The history of Australia’s ‘ethnic clubs’ and why their survival matters today

Manfred Koch got more than he bargained for when he began volunteering at the Concordia Club in Sydney’s Inner West more than 20 years ago.
“I found romance at the German club,” says Manfred, who is now in his 80s.
“If you go back into history, there are a lot of Germans who say ‘that’s where I found my wife, that’s where I found my partner.’”
His partner of 12 years, Uta Panayotakis, also a volunteer, says the connection between them was instant.

“After talking to another person for around an hour, he turned around and put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘would you like a drink?’ And that was it. There was the chemistry.”

The Concordia Club back in the day. Source: Supplied

The Concordia in Marrickville is one of a diminishing number of small clubs originally established by migrant groups across the country.

This one, which dates back to 1883, is keeping its doors open by providing a pokie-free, niche dining experience in a former bowling club leased from the government after the building that housed their last club was sold 20 years ago.

And the place is buzzing. A musician plays old German songs on an accordion, while diners feast on pork knuckle and other German favourites. Old photos of past club members line the walls and there’s a deli selling German condiments and sweets.

Exterior shot of old Concordia Club

The old Concordia Club. Source: Supplied

Manfred says business is booming because its customer base has expanded.

“Concordia isn’t strictly ethnic anymore. We get great support from the locals. I believe it has something to do with the location, the closeness to the railway, and we just do it a lot different than anyone else, and for that reason, it’s been a success.”

What are ‘ethnic clubs’?

Clubs Australia says there are more than 6,500 registered clubs in Australia. These include RSL clubs, sporting clubs, leisure venues and others.

But there is no national census to estimate how many of these are what might be referred to as an ‘ethnic club’ or one founded by migrants to Australia. Not all clubs are licensed venues either, some are simply a hall or a house owned by a community organisation, while others have evolved to become aged care or education providers.

In 1968, research by former government policy advisor James Houston estimated there were more than 1,000 ethnic clubs, organisations and associations, but it’s unknown how many still exist.

What is known though, is that many venues are struggling to stay open. In New South Wales alone, Clubs Australia estimates 33 per cent of smaller clubs are showing signs of distress or serious distress.

Sign of Stanmore Hawks football club outside Cyprus Club Sydney.png

A sign at the Cyprus Club in Sydney. Source: SBS News / Peggy Giakoumelos

Many of the venues that exist today started life as football clubs.

Club Marconi, Hakoah White City and the King Tomislav Croatian Club have always been strongly linked to football, while others morphed into support services for migrants when such services didn’t exist.
Former Deakin University academic and sport historian Roy Hay says the clubs played a key role in helping new migrants settle in Australia.

“Within a week or so of arrival, they were at the local soccer club, because that was where they could meet people who spoke the same language and had many similar interests. And often it was the soccer club that got [them] the job, the house, and sometimes even the family as well.”

Men, gods and coffee at the Cyprus Club

Established in 1929, the Cyprus Community of NSW – or the Cyprus Club to the locals – once had a strong link with football, hosting its own team.
While a team still survives today, it’s no longer as big a part of the club’s culture.

One afternoon, there are 40 people in the club’s dining room, eating lunch and dancing to a band playing traditional Greek music. Statues of Greek gods and goddesses line the staircase and old photos of past members hang on the walls among a colour scheme of blue and white.

A couple enjoying a meal a the Cyprus Club in Sydney December 2022

A couple enjoying a meal at the Cyprus Club in Sydney. Source: SBS News / Peggy Giakoumelos

In the basement, around 50 men in their 70s, 80s and 90s are playing cards. “Not for money,” one of them insists.

It looks like an old-school kafenio (coffeehouse) you would see all over Cyprus and Greece. Frequented by men, they still act as social centres in villages there.

Here, strong black coffee is served in small cups and homemade treats are made and served by volunteers.

In a society where loneliness is now classified as a health issue, it’s a winning combination.

Traditional statues and figurines on display

Traditional statues and figurines on display at the club. Source: SBS News / Peggy Giakoumelos

One regular, Amilios, does a 120km round trip to the club a couple of times a week from Penrith in Sydney’s west.

He left Cyprus almost 50 years ago when a civil war erupted between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
“It was terrible, we just left our houses. We lost friends, relatives during the war,” he says.

“I was in the war, too. I was not injured but I saw people die, I was lucky to be alive.”

Amilios in the basement of the Cyprus Club Sydney - December 2022.jpeg

Amilios in the basement of the club. Source: SBS News / Peggy Giakoumelos

Amilios says the club provides him with a connection to people who understand his past.

