On Saturdays in the mid 20th century, Chinese-Australians from around Melbourne would come into the city to shop.
Raymond Lew-Boar remembers that they would do their shopping at the Queen Vic Market and in department stores such as Myer, and then, just before all the stores closed in the middle of the day, ‘…about eleven-thirty, quarter to twelve, they’d all trundle up to Chinatown to get their pork and things because they’d be heavy, and also the vegetables would be in by then’.
The store Raymond’s family shopped in was Sun Shing Loong’s, a store run by the ‘Lew’ clan and so generally patronised by the Lew people. As Raymond explains, it’s like ‘your favourite supermarket’: you go there ‘because you like it and you know the people’.
Inside the shop there was a small counter, with shelves all around it filled with Chinese goods, from tins of preserved goods, to Chinese-language novels, to bags of rice. Other goods were presented in baskets on the floor. Raymond Lew-Boar remembers the bok choy, broccoli and snake beans that they sold. It was all very seasonal and they never had a lot of produce. You had to get in quick or you would miss out. They would sell ‘anything’, Alan Lew remembers.
Divided from the shop by a wooden partition was a lounge room, and beyond that, a small kitchen-dining space with a table. Alan Lew arrived in Australia on a student visa and lived with his father and cousin at Sun Shing Loong’s. The bedrooms were upstairs. It was a ‘very simple life’, he recalls.
These clan stores provided more than just groceries. They were also important social centres and often helped with letter writing and transporting goods to China and Hong Kong. There was always a pot of tea in these stores, in a padded bamboo basket. Raymond Lew-Boar’s father also used to go to Sun Shing Loong to catch up on the local gossip. They used to have a bamboo pipe that had a kerosene bottom filled with water and a Nestlés tin attached to it where a roll of tobacco was added. It was a ‘bit like a hookah pipe,’ Raymond explains. His father ‘used to roll tobacco and put it on the end of this spout and light it with a taper and just blow away on it for about 10 minutes and then go off again and go back to work. It was a social thing like having a coffee’, says Raymond.
This is an extract from Stories from the Heart of Melbourne, a book commissioned by the City of Melbourne and written by Dr Arnold Zable and Dr Sophie Couchman. The stories are based on research, and information provided by interviewees. The book is available to borrow from City of Melbourne libraries.