the first selected. Wexford Street was demolished and widened to become Wentworth Avenue. 100s of families, not just Chinese, were evicted and their houses razed.

2 Chinese men sit at the rear of 50 Wexford St before it is demolished c1905

 By this time some Chinese had purchased property around Dixon Street, west of the markets and some of the families and businesses dislocated in the resumptions moved in to this area.

Through the first three decades of the twentieth century Dixon Street and its surrounding streets consolidated as the new Chinatown. Although it took some time for the population to increase (due to the White Australia Policy amongst other things), by the 1970s the Dixon Street area was the acknowledged centre of Sydney’s Chinese community and it began to spread back east towards the old Belmore Market area once again.

Some say that the Chinese dragon spreads through the area, with its head in Campbell Street, its body in Ultimo Road and its tail in Dixon Street.

Either way, it is one of Sydney’s great precincts.

Kung Hei Fat Choy (Happy Chinese New Year)

PS: If you want to read more see Shirley Fitzgerald’s excellent study of Sydney’s Chinese Community-Red Tape Gold Scissors The Story of Sydney’s Chinese

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