Since the recent US election and the Brexit vote, fierce debate has continued to rage over the costs and benefits of globalisation. If you find much of the commentary dry and hard to relate to, here’s a fascinating parallel much closer to our own backyards. I call it the suburban tale of globalisation, because the story’s set in my childhood suburb of Eastwood in Sydney’s north-west (although the phenomena is by no means confined to my suburb alone).
For much of its history, Eastwood was a quiet, middle class, predominantly white Anglo-Saxon suburb. Its main claim to fame was being the location where the first Granny Smith apple accidentally sprung up from refuse, as well as being home to Australian explorer Gregory Lawson.
A hundred years later, Eastwood has become a large suburban centre of over 14,000 residents. Initially, one or two Asian shops opened there, and then more followed.
In the last 15 years, migrants of Chinese and Korean heritage, attracted by the convenient shopping and transport, began settling in the suburb in large numbers. That trend has continued to this day, earning Eastwood its reputation as the new hub for fresh food, groceries and Asian dining, alongside the likes of Cabramatta and Hurstville.
In fact, Eastwood is probably the only suburb in Australia which has seen both a McDonald’s and a KFC go out of business. The Red Rooster survived a few years longer, but eventually it too succumbed to the expensive rent and demographic changes.
Not that their replacements had lower calories. Where the McDonald’s and KFC once stood, there are now Asian restaurants selling roast pork belly, barbecue pork, fried dumplings, and pearl tea. I suspect that’s why fat children continue to play in the Eastwood Plaza fountain to this day.
Eastwood’s shopping area has also undergone significant transformation. Formerly, the shopping area had a Target, a Franklins, a Dymocks and other fashion outlets. In the last 10 years, these have been replaced one by one by $2 shops, tuition centres, Asian grocery stores, and Korean BBQ.
Locals joked that once upon a time the plaza used to be so quiet you could fire a cannon through there at midday and not hit anyone. Now shops at the plaza open all year round, the parking lot is always full, and there’s a lively Saturday night market. A large group of elderly residents practice Tai Chi under the arbour each morning. But the nearby lawn bowls club has seen its membership dwindle, and it eventually closed its doors.
Another side effect of changing demographics has been the soaring academic success of Eastwood’s local schools, as education is often the number one priority with many Asian families. That in turn has driven an ever growing demand for homes within the catchment of these schools.
As with globalisation, there have been winners and losers from the changes. Some residents have wholeheartedly embraced the new Eastwood, welcoming all the delicious and affordable Asian cuisines now served at their doorsteps without the need to travel overseas or even to Sydney’s Chinatown.
They also love the loud and colourful Lunar New Year and mid autumn festival events. People in this group often know more than one language, and they comfortably straddle across multiple cultures.
Property owners have also seen house prices increase more than ten fold in the last 20 years. One such house made national news when it sold $1 million above reserve.
There have been losers, too. Think about all the shops that have gone out of business as they struggle to adapt to the newer customers’ tastes. It’s little comfort to these business owners that economists would include them as part of the creative destruction of capitalism.
Some long-time local residents have also voiced their discomfort in the letters pages of the local newspaper. Their concerns are both practical (such as more rubbish) as well as cultural (the eclipse of English by Chinese and Korean languages in street conversations, shop signs and restaurant menus). But their division is not always along racial lines – some older Eastwood residents of Asian heritage also miss the old Eastwood.
The transformation of Eastwood isn’t unique in Australia. The same trend can be found in many other suburbs where migrants have also settled in large numbers, like Hurstville, Strathfield and Auburn in Sydney, Sunnybank in Brisbane, and Box Hill in Melbourne, to name just a few.
In the end, the wholesale transformation of Eastwood didn’t happen so much because of any conscious policy decision or planning by the local council, or some vast foreign conspiracy to replace meat pies with pork buns. As a council member, I can testify it’s already hard enough to regulate illegal dumping on the nature strip by a handful of people. Instead, the new Eastwood is the aggregate result of the decisions of thousands of individual residents and business owners acting freely in pursuing their economic interests.
Therein lies the challenging reality of globalisation facing governments and policy makers worldwide. As much as there may be nostalgia for the old Eastwood, there’s not much anyone can do realistically to wind back the clock and make Target, Dymocks and lawn bowls return. The old Eastwood is gone because customers have already voted with their feet.
Instead, it’s now about how to best integrate old and new residents together and maintain a strong sense of community. One way has been through local food tours aimed at promoting Eastwood’s new culinary delights to everyone, and having all cultural groups come together at festive events.
More can and should be done of course, but like globalisation, acceptance of the new Eastwood and changing habits will never be complete, quick or painless. When the Red Rooster closed last year, one local said that Eastwood was now dead to him. That poor man is unlikely to adapt to chicken feet served at yum cha anytime soon.
Justin Li is a former deputy mayor in the City of Ryde and has been an independent local government councillor since 2008. He is also editor of Humans of Eastwood, sharing stories of people from multicultural Eastwood in Sydney’s North West.