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May 04

Bright Lights

Denise linked to this article which has a blurb saying, “People move to Sydney seeking fortune and opportunity in the bright lights. But many leave despondent, friendless and fed up with living a shallow existence.”

I found it peculiar to read Sydney being described as a “hard city”, full of superficiality, materialism and hard knocks. After all, Sydney is still Australian, and the Aussie lifestyle is generally laid back and less rushed than most other industrialised countries. Shops still close at 5pm.

I haven’t spent a significant amount of time in a foreign city, but I would say that Sydney doesn’t approach anywhere near the “hardness” of other “global cities”. New York, for instance, emasculates Sydney in terms of this. Property prices are extreme, people there are snappy, and it’s a pretty intimidating city that unmistakeably means business. A friend who attended Columbia Uni there told me of how when he first moved to NY, he had to rent out a small one-bedroom apartment while waiting for campus accommodation. He shared the apartment with a friend, paying US$700/mo for a hole in a ghetto area.

Even Singapore, which is smaller than Sydney, projects a “harder” lifestyle. Life is faster, people stress more, and status is a key part of society. Singaporeans ooze materialism. Few Sydney-siders would brazenly ask questions like “How much do you earn?” and “Is your family rich?” to people they’ve just met. There’s even an age old apothegm there which dictates what every Singaporean needs, called the “5 Cs”: credit card, cash, car, condominium and country club membership. (Well, that’s actually 7 Cs, but who’s counting?) There’s superficiality for you, and it’s a product of the city’s culture.

Judging how friendly a city is can be misleading. You only meet a handful of people when you’re in a city, and you have good and bad days. Although the article claims it’s hard to make friends in Sydney, Sydney proved it could be friendly during the Olympics. A small city isn’t necessarily friendly. Another friend claimed that Adelaide, which is really just a really big country town, “freaked him out” because the people there were pretty rude. I didn’t find that the case. But then again, I found Parisiennes helpful and the Swiss obnoxious. It’s just a matter of personal experience.

One overriding factor is that you’re normally going to feel more at ease in a city you’ve grown up in. If you’ve moved from another city, then you’ll feel more comfortable with people who have also come from your home city. You grow up feeling attached to a city’s character. The densely packed crowds and constant hustle and bustle of activity in Hong Kong is an endearing part of the city for its residents. It’s something they’ve got used to, and Honkies who have moved to Sydney may understandably find the relative quiet here quite boring. Conversely, the opposite is true.

However, I would agree that Sydney is probably becoming more materialistic and consumerism is more pervasive. Fashion is a bigger issue than it was ten years ago. Cuisine here has blossomed. Perhaps it’s just the natural process of a city becoming more “global”, and thus by extension, more “globally aware”. I love Sydney, but that’s not a revelationary statement coming from a Sydney-sider.

(Shrapnel, I know you’ve been in Sydney for a few months now – how do you find it compared to Vancouver?)

This post has 8 comments

1.  Shrapnel

Hey Inferno! I found that blurb quite strange! I find Sydney quite laid back compared to large cities in North America. For example, banks here don’t open on weekends… banks in Vancouver are open are open on Saturday and some even close at 8pm. I have family in New York and life there is just mad.

I can agree with the ‘revolving door’ statement. The real estate biz in Sydney is pretty crazy though and I don’t have hard data but it feels like there really are more people coming in and out of Sydney than Vancouver. It does seem like a lot of people I meet in Sydney aren’t originally from Sydney… but maybe that’s because of the fact that I’m in Uni here and I’m seeing a biased sample size.

In Sydney, I see help wanted signs everywhere. This isn’t true in Vancouver. Sydney is a much larger city than Vancouver- I think about twice as large population wise.

I find the level of friendliness here in Sydney compared to Vancouver relatively the same though. You meet good people and bad people.

The bit about materialism and fashion I found funny though. A lot of young males in Sydney wear shirts un-ironed… back in Vancouver, that’s a total no-no. It’s great… I don’t have to iron anymore. And the messy hair things seems to be the ‘in’ thing in Sydney.

I guess from the article’s standpoint, Sydney would be the ‘harsher’ city out of the other major cities in Australia. The only other major city I’ve been to in Australia so far is Brisbane… I didn’t stay long enough to take everything in but they do have wider streets up there. :)

I found this statement in the article really odd: “There was almost an excess of leisure time, where I wasn’t achieving anything.” An excess of leisure time??? Who would ever complain about having too much free time!??!!

2.  Kev

While I agree that Sydney is not as materialistic, tough etc as other global cities, if you’re not middle class, city raised and private schooled it can be a pretty hard slog, especially in the friends department. It goes without saying that the old boys network is still a pretty strong undercurrent in Sydney.

Is a city friendly just because they can host a bloody good Olympics – a short term event? That’s like saying Bank ABC is friendly because they gave us a really nice dinner while they were trying to sell their services to us. Friendship surely is deeper and more long term.

