Eastwood: a unique slice of suburbia

Eastwood has anchored the lives of countless migrant families like my own.

Art by Vivienne Davies.

When I say I live in Eastwood, most people aren’t quite sure where it is. “Is that near Epping or Macquarie University?” they ask, always in relation to other suburbs, but rarely in its own right. This makes me slightly disheartened, as I’ve grown to love Eastwood’s distinctive charms.

Located in Sydney’s leafy Northern Suburbs, Eastwood’s Chinese and Korean neighbourhoods are split down the middle by the train line. (Justin Li, admin of Facebook page Humans of Eastwood Daily, says that locals affectionately compare it to the DMZ separating North and South Korea, but without any hint of geopolitical animosity.) When Eastwood Station opened in 1886, the town centre naturally grew around it, making Eastwood one of Sydney’s most train-accessible suburbs.

On the station’s ‘Chinese side,’ an array of regional Chinese cuisines line the street: spicy mouth-numbing hotpot from Chongqing, crispy roast goose from Shunde, or indulgent xiao long bao from Shanghai (make sure to carefully poke a hole in the dumpling to slurp the hot soup, which is rich and meaty and coats your mouth). The Superfresh greengrocer displays rows of fresh watermelons, pomelos and mangoes out in the open air, while vendors shout prices to customers jostling for the best deals. And under the plaza’s tree-lined archway, you’ll find elderly Chinese residents practicing tai chi, their movements steadfast and resolute in contrast to the bustling shops around them.

Meanwhile, on the ‘Korean side,’ Korean BBQ joints serve platters of sizzling meats and banchan (side dishes like crunchy pickled radish or sour-spicy mounds of kimchi); well-dressed ladies catch up over coffee; and schoolkids dig into spicy Korean fried chicken or chewy tteokbokki rice cakes.

Eastwood Superfresh - A Better Choice
Eastwood Superfresh.

Unlike most suburban shopping strips with overly-commercialised megamalls, Eastwood is “a really vibrant town centre with many migrant-owned businesses,” the Mayor of Ryde, Jerome Laxale, tells me. “It’s got its own unique character that is hard to replicate in other areas of Sydney.”

My memories of Eastwood are intimately tied to food. On the way home from school, Mum would drive me and my brother to Eastwood to get a steaming bowl of pho at 4pm, or to grab pork floss buns from a Chinese bakery. Compared to Western bakeries, their breads are soft, pillowy and super cheap, and many of their offerings represent a unique merge between Eastern and Western flavours. The egg tarts – a buttery crust encasing a wobbly custard filling, derived from the Portuguese pastel de nata – were always a highlight.

After studying at the library, I’d visit the Tonyon or New Yen Yen Asian supermarket to hunt for snacks, walking past its mind-boggling array of spices, sauces and Asian staples, or I’d peer at the glistening siu aap (roast duck) hanging in the window of the Cantonese BBQ stores. (There’s three of them located right next to each other, fiercely battling to have longer lines snaking out the door.) No-nonsense chefs would chop up char siu (roast pork) for my family’s dinner, skilfully operating cleavers as if part of their own hands, and I’d note the charred bits to steal for myself. 

85 DEGREES BAKERY CAFE - EASTWOOD, SYDNEY — Sir and M'lady Dine Out |  Sydney Food Blog
One of Eastwood’s Asian bakeries.

Eastwood’s status as an ethnic enclave is relatively new. The suburb sits on the land of the Wallumedegal people, bounded by the Lane Cove and Parramatta Rivers, while its colonial name takes after Eastwood House, the home of Ryde’s First Mayor, Edward Terry (it’s now owned by the Marist Brothers College). After colonisation, Eastwood became known for its orchards; in the 1860s, Mary Ann Smith accidentally created a sour, crunchy green apple, and now Granny Smith apples are sold all over the world. Local history books describe Eastwood as a “sleepy rural outpost,” with frogs living in swamps where the oval now is. A few decades later, the towering Eastwood Brickworks supplied the nation’s post-war building boom (it’s since been converted to apartments, but the chimney stacks still stand).

