MANILA, APRIL 18, 2008
(STAR) THE X-PAT FILES By Scott R. Garceau - Melbourne has a bit of an inferiority complex.Unfairly, it seems, the city is held up and compared to its better-known, more cosmopolitan neighbor on the southeast coast, Sydney. If the latter has breathtaking Sydney Harbour, Melbourne has placid Yarra River gurgling through its midst. If Sydney has its iconic Opera House splattered on all those postcards, Melbourne is busy completing construction of its 120-meter Southern Star ferris wheel (admittedly inspired by London’s “Eye in the Sky”) to lure tourists. If Sydney bagged the 2000 Olympics, well, Melbourne has its, er, Crown Plaza Casino.

And that’s another curious thing about Melbourne. Its people are cheery, polite and justly proud of their city. It is known for its beautiful parks, its vast Royal Botanic Gardens. It has the historic Melbourne Cricket Ground and a Formula One Grand Prix Circuit. It has an artistic side expressed in modern museums, theaters, concert halls, and many cultural landmarks. Yet the place most people end up mentioning is the Crown Plaza Casino.

In the world spectrum of casinos, Crown Plaza is nothing special. The sign is a bit retro, suggesting the older strips of Vegas. It’s got several floors of gambling space, along with other diversions for kids and adults alike. The government takes a 30-percent cut from the casino proceeds, amounting to several hundred million Australian dollars per year. Many Asians are fond of gambling here.

Yet a gambling complex seems somehow incongruous in a city that values culture, learning (there are many students), good wine (from the fine vineyards to the south) and great food (lamb and beef, obviously); there are war memorials and museums documenting the immigrant experience in Melbourne, which began with a wave of Brits and Scots, then Italian and Greek arrivals in the mid-20th century, followed by Asians (mostly Chinese) throughout the past 70 years. There are even come-on ads printed by the government on the back of public tram brochures, enticing Asians to live and work in Melbourne (“Like Melbourne? Why not live here?”) and promising to help with their paperwork.

So a casino kind of sticks out like a glitzy thumb in the middle of all this.

But this shouldn’t make Melbourne feel like a second-rank cousin to Sydney. In fact, up until the early 20th century, Melbourne was the shipping and business capital of Australia — that is, until Sydney started throwing its weight around.

Now Melbourne is scrambling to lure more tourists (and more business conventions, as I witnessed recently on a visit hosted by the DOT and the Melbourne Convention and Visitors Bureau) in an effort to make the city seem as sexy as Sydney (that’s not in the business plan, it’s just an obvious vibe you get from some Melburnians).

And I wonder, what’s the point? Melbourne may be quieter, more sedate, but it can hold its own very well, thank you. For every flashy attraction Sydney offers, Melbourne has beautiful, spacious parks, a waterfront history that is fascinating, a down-to-earth approach to tourism that includes a free tram (the City Circle) that loops around the city to help visitors get acquainted. It’s even got parks and monuments named after a famous comic book crimefighter (actually, they’re named after John Batman, an early British surveyor of Melbourne). And let’s not forget: it’s got the largest casino in Australia.

It’s hard to ignore that casino, especially if you’re billeted at the Crown Plaza Hotel above it and must pass through its clanging “pokies” (slot machines) on a daily basis. Luck and chance, it seems, have always played a part in Melbourne’s fortunes — especially when it comes to the immigrant experience. Nick, our friendly driver in Melbourne, comes from Greek stock. His father, he tells us, got on a boat bound for Oz from his native country back in the war-torn ‘40s. The interesting thing is, his father had two boats to pick from: one heading for the US, and one for Australia. The whole fact of Nick’s existence rested on that choice — literally decided on a whim.

It’s not the only time I heard that kind of story from Melburnians. Another immigrant, Evelyn from the Philippines, decided to move to Australia instead of the US when she and her family emigrated here during the Marcos years. The reason? The wait for an Aussie visa was shorter at the time. So chance — never mind the roulette tables — is an important element in Australia’s history.

