Melbourne Culture: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Melbourne is not really a tourist city. It doesn’t have iconic must-see sights like Sydney, and it’s quite difficult for the newcomer to orient themselves in the city centre as it doesn’t have an obvious central focal point. But where the city comes into its own is in its offerings of culture and lifestyle; it is home to a thriving restaurant scene, world class museums and galleries, and iconic sporting events like the Australian Open and the Melbourne Cup. During my first few weeks here I sampled as much as my time and wallet would allow, and I experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of what Melbourne has to offer.

The Good: the Paris Cat

Melbourne has a lively music and performance scene, which I sampled at the Paris Cat, one of several jazz clubs in the city. It was exactly what you’d imagine a small jazz club to be; a basement room with soft lighting, small round tables with red candles, and portraits of jazz greats on the walls. The bar along the back sold fancy cocktails and the small stage opposite was simple and intimate; it was, as the Fast Show would put it, nice.

I was there to see ‘In Our Own Words’, a one-off set of Joni Mitchell songs reinterpreted by a local jazz quartet led by Melbournian Erica Bramham. I tend to think of Joni Mitchell as a folk musician and hadn’t really appreciated how jazzy some of her music is, so I wasn’t sure quite what to expect, but it was a bit of a revelation. The quartet revisited some of more well-known tunes adding new harmonies and smooth and interesting solos, as well as some songs that were completely new to me. It was a really nice combination of familiar and new, classic and innovative and, like any good cover or reinterpretation, it gave me plenty to think about when I re-listened to the original material.

The Bad: the Melbourne International Comedy Festival

A few weeks before I went to a slightly less impressive show during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I don’t mean to say the whole festival is bad by any means; it has a very good reputation, drawing huge audiences with big names including Brits Al Murray, Tim Vine and Ross Noble (who incidentally is married to an Australian and lived outside Melbourne for several years). But I didn’t go to a big-name show with an audience of hundreds; I went to see El Jaguar in a tiny room with a capacity of about thirty, because tickets were buy one get one free. This should have been my first clue.

I should say at this point that I’m not a big fan of live comedy, because I feel so much pressure to laugh when they tell A Joke. As a fairly awkward person I can’t think of anything more excruciating than the horrible silence after a joke fails, so I find myself awkwardly laughing when I don’t find it funny, which makes me feel like a crazy person and makes me feel sad for the comic. In addition, this is all unpinned by an intense, crippling fear of getting picked on by the act to talk or god forbid come up on stage.

So imagine my horror when my group of six walked into the room to find that we made up half of the audience, and that the one-man show was made up primarily of audience interaction and improvisation. The comic, dressed like a Mexican wrestler in a mask and leotard for absolutely no reason, spent most of the hour talking to the twelve audience members and trying to make the conversations funny. If you’re thinking it seems like a high-risk strategy to rely on your audience to provide the material, you’d be right. It was occasionally amusing, often awkward, and totally excruciating. And for reasons I cannot fathom, the rest of the audience seemed to really enjoy it.

The Ugly: the Melbourne City Dumpling Walking Tour

Much more my kind of thing was my birthday present from my sister, a walking tour of the city tasting dumplings at four Asian restaurants. My guide was Monique Bayer, writer, tour guide and general foodie, who lead us around the CBD telling us the history of Melbourne generally and Chinatown specifically, interspersed with foodie recommendations and anecdotes. I spent a lovely evening trying to use chopsticks and making a mess, dropping dumplings into the sauce, eating dumplings whole and generally being an ugly, messy eater.

Thanks to Victoria’s gold rush in the 1850s, Melbourne has the second largest Chinatown in a western country after San Francisco, so the Asian food options in the city centre are many and varied. Monique took us to four restaurants, three Chinese and one Japanese, each serving a different kind of dumpling from a different region.

First stop was North East China Family where we tried steamed vegetable dumplings, reportedly the best veggie dumplings and Melbourne, which we ate with black vinegar, as is traditional (dumplings and soy sauce is a Japanese custom apparently) and chilli sauce. At our second stop, China Red, we had pork dumplings served in a Szechuan chilli sauce, and learned why food from the Szechuan region is famous for being the hottest in China. People often think the Szechuan peppercorns provide this heat, but in fact the peppercorns have a numbing, almost anesthetic effect on the mouth, allowing the tastebuds to cope with that much more chilli.

Our third stop was Shanghai Street, a small local chain where we tried Xiao Long Bao, large steamed dumplings filled with pork and a clear soup. These were definitely the most difficult and unattractive dumplings to eat; holding the dumpling on a spoon, you bite off a small corner of the dumpling wrapper and slurp out the soup, before dipping the rest in chilli black vinegar and stuffing it in your face. We ended our night in Gyoza Douraku, listening to J-Pop and eating fried Japanese dumplings filled with duck and aubergine.

I had been expecting the tour to be full of visitors like me, but it says it all that the other four participants were all Melbournians. People who live here are all about getting out and enjoying and learning about their city, and their enthusiasm is quite infectious. I came away with a lot more recommendations to add to my list of restaurants to try, as well as a comprehensive explanation of why Melbourne is far superior to Sydney. As I was heading there the next day for a weekend trip, I was looking forward to seeing for myself.

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