Friday, 28 September 2018

Moon festival, Cabramatta

On Sunday on platform 18 at Central Station I waited for the next service to arrive. Wearing a backpack, a young father was standing with his two children, both girls, near the edge of the platform. One of the girls was aged about five years and the other one was aged about ten. The small girl was hamming it up on the pavement, moving around and fussing in a way that made her father cross with her. When this happened she became contrite and raised her arms in the air, signalling for him to pick her up.

The older girl was paying attention to what was happening around her and noticed the yellow train pulling in from the north. The video screen hanging from a pole attached to the roof said that the scheduled service would depart in one minute, but when she saw the engine approaching the girl said to her father, “It said it’s coming in one minute!” “It’s going to depart in one minute,” the father corrected her. “Oh, it’s going to leave in one minute,” she said. She had light brown skin and green eyes and the three of them looked as though their ancestors had been born on the subcontinent.

From Redfern, where I met up with a friend, the ride took about 45 minutes, darkness descending as we rolled on the tracks. Next to the moving carriage the tracks for services going in the opposite direction shone silver in the lights. As our train sped up, the tone that it made rose in pitch, then there was a period of silence and then, as it slowed down in preparation for stopping at the next station, the tone fell again to a lower pitch.

A boy aged about eleven was goofing around in the vestibule near where his parents were seated on the mezzanine level next to the doors. He wore heavy tan-coloured boots on his feet and the laces for one of them was undone while he played. His head was shaved bare except for a strip on top down the middle of his skull which held shortish hair. He looked Middle-Eastern. Bored and at a loss what to do, he hung off the upright handrails, manoeuvring his body so that it could pass between them, and swung on the handrails that led downstairs to the cabin where we sat. He got up on the seats on his knees several times and finally sat down and got around to fixing his shoelace, dramatically stretching his right leg out and pulling on the laces with his hands before tying them together with his fingers.

At Cabramatta when the train stopped and we got off, there were hundreds of people and the access ramps leading out of the station were crowded with slowly-advancing bodies. Station staff stood at strategic points asking visitors to keep to the left and advising them where an alternative Opal card reader was located. Red-and-white plastic emergency tape was tied to portable posts to separate the ramps into lanes, one going up and one going down. In the street there were thousands of people milling about. Their backs up against the fence surrounding the station, sideshow rides and other amusements had been set up. A brightly-lit ride was lifting half-a-dozen children into the air. Next to it there was an inflated rubber slide and next to that there was a stall with containers filled with water on which floated yellow plastic ducks. Children queued up in front of it to pay money, then took hold of nets on long handles and used them to scoop out ducks.

The sideshows and their touts were ranged along two of the streets, letting people pick up air rifles to shoot at moving ducks or at balloons as they aimed to secure prizes that were pinned to the hoardings standing on the pavement. A brightly-lit stage had been set up and some young people were dancing on it to what sounded like hip-hop. Hundreds of people were standing in front of the stage watching the performance. We moved through the crowd and lined up outside a restaurant to wait until a table became available. An elderly couple stood in the doorway in front of us and they were soon seated and ordering their food.

Our food was good: braised beef with seared onions and spring onions and a tomato-flavoured rice, and a plate of rice noodles cooked with a seafood combination. It was cheap too: $25. A husband and wife and their two boys aged around seven or eight were eating their dinner at the table next to ours. One of the boys was restless and moved around on his chair a lot. He knelt on the floor at one stage and for a minute or so his head disappeared below the level of his chair’s back. I later saw his father, who was sitting next to him, feeding him something with a spoon. The man’s wife wore a dark-coloured sweater with a semi-abstract picture of a handgun on the front and the words “bang bang” coming from its muzzle.

Outside and around the corner, there was a big yellow lantern shaped like a lotus flower standing on the pavement that was lit from within. People stood in front of it and used their mobile phones to take photos of it. Two young women posed in front of it, adding variety to the shots. The overwhelming majority of people on the street were Asian. There were a few Anglos, some Pacific islanders, and a couple of people from the Levant but in the main this was a distinctly Asian cultural celebration and there were people of all ages except for the very elderly. I saw one man who was probably aged in his seventies walking doggedly along the footpath. He had white hair growing on his face and he looked reassuringly like a classic Chinese sage.

