In this month’s post, we feature the work of historian Stephen Gapps, who in 2011 won the NSW Premier’s History Award for Regional and Community history with his publication ” Cabrogal To Fairfield: A History of a Multicultural City“. The following chapter is taken directly from his research as he delves into the rich and multicultural heritage of Fairfield City :
‘Around here you have a lot of Buddhist temples’
Of importance to migrant groups when settling in any area has been finding sites—or building them—to practise their religions.
The increasing number of churches and places of worship that expanded in the 1970s continued through the 1980s and ’90s. The Congregational Christian Church of Samoa, the Chaldean Catholic Church of St Thomas the Apostle, the Spanish Gospel Church, Chinese Presbyterian Church, Arabic Baptist Church, Australian Indian Christian Fellowship, ‘Ekklesia’ Spanish Church and Chung Chen Chinese Christian Church, among many others, all developed, built, converted or re-used buildings as places of worship during this period.
From the 1980s, the Vietnamese and Khmer communities very quickly established temporary Buddhist temples in Fairfield. A Vietnamese temple was built at Canley Vale and a Khmer Buddhist Temple at Bonnyrigg in 1990. With the leadership of the Buddhist monk, the Most Venerable Tich Phuoc Hue, who escaped Vietnam by boat in 1980, the Phuoc Hue Temple was built in 1991 at Wetherill Park and became a centre for migrant settlement and welfare assistance.
In fact, the Phuoc Hue Temple had existed from around 1980 in a rented residence on Hamilton Road in Fairfield. In 1982, with rapidly growing numbers, the congregation purchased premises in Landon Street. However, these temporary quarters were never satisfactory. As congregation member Chuc Tanh recalled, members were constantly aware that their temple was in an urban area and that on significant occasions such as Vesak Day or the Lunar New Year, their congregation often numbered in the thousands. Thanh noted that members were aware that ‘this number of cars parking in the streets … would soon invite the protest from the neighbourhood and eventually the local council’.
For several years the Vietnamese Buddhist Congregation of Australia struggled to negotiate a different location for their temple. Eventually, with a state government repayment assistance scheme and after a visitto the Land and Environment Court, a block of land was purchased— albeit in an industrial area.
Many other temples and places of worship began to appear in the area’s industrial or commercial districts. The Khmer community had been renting a ‘run-down cottage’ in Fairfield until a tract of Housing Commission land at Bonnyrigg was offered to them to construct a temple. Bonnyrigg resident and Khmer migrant Thin Em recalled the ‘big celebration’ that accompanied the Wat Khemarangsaram opening. Built on a prominent ridge adjacent to the Bonnyrigg Plaza, the ‘temple’ is part of a ‘cultural centre’ including management offices, monks’ residences and a community hall.
As Thin Em noted, in the 1980s the ‘neighbourhood’ of Bonnyrigg and wider Fairfield was not quite used to seeing pagoda-style temple buildings, but with the construction of so many other diverse religious buildings in the area, it has become ‘more understanding and accepting’. Bonnyrigg is also home to the Australian Chinese Buddhist Society’s Mingyue Temple. Land for the temple was first purchased in 1982, the foundations were laid in 1987 and the temple opened in 1990. With rich decorations and traditional Chinese Buddhist artwork, several smaller temples and other rooms now contrast with the original ‘small fibro building’.
The once-rare sight of a temple in the Bonnyrigg and Edensor Parkareas—in which there is also a Lao Buddhist temple and a Turkish mosque—had become quite common. Within a decade, at the opening of the Minh Quang Buddhist Monastery at Canley Vale in 2005, the Venerable Thich Minh Hieu was to note that ‘around here you have a lot of Buddhist temples’.
In many ways, just like the early Baptist, Catholic and other churches in the Smithfield, Fairfield and Cabramatta areas in the 19th century, temples were largely created from fundraising activities. The Laotian community held banquets during the 1980s to raise funds for their temple. Their Lao banquets also had ‘displays of handicrafts’, dinner, drinks and entertainment. Not a great deal had changed from the fundraising functions of the district’s early churches—although the ‘traditional Lao food, served with sticky rice in a bamboo basket’would have raised some of the early Baptists’ bushy eyebrows.
By the 1990s the Laotian community in the Fairfield area had grown to number over 3,000. Another Indo-Chinese community to settle in the area during the 1980s were the Cambodians. The Cambodian migration and settlement in Fairfield was similar to the Vietnamese: many first went to Villawood Migrant Hostel and then took up flats or houses in and around Cabramatta. So too the Khmer community settled in large numbers and also built Buddhist temples at Bonnyrigg and Cabramatta. All these Indo-Chinese migrants describe the close-knit nature of their communities. Family and community were very much linked; as one Cambodian woman described it, ‘Cambodian people always moved in with each other’.
[Source: Cabrogal To Fairfield: A History of a Multicultural City/Stephen Gapps, pp. 413-415]