Grave threat to farm in the heart of Sydney

Grave threat to farm in the heart of Sydney

On a vast stretch of lush green land in the heart of Sydney, Mr Robert Teng toils away to produce crops of fresh parsley and bok choy that are sold across the city.

It is hard labour but Mr Teng, 63, who was born in China's Guangdong province, has been gladly doing it virtually every day for 38 years, often aided by his wife, sons, daughter, mother-in-law and cousins.

He produces crops on a swathe of farmland known as the Chinese market gardens, which have been the domain of generations of Chinese families for almost a century.

"I like working here," says Mr Teng.

"I have continental parsley, shallots, radishes, Chinese vegetables - anything. They're good. They're clean - very clean."

The heritage-listed market gardens in the south-east suburb of La Perouse have become a much-loved feature of the city and have long sustained a community of migrant families who mainly came from Guangdong.

But the 7ha gardens - some of the oldest city gardens in the country - are now under threat.

A neighbouring, publicly owned cemetery is running out of space and wants to take over about 60 per cent of the land.

Meanwhile, property developers are eyeing the open space as a rare and potentially lucrative prize, just a 20-minute drive from the city centre.

But the threat to the gardens has caused a public outcry. They are owned by the New South Wales state government, which is under pressure to find land for the city's expanding cemeteries.

Hundreds of people have turned up at usually quiet council meetings to express support for the gardens or spoken out in the media.

A letter to The Sydney Morning Herald last week from Sydney resident Hendry Wan warned: "When pushing daisies comes to shoving bok choy, the dead mustn't be allowed to displace the living."

A Sydney historian, Ms Shirley Fitzgerald, told The Sunday Times that reducing the size of the market gardens or removing them altogether would be a "stunning loss".

"It is such an amazing sight to see them in the middle of a modern, 21st-century city," she said.

According to Ms Fitzgerald, the gardens were farmed originally by European settlers until Chinese migrants began working there in the early 1900s.

The migrant farmers over the years shifted from producing only vegetables favoured by Europeans such as celery and cabbage to crops such as Chinese broccoli, choy sum and coriander for the city's Asian community.

"The Chinese had special skills in gardening that the Europeans didn't," Ms Fitzgerald said.

"Over the decades they have introduced a layer of Chinese vegetables into the diets of Sydneysiders."

Mr Teng, labelled the "last man standing" by the local media, is now the only farmer left in the gardens.

Two other farmers, Mr Gordon Ha and his brother Terry, left their plot last year after their family had worked there for more than 80 years.

They were reportedly concerned about drainage issues and the farm's uncertain future.

The gardens' heritage listing does not prevent the state government from re-zoning the land.

The farms have long-term leases from the state government, which has not proposed alternative sites in the event that it takes back the land.

A member of the local Randwick Council, Mr Murray Matson, has been lobbying to preserve the gardens.

"The local community is fully behind it," he told The Sunday Times. "It is a piece of living history."

Mr Matson said supporters include Sydney's Chinese community, which sees the gardens as part of its heritage, and people who support local food supplies as a way to address climate change by reducing transport needs.

The state Department of Primary Industries told Fairfax Media on Aug 16 that it "acknowledges the heritage significance of the site and the strong community support", but it also needs to deal with Sydney's shortage of burial space.

One potential saviour is that the land may not suit the dead. Some locals have suggested it would not drain adequately for graves.

For now, Mr Teng is hoping to continue working the land but he admits to holding doubts about the future of his mint and parsley crops. "We are very worried," he said. "If this goes, my children will not have a good job. I worry - 100 per cent."

jonathanmpearlman@gmail.com


This article was first published on Aug 24, 2014.
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