“We enjoy each other’s company. We talk about the past, sometimes with good stories, sometimes sad stories. You feel more comfortable when you are surrounded with your culture.”

You feel more comfortable when you are surrounded with your culture.

– Amilios, Cyprus Club member

But like others, the club is experiencing a downturn due to its ageing membership base, its location, and the area’s changing demographic. The COVID-19 pandemic also saw many smaller clubs struggle.
“Apart from what you would call the ‘pokie palaces’, your normal community clubs are finding it very difficult, and we are too,” club president Andrew Costa says.

Beyond offering traditional dance classes and Greek language lessons, the club is now looking at other ways to attract business and going through a rezoning process in the hope that development will help it survive.

A tale of two Polish clubs

The Polish Club Ashfield, in Sydney’s Inner West, has already gone down the development road, partnering with a developer to build 88 apartments as well as a new club.

Club president Richard Borysiewicz says the board decided a long time ago that growth was the best way to survive.

Exterior of Polish Club Ashfield in Sydney

The original entrance to the Polish Club in Ashfield prior to it being demolished to make way for a new development. Source: Supplied

“We looked at the facts rather than be swayed by the emotion, and we said, ‘what must we do to survive? What must we do to be relevant to the children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the founders?'”

In the southwest Sydney suburb of Bankstown sits another Polish club, currently the only licenced Polish club operating in Sydney.
The single-level yellow brick building hosts a small Polish restaurant and different local community groups including a Polish seniors group and an exercise group for older Greek-Australian women in the area.

There are trays of Polish jam doughnuts, covered with icing sugar and a coffee urn for the women who are there listening to a health talk in Polish.

Exterior of Polish Club Bankstown 2022 - supplied .jpeg

The Polish club in Bankstown. Source: Supplied

Zofia, aged in her early 90s, is one of those attending the group. She jokes that she wishes the gender balance of the group would shift a little.

“If there are men that are free, they don’t want to come here, they are too busy. But we have so many free ladies here. It would be nice to go out and have coffee.”

Zofia attending a seniors group at Polish Club Bankstown 2022 SBS.jpg

Zofia and other seniors meet at the Polish Club Bankstown once a month Credit: Peggy Giakoumelos SBS News

For Zofia and many others, the group is a social outlet and one of the only ways she gets to meet up with friends of a similar age and background.

On the lack of men, another female member pipes up. “We’re all free!” she says.

The club’s president Andrew Lubieniecki says it has been doing it tough in recent times during the pandemic.

“The last two years actually was devastating for us, unfortunately. Plus, we’ve got the flooding. There were so many things. No income at all, from last two years, almost nothing at all. So now we start again.”

Outside the Polish Club Bankstown in the 1970s - Supplied .jpeg

The Polish Club in Bankstown hosting an official guest from Poland in the 1970s. Source: Supplied / Supplied

Both Polish clubs are in areas that have seen rapid demographic change fuelled by migration from Asia, the Middle East and the sub-continent.

Robert Borsak is the treasurer and director of the Ashfield club as well as the head of the Shooters and Fishers Party in NSW. He thinks for small clubs, development is one of the few ways to keep the vision of the early founders alive.

Richard Borysiewicz President of the Polish Club in Ashfield and Robert Borsak Treasurer of the club November 2022 SBS.jpeg

The Polish Club in Ashfield’s Richard Borysiewicz and Robert Borsak at the construction site of the apartment block. Source: SBS News / Peggy Giakoumelos

“It’s not just a flight of fantasy, if we don’t make this work as a business, then there will be no Polish community organisation here at all. And we have to work hard to make it work and we have to make a profit out of it,” he says.

But the Polish club in Bankstown is choosing to stay small, renting its premises to newer migrant groups in the area.

Michael Lubieniecki is a volunteer at the club and the son of the club’s president. He believes it will survive.

Michael Lubieniecki volunteer Polish Club Bankstown November 2022.jpeg

Michael Lubieniecki at the Bankstown Polish Club. Source: SBS News / Peggy Giakoumelos

“There’s always a niche. Clubs like this are always going to exist, maybe not so many as there was, but there’s always going to be a couple. The Polish Club, it’s sort of an institution, people love to come here.”

Would you like to share your story with SBS News? Email

Share this news on your Fb,Twitter and Whatsapp

File source

Times News Network:Latest News Headlines
Times News Network||Health||New York||USA News||Technology||World News

Show More

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button