I went along to the State Library to meet Chrissi Theodosiou who together with Tony Risson are the two co-curators of the exhibition entitled" Meet me at the Paragon". The exhibition is due to open on the 27th of September and it will be on until the 15th of March 2020.
I started our conversation by asking Chrissi what was the inspiration for this exhibition. She explained that in the course of Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame of 2016, QUT awarded a Fellowship to Toni Risson to explore the history and the occurrence of Greek cafes in Brisbane. "Toni had already written a book about this subject which took in most of Queensland so she was definitely the best person for the job and with my Greek background I could actively co-curate this fascinating exhibition with her." For more information on Toni's work, click here.
Toni Risson's book
Part of the rationale, Chrissi noted, was to explore more fully the contribution of migrant groups to the way the city, and Queensland in general, has developed and to make it known to the wider community.
The Greek community also need to be made aware of the important role they played and to understand the significance of taking out valued family heirlooms from dusty cupboards and make them available to the institutions like the State Library which can happily share them or put them on display for everyone to appreciate.
Chrissi explained that the timeline for putting this exhibition together has been approximately 12 months and she is very excited to be actually putting it in place in the next few days as it nears its opening. The exhibition will be themed with a historical and social context and many items will be on display, some of which have been generously donated by Greek families and others which are in the archives of the State Library. We can look forward to seeing the Menus, old photographs of the cafes, crockery and neon signs and more. We will be able to read some specific stories of Greek families who owned and operated the cafes.
Chrissi gave me an overview of how the cafes came into being, starting from about 1918 just after the first world war and extending to the 1940s when with the arrival of television the cafes started to decline. They were hugely influenced by similar cafes, which had been started up by fellow Greeks in America, (at that time regarded as the land of milk and honey,) where immigrants went in search of a better life. Fellow Greeks, perhaps even relatives saw this new trend and brought it to Australia, starting with the so called Oyster Bars which appeared first in Sydney and then came to Queensland. Oysters were very plentiful then and did not have the significance of a luxury item of food. Oysters were just one part of seafood which was on offer. For many of the cafes, oysters and fish and chips formed the basis of their menu.
The cafes were fitted out in a luxurious and modern way. chrome fittings, washable coloured plastic seating and booths, bright lights and Formica tables. Whole families worked there as they offered meals 24/7. The women were often relegated to the kitchen and would have the children to look after as well as producing meals for hungry Australians. They worked tirelessly and of course, one of the main reasons was to allow their children a better life, a life where education could take them away from the never-ending work of the cafes.
Chrissi points out that each regional town had a cafe, often in a very central location and all members of society used them. Working men, as well as young people, would meet there and share a meal or a milkshake, which grew in popularity, as did Soda Fountains and other convenience foods copied from America. They were the social hubs of so many towns.
I am very much looking forward to this exhibition, which will be open and free to all. Everyone in Queensland born at a certain time will have an abiding memory of Greek cafes and the central role they played in the social network of the whole community. This exhibition strives to show us how widespread and successful they were, in those difficult years. Chrissi and Toni have collected valuable archival material and brought it together for us all to enjoy.