A few months ago a friend and I got together over dinner at a restaurant in Surry Hills. Compared with many, I’m a long-term local, whereas she is a reasonably new arrival, but with a passion for the suburb in which we live. And a common concern, that as Surry Hills goes through the latest transformation, some sense of “community” may be lost along the way.
As we spoke, we became consciously aware that many of the “stories” of Surry Hills go back to the days of Ruth Park novels, and 1930s gangsters. What about life now??
We discussed the idea of story-telling as a way to unite the community in a modern way. There are so many interesting people living here today, and we thought it would be great to capture their stories. Along the way, we’ve enlisted some others with a similar passion.
Today we’ve launched a website which profiles some of the people of Surry Hills “in their own words”. There’s seven to start with, and we’ll have one each week, with a plan to publish their stories on Wednesdays.
Our first “feature story” is of Elizabeth Burton.
When we first came here people thought, “Oh Surry Hills, it’s a bad area”. There were the druggies and criminals. We have had unusual people in our building, we had a drug dealer that got bashed up and we have had incidences in our building. But mostly in our building we’ve been kind to each other. No one has coffee with one another, everyone has their private space, but we are kind to each other, we are lovely to each other. I did the garden for 20 years until my hips broke.
When I got into this building my daughter was three. There was a lady named Joan at Northcott. Joan and I started cooking and having lunch there. We got a donation so I would make a baked dinner for 20 people, we would hire a bus and take the people at Northcott on a picnic out to Watsons Bay. It was lovely. They have all passed now, that’s how life goes.
I used to do hairdressing at Maude House on Devonshire street when it was around a long time ago. It was run by a Drag queen (are you allowed to say “drag queen” these days?) I worked there casually.
In that time, one day, a guy grabbed my daughter’s bag when she was walking on the street and ran away saying “Sorry I’m a druggie”. My daughter ran after him. She had her heels on so she was getting puffed running and she took the studded belt off she was wearing to be able to run better. He said “Oh no don’t hit me. I’m sorry. I’m a drug addict. ” She wasn’t going to hit him. She just needed to take her belt off. That made me laugh a lot. The other girls she was with called the police but my daughter ran after him.
The dynamics of our building have changed today, it was friendlier, you felt safe, and we had our characters. People stay here for many years. Many people die here. Now we have been here a third of our lives, it’s really hard to think “Where will we go?” This is our swan song. You have to comply with everything they ask of you in this building. I have had fights with people, because when they come to inspect your house, I wonder, “Where are their manners? I’ve walked you through my house, now you are opening doors. What does it have to do with you?” I don’t have anything to hide but they treat you like a non-person. I went over to housing and spoke to the boy who is supposed to be looking out for the building during the lightrail construction about the rats that are invading the building since they started building the light rail. All the rats live under the ground. They dig up the ground and they run up the hill. It’s unbelievable. I have already killed 19 and I’m a Buddhist! It breaks my heart to do that. But nothing has been done even though I have written letters. We all want something to be done.
When you get old you feel like no one is listening to you. When I was young and spunky they would be all over me, but now, especially when people walk looking at their phones we ignore each other. Sometimes they walk towards me not looking at me and I just yell out “Oi!” They usually jump back. I think they are missing out on life. In the old days you could sit and have a chat with people next to you on the train but not now.
I’m very vicious about a couple of things. At the end of the street there is a termination centre and there is a woman who stands there with a picture of a dead foetus to deter people from going in there. That makes me angry in my heart. I used to be horrible to her. Now I just look at her and say “Hail Mary full of grace Jesus knows you’re a disgrace!” So that’s better than what I used to say before.
In 1968 I went to Vietnam as a gogo dancer. I did not know I was going to war, I was out for an adventure. We arrived in Saigon. On the first night we arrived we were taken to some blokes and had a meal. I worked in a show called the rainbow show. We weren’t allowed to speak to anyone that was not Caucasian. I got into trouble because I had American Indian and black guys as friends . But when we did a show they had to sit separately. I was categorised as a “race riot risk” so I was put out of the country.
Once they told us we stopped the war because when we were doing the show the Vietcong were in the trees with the binoculars enjoying the show. That was an amazing experience in Vietnam.
I went to Hong Kong. I fell in lust with a guy, went to America. Then in NY I auditioned for a strip tease job. I got it. Then I got an agent and travelled from 1968-1979 all over the world. I performed until I was 60, they were nice years. Then I got arthritis in my hips. I used to do the splits!
I was a poor little girl. My mother called me a “big ape” and I was her slave. I would say to that little girl “Have more faith in yourself”. You get a lot of negative input in life. I’ve been judged all my life for choosing to be a strip tease dancer.
There’s a feeling that you get on stage when you are in your vibe and your body is working well and your tricks are coming off. You don’t have that feeling anywhere else. I love it. I’m going to have a 70th birthday and I’m going to have a show that night. I mean, I did shows when I was pregnant with my daughter and people were shocked but I just thought I looked fab.
There’s six more stories launched today, with another one coming out each Wednesday.