Finding ghosts and inspiration in Chinatown

By Tristan Davies, Melbourne Heritage Action

It’s mid-afternoon in Melbourne and I’m surrounded by the familiar heritage buildings in Chinatown, though without much time to appreciate them.

In a rush on the way to a workout before an appointment, I decide to take a shortcut via Brein Lane, which leads from Little Bourke St into Bourke flanked by unassuming bricks and concrete.

What was meant to be a quicker way to a place is interrupted by a mysterious printout glued into a nook in the wall caught by the corner of my eye. An official looking worksheet form for the “Hyperart Thomasson Report” turns out to be a street-art project instructing me to look around my surroundings.

It’s then as a look that I realise the boring nook is a bricked up window of what was once a Gospel Hall, curiously positioned in a tight laneway. Then another ghost sign appears for some kind of cabinetmaker, a popular trade in the Chinatown 100 years ago.

While a quick Google on my smartphone doesn’t reveal anything about the Gospel Hall’s odd position, I can see that the building I’m looking up at has a front entrance in the next laneway, with a 90s era pool and arcade game hall still inside.  Perhaps this is where the hall was, and perhaps one day it will change into a refurbished laneway bar.

Following a few more links I discover that the lane is named after a long vanished pub, the hangout place for Frenchmen who fled to Australia after the failed Paris Commune of 1871, around the same time this building was constructed.

Putting the phone away I walk along the concrete wall on the other side of the lane, round the corner into my gym – housed in the now heritage-listed brutalist Hoyts Cinema Centre at the Bourke St end of Brein Lane.

Once again it hits me that heritage protection isn’t about keeping our city static and museum-like. It’s about allowing it to evolve through a history we can discover through technology we all carry around the city – brought to life by creativity, adventure and the liveability that heritage precincts also give us.

Maybe I’ll skip the treadmill and briskly walk through more laneways instead.

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