Of course it’s all relative and people who do not fall into the group above generally have not been fortunate enough to have been overseas to experience other cities. Sydney is pretty materialistic for a lot of people. While questions about wealth are not as direct as in Singapore, the inevitable “Where do you live?” is sure to feature in the first few “get to know you” questions. It’s ok if you live in the East or the North, but you can always see the uncertainty and insecurity when “Campbelltown” or “Penrith” is the answer.

To conclude, Sydney is a great place if you are lucky enough to have the support networks, breeding etc, especially when compared to other global cities, but is a damn hard place to live if you don’t.

3.  Shrapnel

I have a technical question: Is Campbelltown and Penrith still considered part of ‘Sydney’?

i.e. I thought Sydney pretty much ended once you get past Camperdown?

Because Vancouver is TEENY if Penrith is considered part of Sydney.

The Lower Mainland (the regoin Vancouver is in) has a lot of farmland once you get out of the urban area.

But don’t all cities have their ‘Redfern’ ish areas?

In many places, not just big cities, it’s about who you know. I don’t think Sydney is any worse than Vancouver or Toronto in that respect.

4.  Kev

Relative to the rest of the world, Sydney is certainly not as ‘tough’. My point is that those who have not had the opportunity to go overseas have no way of knowing this – all they see is middle class / lower class, rich Sydney / poor Sydney.

To a lot of people, Sydney is merely the CBD, the East and the North Shore. This has recently been termed “global” Sydney because of relatively higher household incomes, more professional workers, greater integration with the global economy etc. However, technically Sydney extends as far south-west as Campbelltown and as far west as Penrith. They are part of the urban sprawl.

Campbelltown and Penrith are nothing compared to Redfern. I used them as examples because they are relatively well known due to their convenient ‘westie’ stereotypes. Any suburb west of Campberdown is still relatively marginalised in the eyes of those in the East and the North. I would go so far as to generalise that if you’re from global Sydney you probably think Sydney rocks. If you’re not, it’s tough.

5.  Shrapnel

Point taken.

Curious though… Sydney is big if it goes that far… does one mayor run that entire area???

The whole suburb thing is something I don’t understand at all…..

Vancouver is extremely small in comparision land wise and population wise.

Is there some kind of ‘politics of Sydney for dummies’ that I can read somewhere?

6.  Stu

Greater Sydney has about 4 million people. Roughly, it covers the land within a 50km radius of the CBD. Campbelltown and Penrith are on the outskirts of Sydney, near the border between what’s classified as “rural” and what’s “urban”. Sydney itself is broken into suburbs. When you write an address and put down a town/suburb, you don’t write Sydney unless you’re referring to the Sydney CBD.

Each suburb is a region within Sydney. They are vaguely analogous to the boroughs of New York. Eg, you have The Rocks, Pyrmont, Glebe, Haymarket, Ultimo and so on as suburbs surrounding the CBD.

Local councils (each having a mayor) may span one or several suburbs (such a grouping is sometimes called a municipality. For councils further out from the city, municipalities may be called shires, which cover a larger land area due to the lower population density).

For example, Bankstown City Council governs suburbs including Bankstown, Punchbowl, Sefton, Padstow, Revesby and so on.

There is a list of councils here.

How large is Vancouver?

7.  Avi

I can’t help but laugh at the sheer ignorance of the writer about foreign countries such as Singapore, it has become quite a sterotype about Singaporeans openly asking about ones income, let me assure the ignorant this is rubbish, unless you want to count the 0.2 percent of the elder population who have a different definition of whats proper and improper, this 0.2 percent can be found in any country in the world. It is true though that Singaporeans strive to achieve social success but if they did not than such a small country such as it would not survive, there are no natural resources, no land area, the only thing it has is people, if they had a loser attitude to relax and take it easy, Singapore’s economy would collapse. Aussies can afford to take it a little easier, they have many other means of being considered successful, such as sports which they are brilliant in.

8.  Stu

I wouldn’t confuse the Aussie “laid back” and “taking it easy” culture (which you seem to be equating with a “loser attitude”) with being lazy or not striving for “social success”. It is little known, perhaps because of this conception, that Australians are rated by the OECD as one of the hardest working nations (more than most Asian countries, in fact), with over 20% of its workforce working greater than 50 hour weeks. Materialism does not correlate with “social success” (as ambiguous as that term is), nor how prosperous a country is. Materialism is a by-product of the culture and what its citizens perceive to be important in life. If Sydney is becoming more materialistic, it shows an unfortunate shift in cultural values, but not necessarily a corresponding increase in prosperity.

My observations on Singaporean society stem from talking with relatives and general contact with Singaporeans. Even the Singaporean film industry has parodied the country’s relentless materialism (Xiaohai bu ben).

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