Brisbane – Fortitude Valley

My earliest memory of Brisbane’s inner-city area called “The Valley” was when my brave parents allowed me – a ten- or twelve-year-old boy – to jump on the Clayfield tram at the end of my grandfather’s street and ride the old rattler all the way – all twenty minutes or so, but still a huge adventure at the time – into The Valley to go to McWhirter’s fabulous department store (see featured image) to buy a new glove puppet.

  • Yes – Amundson and Buzz Aldrin had slightly more dramatic journeys … but this was a BIG THING for me in the 1950s – and perhaps the start of my lifelong love of theatre and travel

From then to now

The Valley takes its name from the ship Fortitude (1) that brought migrants to Brisbane in the late 1840s.  The area was quite some distance from the centre of Brisbane but soon became an area of high-end retail stores with TC Beirne (1898) and the magnificent Art Deco McWhirter’s department store built in 1903. 

Time moves on, of course, as public transport and public fancies change, and The Valley saw growing unemployment, an arson attack in 1973 on the Whisky au Go Go nightclub, and a growing number of brothels and illegal gambling joints.  This was probably no longer an area my parents would have allowed an innocent child to venture into without an armed guard or two.

Today sees a remarkably resurgent Valley – albeit one that has recently been hit by COVID 19 and with many shops closed and boarded up.  There are fashionable shops and bars here and there, and maintaining its slightly sleazy atmosphere there are also plenty of strip clubs, sex shops and topless dancer bars, but there are also tiny shops such as Practice Studio promoting original ethnic fashion designs, and restaurants featuring Chinese, Vietnamese, Nepali, Hong Kong and Thai food. 

Just about the only “topless” worker I could find at the Grosvenor Strip Club

Just up the road in Brunswick Street is the rather sad Life Factory that offers a cornucopia of trivial stuff, mainly cheap Chinese imported lanterns, Lunar New Year decorations and stuff that you could easily live without.  The huge store was staffed by a single, rather tired and rather bored looking person.  The store’s windows did not seem to have been cleaned for decades and many of the store’s flickering fluorescent lights were as tired and as bored and as inefficient as the sole check-out chick.

  • … with apologies to all who serve customers in all stores … but this woman’s total lack of engagement with customers (me!) and her total lack of interest in serving customers (me!) do, I think, justify my reducing her to a “check-out chick”

Shall we dance?

At the far North East corner of The Valley area is the wonderful Powerhouse theatre complex, which will soon host productions of Two Man Tarantino, The Producers and There’s Something About Music

The Powerhouse theatre complex from the Brisbane River

Built in 1927 as – aha!  You guessed! – as a powerhouse, this huge structure today houses several restaurants and bars, a huge theatre and several smaller studios and intimate theatres.  There is not a lot to remind patrons of the building’s past, but I chatted to a helpful theatre employee who directed me to the central hall where a huge hoist can still be seen, and to an adjacent area where the old electrical switch gear is still on view.

Cavernous lobby of The Powerhouse
Old electrical switching gear – relics from past days of The Powerhouse

On the ground floor I found two open doors and two smiling theatre workers in front of an entrance to the Powerhouse Theatre itself, so I strolled in to look at the theatre where several dancers rehearsing.  The same helpful theatre employee was no longer so helpful:

  • No!  You cannot come in here!  Go away!  Leave now!

I rather felt like telling him that if the theatre was off-limits then perhaps he should shut a door or two, and to direct exterior staff to request visitors NOT to go into open areas.

  • Ah well …

… but I did manage to glimpse the cavernous black interior of the Powerhouse Theatre and assorted dancers, and will try to return soon to see those dancers in action in one of the upcoming productions.

Dancing is also to be found at the Cloudland club in the heart of the Valley. 

Cloudland today – a far cry from the wonderful old Cloudland

When I was at university, the original Cloudland was a marvellous party and formal dancing facility high on the slopes of Bowen Hills, overlooking the city.  Cloudland had a superb sprung floor and I am sure that when a couple of hundred dancers got their steps together, the floor heaved and jumped and pumped a good ten centimetres every second or so.  Dancers had to take time off to stroll the wide verandas, to look at the city below them … and perhaps to engage in various amatory pasttimes before returning to the heaving and jumping dance floors.

Sadly, this superb and historic ballroom was demolished without warning in the middle of the night in November 1982 to make way for some apartment buildings.

The heart of The Valley

The two pedestrian malls of the Valley are quite different, and this adds to the attraction of the area:  the Brunswick Street and China Town malls are just a block apart geographically but worlds apart emotionally.

One Mall

In Brunswick Street, dear old McWhirter’s is no longer an elegant shopping emporium. 