The biggest cohort were teenagers and parents with small children. There were children in prams with their parents, and small children aged around four or even younger. This was an event for young people to get out and meet with their friends in order to talk and enjoy themselves. Groups of 12-year-olds and 18-year-olds with bright eyes and handsome faces walked through the crowd, which thickened further up where another stage had been set up. This one had ‘Mekong Mounties Group Stage’ printed on its front and the music here was very loud. Hundreds of people were holding up their mobile phones taking videos of a woman on the stage singing into a microphone.

At one point we went down a side street looking for a lavatory and ducked into Café Nho on John Street. The coffee that arrived in a paper cup had a dry taste, as though it had been made from freeze-dried granules. The cup was mainly filled with ice and I only took a few sips before the drink was finished. My friend had a pennywort drink that was dark green in colour and that came in a plastic container with a rounded cap that had a hole in it to allow a straw to stick out. There were half-a-dozen other patrons in the café and the stereo played sentimental music with Vietnamese lyrics. One of the songs playing while we were in the shop sounded like a Japanese love ballad from the 1980s. Behind us, TV screens were mounted on both end walls of the room. They showed Manchester United Television and it was all sport.

The video feed matched the tone of the place however, and very much embodied the feeling you had when you were on the street: all that youth congregated in one place to enjoy the spring night. The festival we were helping to celebrate is also called the “mid-autumn festival” and it is scheduled to fall on the day of the year when daylight and darkness are equal in length: the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. Wikipedia says that the festival is associated with the harvest and that it became popular in China during the Tang dynasty (I wrote a post about Tang poetry here on 16 September). In Japan the festival is known as “otsukimi”; “o” is a subject marker, “tsuki” means “moon”, and “mi” means “look at”.

Back on the street we walked past kiosks that had been set up on the carriageway, which had been closed to vehicular traffic. One was covered with four-colour printed posters showing the faces of politicians Frank Carbone and Dai Le. Another kiosk was selling Turkish “gozleme”, which is flatbread and pastry with savoury fillings. Fireworks were being set off at two points on an adjacent street, the reports loud in the air like shots from rifles. Missiles lofted invisible into the air and exploded in a variety of colours, making bright flowers in the black sky. People stood facing the spectacle.

Another kiosk sold cold drinks in plastic containers served with straws. There was a kiosk staffed by people from the Amitabha Buddhist Association of New South Wales. As I took a photo of the blue banner with white lettering that was attached to the front of the structure, a woman standing in front of it invited me to look at the books and videos they were giving away. Three police walked south along the carriageway through the restless crowd: two uniformed men and one uniformed woman. Fairfield City Council website says that 90,000 people attended the previous year’s festival and I guessed there was a similar number on the night we visited.

We bought a plastic-wrapped red-bean mooncake for a few dollars and the two of us ate half of it each. It had a scalloped edge and in its form resembled a multi-petalled flower. It had a delicate, floury taste and the filling was semi-sweet.

At the station we tapped on with our Opal cards and proceeded to the platform. I cast a glance at the video display and saw that a service was soon to arrive. “Three minutes,” I said to my friend. A group of teenagers was skylarking on the platform to the west of where we stood. One of the station staff blew his whistle at them, and another one walked toward them to tell them to take care because of the anticipated train. As it pulled up at the platform I asked a third Sydney Trains employee if it was heading to the city centre and he confirmed that it was.

We stepped on and headed down the stairs to where the seats are lined up. Three young people also got on and sat down across the aisle next to us on two three-seat benches that were facing each other. There were two teenage boys and one teenage girl. They talked among themselves and got off a few stations later but at Punchbowl a married Pakistani-Australian couple got on the train and sat talking in the seats they had vacated, until they in turn got off at Lakemba. At one point during their conversation, the woman proprietorially tapped her husband on his left leg to get his attention. She wore a hijab and the man had thongs on his feet.

Later, a group of six people aged in their twenties got on the train and sat down in the same seats, talking among themselves in animated Spanish for the whole of their journey. There were five men and a woman. At Dulwich Hill the woman kissed all the men on the cheek to say goodbye and got off the train, and one of the men got off at St Peters. The train’s guard got out onto the platform at each station we stopped at on the journey, checking the doors for passengers and giving his whistle a blow when he saw they were clear of passengers. He was solidly-built and wore shorts and his booth was located in the same carriage we rode in. The rest of the Spanish-speakers got off with me when I alighted at Central Station.

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