Another element in Melbourne’s history is the aboriginal experience. We are led along the banks of the Yarra in downtown Melbourne by Dean Stewart, education unit manager for the Koorie Heritage Trust, a large endowment set up to preserve aboriginal culture and teaching. Stewart is an actual aborigine, though you might overlook this fact on first glance: with his light-tan complexion, he is not what foreigners usually picture as a “native” Australian. “I’m not playing a didgeridoo, for one thing,” he notes. He tells us how dozens of “mobs” or clans of aborigines lived peacefully here on the banks of the Yarra for about 20,000 years — until a gold rush in the 1850s brought a “cultural tsunami” of Europeans to these banks. Stewart conducts these nature “walks” through downtown Melbourne — surrounded by concrete buildings and overpasses, construction sites, joggers and bicyclists, even a nearby helicopter pad — to remind people that “we are still here and part of this place. And so is the land.” To underscore the point, he asks us to close our eyes for 60 seconds and take in all the urban and industrial noise around us, and to try and imagine what it was like for aborigines living here before all the wonders of western civilization arrived. We do so, and — embarrassingly, it seems — there is absolutely no urban or industrial noise to be heard. Nothing. In fact, all we hear is a few birds twittering on a nearby lawn. So maybe things haven’t gone too far downhill for Melbourne.

Melbourne may boast about its cultural, “arty” side, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the local television stations. Sitting in my hotel room and channel flipping, I came across reruns of every American sitcom and crime show I thought had been lost to the annals of time — Married: With Children was there; Murder She Wrote; The A-Team. And, for some unfathomable reason, Hogan’s Heroes pops up every couple of hours on Melbourne TV. An American comedy from the ‘60s about crafty Allied POWs in a German prison camp, it stars erstwhile Family Feud host Richard Dawson and noted sex addict /murder victim Bob Crane. Melburnians can’t seem to get enough of their crazy antics. There is also Dirty Sanchez, a weird, local version of Jackass (maybe it should be called Jack-Oz) that makes Steve-O and Johnny Knoxville seem like total wimps. These guys hammer nails into their own heads! For laughs! So much for the influence of American television.

Another cultural phenomenon you notice in Melbourne is a general resurgence of mimes. Mimes turn up at events, in parks, on street corners. They’re apparently paid by people to mime, so there is obviously some economic incentive. And at least they’re not begging. (I didn’t see any beggars in Melbourne, nor did I see a single policeman. A local resident explained there’s very little crime on the streets, so police visibility is low, though “sometimes you’ll see them out looking for jaywalkers at lunch hour.” Maybe they could round up a few mimes, too.) The mime resurgence is not confined to Melbourne, of course. We have local versions here in the Philippines. There must be an Internet Mime University somewhere churning out online diplomas. One group of mimes — dressed in Edwardian costumes and walking on stilts(!) — accosted us as we descended the stairs of the Park Hyatt for a welcome breakfast where we were entertained by (really) a pint-sized Aussie version of Robbie Williams at 7:30 in the morning. This is why I am a dedicated culture vulture, by the way.

The mime problem got so serious that, by my second day, I was standing in front of a motionless man in a park who was wearing a Sgt. Pepper outfit and seemed on the verge of reading aloud from a parchment he held out in front of him. I took out my camera and waited for him to start performing. It took me several minutes — and some lingering shame — before I realized I had been staring intently at a public statue.

As I said, Melbourne has nothing to feel inferior about. There’s no shame in being a gentle, kind, eco-friendly cultural destination with a sense of community and historical past. It doesn’t need to compete with Sydney for all those business travelers, because it has plenty of nightlife to offer tourists — as long as those tourists don’t mind shops and malls closing up at 6 p.m. After all, there’s always the casino.

It doesn’t have to play second fiddle to Sydney’s charms, because it has up-to-date modern museums, fine beaches, thriving sports venues, over 4,500 restaurants to choose from and the ever-popular Queen Victoria Market offering fresh produce and tourist trinkets. As I said, it has nothing to feel bad about, and nothing to hide.

Except for those Hogan’s Heroes reruns. What’s up with that?

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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