In its day I think it was was rather like Harrods or Saks Fifth Avenue; today it is a cluttered, tired space with a Dollars and Sense discount store, a Thai Laotian take-away food store and many more tired and rather depressing outlets.  My brother kept telling me that HERE there used to be SO SO and that THERE there used to be THAT THAT … but today it is all rather jaded.  Such a pity.

Fortitude Valley Music Hall
Music Hall performers

Just up the road from McWhirter’s is the (new?) Fortitude Music Hall, which is currently featuring the “Feed Me Friday Launch Party” with performers including Jordan Burns and Taleena.

  • I have never heard of these performers … but then again, I have barely heard of Justin Bieber, either …

At the top end of the Brunswick Street Mall is the lovely Royal George Hotel, built in the 1850s and formerly known by various names including the Bush and Commercial Inn, the Freemasons Arms and Ruddle’s Corner.  I don’t know who Ruddle was, but apparently Mr Ruddle ensured that this place was graced with the Valley’s largest beer garden.

Although the George Hotel’s Ric’s Café reminded me of Bogart’s Casablanca, the George and the nearby Empire Hotel have a very New Orleans feel.  It was not so much a feeling of Of all the gin joints in all the world … as of yahooing yobbos on the first-floor balconies calling down (euphemistically) to women in the streets:

  • Hey baby!  Show us your chest!

Some women – and even some men – would then hoist up their T-shirts to reveal their – umm – chests and the yahoos on the balcony would shower them with purple, gold and green garlands of plastic beads.

Patrons on the balconies of The Empress Hotel

I guess those who had the greatest collection of garish beads at the end of the night were able to claim fame for having the most endowed – umm – chests.

And another one

Chest (!) around the corner is the Chinatown Mall with a superb commemorative bronze bell marking the entrance and remembering all the Chinese Australians who have helped Australia in many wars.  The bell and the “fish scale” creek lead down into the mall proper, and when I visited this area the Chinese Lunar New Year was being celebrated.  Queensland’s Governor – His Excellency the Honourable Paul de Jersey AC – was there watching a lion dance or two, and hundreds of non-COVID visitors watched him watching the dragon dance.

B Lucky and Sons – Pawnbrokers, Bars and Gaming

Foo dogs and a traditional red Chinese gate mark the mall, and B Lucky and Son have a large store in the TC Beirne Lane that links the two malls.  This tiny lane has some delightful historical reminders, but I think Mr B Lucky and his offspring remind us that gaming machines, pawn shops and plenty of alcohol are a great way of passing the time.

Spectators and walkers in Chinatown Mall
Chinese New Year Dragon Dancers

This time it was the Year of the Ox – my year – as every twelve years from 1949 is also “my” year in the Chinese chronology.  The ox is a symbol of diligence, honesty, reliability, stability, perseverance, power … and stubbornness.  Yep.  That’s me!  Well – stubborn, at least.

Cathedral Village and the Kinky Kloset

When I lived in Brisbane fifty or so years ago, there was a hole in a small hill on the South Western side of the Valley, near All Hallows’ school. 

Inside this hole there was a tiny chapel that was meant to be the forerunner of a new Roman Catholic cathedral in the city of Brisbane.  I believe that the church ran out of funds to create the new church and the hole – and the chapel – have now been chomped up by the massive Cathedral Village residential site with massive towering apartment buildings and office blocks and shopping areas.

St Matthew says that one cannot serve god and mammon, but I rather feel that the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Brisbane has done just that …

The towering apartment blocks of Cathedral Village, and of other parts of the Valley, are gobbling up this inner-city area, causing shadows to fall over such lovely places as the Life Factory.

I am sure that as the area becomes more “gentrified” the low-cost shops and the sex shops and the Kinky Kloset will be forced to shut their doors forever … as IKEA and Country Road and boutique shopping emporia (shops?  Nay!  Never just “shops”!) will spring up like mushrooms from the decay of a once-rich and once-seedy and once -fun inner-city area … and make it just like all the other “desirable residential” areas of the city.

The Greaser – a side-alley bar and club

Hand puppets?

When I was a kid I had several glove or hand puppets – crudely shaped heads attached to  loose sacks of cloth I could use to form “arms” and a “body” to tell tales:  think of Punch and Judy in traditional English country fairs.  The one I bought at McWhirter’s shop in the 1950s or 1960s I used in puppet shows at home – and charged neighbourhood kids sixpence to attend these extravaganzas.

How could I have envisaged how the Valley – and I – and The Powerhouse – would change so much in such a short time …?

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Text and photographs © Christopher Hall January 2021

Lion dance photograph from Internet

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In my blogs I try to present a snapshot of the places I have discovered during a brief visit.   I am not trying to present a detailed picture of the whole city or the whole region or the whole country.

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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.

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With thanks to my tour guide brother Paul for his expert local and historic knowledge.

Footnotes:

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