Perhaps you remember it as the place you called at on your way home from school, your pocket money burning a hole for a 5 cent, white wax paper bag of mixed lollies. Five cents could buy you a lot of tooth decay in those days. Or maybe you remember it as a place to meet the gang, a place where you could fool around with Coca Cola yo-yos on strings, trade Scanlens football cards or punish the sides of the old pin ball machine inside.
It was the witness to the springtide of our lives.
I’m talking of course of that pillar of small retail society, the ubiquitous Aussie milk bar. Now largely lost to history, as a concept it has now all but vanished, like the Polly Waffle chocolate bars it sold and those frozen Sunny Boy triangular ices – free tokens printed oh, so rarely, on the inside wrapping.
An ode to the milk bars of memory.
The milk bar sprang from the old corner shop tradition of a local store prepared to sell just about anything, a Ronnie Barker world of “Open All Hours” but with a uniquely Australian twist on the theme. New emigrants into Australia from Europe after the Second War mixed the idea of the corner shop with an American tradition of soda bars but instead of lemonade sodas, the home grown milk bar sold ice cream milk shakes. It also sold ice cream in cones, lemonade in bottles, hot meat pies, sometimes newspapers (in both the morning AND the afternoon), fags and even the occasional, dangerously addictive, non-prescription pain killer. You see the milk bar would sell you just about anything in a convenience line. It even sold milk, which in case you don’t remember, in those days came in pint sized glass bottles with the cream at the top of the bottle sealed up tight with silver foil.
Although coming late onto the scene, Yallambie too had its own milk bar. Responding to community demands for a local shop, the developer AV Jennings reserved a block of land for a shop, opposite the site of a planned kindergarten on the corner of Yallambie Rd and Binowee Ave. Opening around 1971, an artist’s rendering from four years earlier shows a building on a grander scale than the one finally completed. By 1973 the “milk bar” was already styling itself as a “supermarket”, going head to head with the next closest shopping precinct, the Lower Plenty strip in Main Rd.
This was an era when supermarkets closed at Noon on Saturday so the original concept at Yallambie was for a shop that would operate as a defacto general store but stay open at other times as a milk bar. It worked for a time but the rise of petrol stations operating as convenience stores eventually saw a change in the playing field and in more recent times, the age of digital trading has shifted it again. Anything that you might previously have bought at a milk bar you can now order online from Uber Eats or purchase at the local petrol station. The station in Lower Plenty Rd, Yallambie does all this while the presence of a well-known hamburger franchise next door serves that other traditional function of the milk bar, that of social venue. The fact that you will probably need a car to get to either of them is apparently of small consideration.
Over the last 50 years, the Yallambie shop has moved from milk bar to grocery store, from department store to pizza shop and finally to its latest adaption – an Asian grocer, a reflection perhaps on the changing face of a multicultural society.
You might think this is all a new trend but it’s interesting to reflect for a moment in these pages so often devoted to historical matters, that Chinese herbalists were a feature of Melbourne dating from the goldfields era while Afghan or Indian hawkers were once a common sight in outback Australia. On up country properties like Thomas Wragge’s Tulla in the Riverina, the dignified, bearded and turbaned travellers were sometimes the only way that country people could secure the latest in 19th century consumer society. Their wagons were specially designed with shelves and drawers with sides that could be lowered to display dress material, trousers, hats and shirts, patent medicines, essences, pins and all manner of wares. At Tulla the hawker arrived in the shearing season and set up shop just outside the Home Paddock, not so close to intrude on the homestead but close enough to be reached by foot. As Betty Lush, ne Wragge recalled, remembering her childhood and quoted in Calder’s ‘Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales’:
“At some time during the shearing period the Afghan hawkers would appear with their horse and cart. They were a sort of travelling store and were no doubt a useful institution for the shearers in those days of ‘humping your bluey’ and the nearest store 15 miles away. They always fascinated me. Not only for the variety of things that they stocked but they were colourful people with turbans. They were often quite generous too and many a time I came away from a visit to their cart with a paper cone of boiled sweets…”
A sort of veritable milk bar on wheels.
