The history of Australia’s ‘ethnic clubs’ and why their survival matters today
“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.
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.
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’?
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.
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.
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.
“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
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 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.
In a society where loneliness is now classified as a health issue, it’s a winning combination.
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.
“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 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
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
Club president Richard Borysiewicz says the board decided a long time ago that growth was the best way to survive.
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?'”
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.
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 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 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.”
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.
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.
Michael Lubieniecki is a volunteer at the club and the son of the club’s president. He believes it will survive.
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.”
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