Finally, the moons line up and I’m in the right place at the right time. Manuel only comes in on Tuesdays to the travel agency. The girl at the desk says he’s definitely the right person to talk to if I want to hear a Portuguese story. Manuel is attending to what looks like an old and loyal customer. I wait for a little while, thumbing through the package tours to New Zealand and Tasmania. These tours seems uniquely unappealing to me. Thousands of dollars blown in a fortnight where your every move is circumscribed. And what’s more, you have to pay a “singles supplement” as a punishment for not having a travelling companion!
Manuel waves me over. “So, why me?” he teases. “Why me?” And before I can answer, he launches into a long joke about a famous football player who also asks “Why me?”, when there’s a stadium full of eighty thousand fans, not to mention twenty two footballers and two referees. I wont spoil it by revealing the punchline. If you pass by on a Tuesday you might be able to hear it for yourself.
I explain how I’ve been passed on by Anthony from the bottlo. Anthony told me that Manuel’s former real estate business was pivotal in the Portuguese history of the ‘sham.
That’s true, he says. More or less, this is how it went.
Manuel came to Petersham in the late seventies. At that time, he recalls, there were only about half a dozen Portuguese families here. But before long, he had employed a girl to work full time, sitting right there (he points to the position now occupied by his son Gill, facing the shop door) specifically providing assistance and advice to the growing ranks of Portuguese locals.
Before coming to Petersham, Manuel ran a real estate agency in Paddington, specialising in finding homes for Portuguese immigrants. In those days, a lot of Portuguese folks lived around Paddington and Surry Hills, and in some of the eastern suburbs like Randwick and Maroubra. They came to Australia often not knowing a shred of English, and Manuel provided more than just a commercial service for them. He helped with filling out forms, opening bank accounts, securing jobs. Whatever skills they had, their lack of English meant most of the new immigrants were destined to become “factory fodder”. Many worked for the Water Board. There was a huge shirt factory in Paddington which employed hundreds of ladies. Oxford Street was a Portuguese hub in the early seventies, and in those days, Manuel ran the Portuguese language newspaper, O’Portugal, from an office on Taylor Square.
Towards the end of the seventies, Manuel transferred his business out here to New Canterbury Road. His customers followed. Although Paddington was still cheap back then, a lot of the Portuguese had agricultural backgrounds, and they liked the idea of having a backyard where they could grow their own vegies. The proximity to Manuel’s services were another drawcard. One by one, the neighbourhood (especially around Audley, Oxford, Albert Streets – the south-eastern corner of the ‘sham) began to fill in.
These days, the community seems to be moving further out – Earlwood is a new centre, again due to the lure of cheaper and larger plots of land. But Petersham has “stuck”, and become the place most identified with the Portuguese people in Sydney.
I begin to get the idea that Anthony has definitely put me onto the right guy. I ask Manuel whether he’s always had a sense of responsibility to help others. It seems he’s played a key social role. “Well, he says, “you know, in those days, there were no decent government services to help out immigrants. We had to do it ourselves. I felt a duty to do something for the community.” That’s not to say he didn’t benefit himself: “In the late 1960s, we saw the possibility of a niche market. It came out of recognising a need for finding places to live.”
Manuel tells me a little New Canterbury Road real estate history. “You see over there” he says, indicating the southern side of the road, where the chicken shops now trade, “well, back in the seventies, you couldn’t give it away. But the same size building on this side was worth a lot.” It’s all to do with the vagaries of passing trade. Now, the chicken shops lure customers across the street, but it’s still considered the less lucrative side.
In fact, there are still a lot of empties on New Canterbury. It’s odd. Half the places seem to be thriving, the other half can’t find a tenant at all.
Manuel tells me plenty more stories. Portuguese politics, intellectual exiles, personal histories. I spend over an hour with him, listening to his soft voice in the travel agency. His son Gill is the boss now, but Manuel comes in on Tuesdays to look after certain clients and keep an eye on things.
Before I leave, Manuel says he thinks it’s good to be able to learn from each other. We can’t know everything ourselves, can we? And although life is good now, and we’re richer than before, he still looks back on the seventies as a golden period. “That was really Australia back then. Now, this place is like anywhere else in the world. OK, maybe we’ve improved in terms of quality of life. But we’ve paid the price with the quality of our relationships.”
“Anyway,” he says, “Perhaps I’ve talked long enough. I think you might have got more than you bargained for, eh?”