For its downsides, parking spots are rare in Eastwood, and drivers and pedestrians alike have a reputation for being belligerent; there’s one particular zebra crossing next to the plaza that’s infamous for being a free-for-all. But that stretch of shops down Rowe Street is my spiritual home. Every Saturday morning, my mum and I braved the crowds shopping for groceries, trying to squeeze past grandmas wheeling shopping trolley bags in the vegetable aisle at Superfresh. I’d grab a bubble tea while kids played in the fountain (which suspiciously ran out of water years ago). Eastwood is also where I had long chats with Baopu and Alan when I decided to run for Honi, and I’m eternally grateful for their advice.

Eastwood used to have picturesque lakes, which have now been filled in and turned into sporting grounds and croquet clubs. Photo credit: The Dictionary of Sydney

Sadly, not all the places I revered as a child are still standing (although the Yogurberry near the station did survive the 2013 fro-yo craze). In 2015, Humans of Eastwood Daily was flooded with despairing comments when the Red Rooster of Eastwood (not affiliated with the national chain) closed down, due to a greedy landlord hiking up rents. It was legendary amongst kids before tutoring classes for its moreish crinkle-cut chips doused with chicken salt and gravy, so hot that you could only eat it with a fork.

Residents of Eastwood love its sense of community. The annual Granny Smith Festival, which attracts 90,000 people, allows local organisations and cultural groups to come together, says Laxale, though it’s less about the green apple and more about the benefits to Eastwood’s economy and community. Li, whose Facebook page has about 27,000 followers, says that “it’s actually a very diverse audience in terms of age and cultural backgrounds. … I see people (total strangers) interacting with each other in the comments on the page all the time.” To me, Eastwood counteracts a sad trend in suburbia, where people become isolated from their community and lose touch with their neighbours.

Did you go to the Granny Smith Festival? What did you think? - City of Ryde
The annual Granny Smith Festival.

Eastwood has anchored the lives of countless migrant families like my own. My parents moved here in the 1990s, when Pauline Hanson thundered about ethnic “ghettos” and Australia being “swamped by Asians” on the national news. At a time when much of white Australia wouldn’t welcome them, Eastwood offered comfort and the promise of a new life for Asian migrants. Just hearing Korean or Chinese spoken on the street, or seeing signs in their language, made a difference. It’s allowed migrants to start businesses and instantly find a community who understand what they’ve been through. That’s part of the area’s DNA – in the 1950s, Italian and Greek migrants also made their homes here, while before them, industrious Chinese market gardeners sold vegetables in the 1920s.

I’ve always been acutely aware that Eastwood is not a “normal” or representative suburb. There’s almost nowhere else in Australia where there’s a bubble tea shop, a ma la tang place, an Asian bakery or a Korean BBQ restaurant on almost every corner. As a teenager, I somewhat resented it for its “Asian-ness,” feeling like I was living in a sheltered neighbourhood plucked out of another era. But now that I’m older, I’ve realised that living in Eastwood has made me – a second-generation migrant who can only speak English – feel proud of my cultural heritage. It’s helped me find things in common with my parents’ own upbringing in Malaysia, and it’s never shamed my family for having our roots elsewhere in the world.

Across Eastwood Station, next to the croquet club (which I must explore one day), is Eastwood Oval. It’s a place for everyone: kids play soccer on Sunday mornings; highschoolers sneak bottles of cheap soju from Korean supermarkets and have a piss up late at night; and parents and grandparents bring paddles to play table tennis in the day.

As I consider moving out of home next year, I find myself actively looking towards ethnic enclaves for a sense of home. Out of many criteria, I’m looking for a neighbourhood with that same sense of cultural diversity (and of course, fantastic Asian supermarkets). The suburbs are often decried as dull and boring, and there’s truth to that. But Eastwood shows the power of a community bonded by shared cultural experiences. Eastwood is a unique slice of suburbia, and I’ll always return home.

The author thanks the Ryde District Historical Society for their assistance.