Little Bourke Street: Street Smells

As you wander past the restaurants, cafes and bakeries that line Little Bourke Street, there’s the delicious smell of stirfried vegetables, roast pork and duck, fresh baked custard tarts and deep fried dim sum treats that drift out their doors.

Little Bourke Street

Little Bourke Street

The sharp scent of chili hangs in the area, mingling with the pungent smell of salted plums, hundred-day-old eggs, soya sauce, Chinese vinegar and other Asian spices and delicacies. There are also the less appealing odours of the contents of restaurant rubbish bins waiting to be emptied and the exhaust fumes of trucks delivering vegetables, meat, seafood and other goods. Little Bourke Street is after all essentially a service lane to Bourke and Lonsdale Street, and its lanes service Little Bourke Street.

A different and no less interesting array of scents greeted visitors to the area in the early 20th century. There was still the smell of horse manure from the horse-drawn carts used by Chinese market gardeners, and of chook pens, as restaurants kept live poultry to ensure their ingredients were fresh. On the corner of Heffernan Lane there was a man who roasted chestnuts and another who made ‘turkey lolly’, or fairy floss. Raymond Lew-Boar remembers a fish hawker selling his wares door to door. Drifting out of the various district associations and some of the clan stores would have been the scent of incense lit as part of offerings made to gods and ancestors.

Little Bourke Street, 1940s, Thomas Leung & Raymond Lew Boar

Little Bourke Street, 1940s, Thomas Leung & Raymond Lew Boar

On a hot summer’s night in the 1920s, Ron Wong Loy remembers the ‘heavy sweet smell’ of opium wafting out into the street. He remembers waking in a ‘terrible fright’ during an opium raid as a child, as the police often raided them at night. ‘They knocked on the door and then BANG, BANG, BANG. They would be using their hammers to knock down the doors’. There would then be a scattering of people as they fled the premises. Most Chinese-Australian residents were a little indignant at the time because instead of closing them down, the police simply fined the owners. ‘Of course they would just go back and set up business again, until the next raid,’ Ron recalls.

For Mabel Wang, the smell of Chinese medicinal herbs brings back memories of going as a child with her mother to the herbal shop at 198 Little Bourke Street to have her prescription made out. ‘You walk into this dark, dark shop and the floor’s rough, it’s only asphalt floor and there’s an old wooden counter, and all the walls, three walls, would be lined with small drawers — tiny, tiny drawers — and on each of the drawers there was written what the herb was.’ Mr Hee Darn, the herbalist, would weigh out the different herbs required and place them on a white piece of paper along with two black dates. The dates were free because that’s what you’d eat to take the taste away after drinking the medicine.

Little Bourke Street today

Little Bourke Street today

Other scents that greeted you as you walked along Little Bourke Street included the sweet smell of roast pork, particularly on Saturdays. At the back of Foon Kee’s, a Chinese-style general store, there was a large brick pig oven where whole pigs were basted with herbs and spices and then lowered by rope and pulley into the oven to cook slowly overnight. In the morning, as the pork was lifted out of the oven, the aroma drifted out through the shop and into the street. Chinese Australians and their friends came from all over Melbourne every Saturday to get their serving of roast pork.

Sun Kwong Sing, a merchant at 209 Little Bourke Street, was celebrated for the smell of the fermenting soya beans that emanated from the premises. They made tofu or bean curd in large wooden trays which was cut into cubes and supplied to all the restaurants. At Wing Young & Co, the firm owned by Mabel Wang’s father and uncles, she remembers the wonderful smell of fresh wood shavings from her uncle’s furniture-making business mingled with the nice smell of bananas from downstairs, where the brothers ripened bananas imported from Queensland. These bananas were transported by horse-drawn lorries from the wharves on the river up to Little Bourke Street where they were placed in special chambers and ripened with gas. It was a painstaking and dangerous process that required regular monitoring, as the bananas were ripened using natural gas. If you got it wrong you might lose a whole shipment of bananas or, worse still, cause an explosion.

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.