As an Asian grocery store, the “Yallambie Food Mart/Asian Groceries/Dollar Shop Supermarket” as it styles itself has a lot to live up to but, as it turns out, it is a remarkably well stocked institution for an emporium of this kind located in a suburban back street.
And yes, you can still buy your milk there.
Paul Keating famously described this as the “Asian Century” and has long insisted that we are part of it, in spite of a few claims to the contrary both here and abroad. There’s no escaping the fact that Australia is nearer Asia than it is to either of its previous two greatest spheres of influence, the United Kingdom and United States, neither of which seem to be particularly united just now. I’m afraid a bit of Xenophobia is an all too common part of the human condition, but have you noticed lately the results of unsubstantiated fears of COVID-19 coronavirus? In the heart of the Chinese community down Whitehorse Rd way, face masks have become the latest in fashion accessories and you could shoot a cannon down the middle of the street without fear of hitting anyone. Newspapers have reported that Asian restaurants across town are half empty half the time and at hours of the day when they should be the best part full. Already it has been reported that the iconic Shark Fin House in Little Bourke St, Melbourne, has closed its doors after an 80% drop in customer numbers. I ask you, whatever happened to the spirit of the Blitz?
Locally, there are Chinese takeaways near to Yallambie in Lower Plenty, Rosanna and Greensborough, so let’s pause for a moment and give them a thought.
Yow Sing near the corner of Rosanna and Lower Plenty Roads does a pretty mean, homemade dim sim, the ancient décor of the shop probably unchanged from a time 50 years before when the shop converted from a haberdashery known for some reason as “Blue Hills”. I’m thinking now might be a good time to try a dim sim there again as the building of the North East Link Project will soon separate this forgotten shopping precinct from Yallambie once and for all.
There are a number of other Chinese eating houses to choose from in easy reach from Yallambie. Several are located in Greensborough but for mine, the best tucker is found at “Li’s Dumplings” in Main Rd, Greensborough. And if you think that’s too far to travel for a feed, please note. You’ll find Li’s dumplings one of the items stocked frozen at the Yallambie shop, so put away those Uber eats.
Deciding to do our bit for the Blitz, we took ourselves off to Li’s Dumpling and Noodle in Greensborough for a meal last Friday night. The décor at Li’s is plain and the seats are hard, but the food and family style atmosphere is terrific. Li’s specialize in dumplings, the skins thin and light but strong enough to hold a variety of yummy fillings intact. They plunge the dumplings in boiling water, stirring vigorously to prevent them sticking then add a cup of cold water half way through the eight minute cooking process to bring out the flavour. I’m told this is the secret of boiling a good dumpling. Or if that doesn’t suit, you can get them fried, the bottoms of the dumplings turning a light golden brown in the process.
We don’t eat out much but when we do it often seems to be to this particular little restaurant that we go. That said, we haven’t got even a part way through the menu yet. Li’s is an establishment that probably does more takeaways than sit down meals and when we went in there with a birthday party once I think they nearly fell down in surprise. There’s an informal atmosphere present here, the sort of feeling you get when you enjoy a home cooked meal though Mum’s Sunday roast was never like this.
On this night we chose chicken and coriander dumplings to start with but there are many others you might choose from, each one rolled, pressed and filled by hand. I’m told that the range of fillings on the menu mirrors what a northern Chinese family might cook at home and reading from the list you’ll find lamb and coriander; chive, vermicelli and egg; fish and calamari; lamb and onion; spicy beef and others just too numerous to mention here.
We also ordered sizzling chicken, its sizzle filling the table with steam; honey chicken, the batter light and crisp and without that risk you get of it weighing heavily on an overstocked tum; and a beef fried noodles which I think would give the best fried noodles of my life a run for its money. That was a noodles I remember buying from a Chinese cook serving from a caravan window on an island in the Pacific years ago, a bit too far away now to pop out for a takeaway.
So, if you’re hungry and not just for the memory of Polly Waffle, get yourself down to your local shop and if that shop turns out to be a Chinese eating house or a repurposed milk bar, well you’ll be doing your bit for your local community right now. A changing world has made it hard going for the small retailer, the current fears of a global pandemic only compounding the problems for one section of our community. I suspect these problems aren’t going to go away for a little while yet but until they do, keep rattling those chopsticks.