Balmoral – Gateway to the East

I grew up in a village called Balmoral  where we wished, without a hint of masochism, that  the dentist’s drill  would  shriek; where we knew we were half-way to Hollywood when the cinema doorman took our tickets –  dressed in a tuxedo.

The ties that bound us there were literally stretched. For if we belonged to Balmoral, then we were also kin to a more youthful Mt Roskill in the South and, in the North, to the slightly decrepit Valley Road Shopping Centre. What joined us all was Dominion Road, a road we grew to believe, was like no other in Auckland.

It was, we kids were told, the straightest stretch in the whole darned city, (population then about 350,000). At the Mt Roskill Tram Terminus, where the tramlines ended, you could look down its length and see the rails shimmering all the way past Balmoral to Valley Road and further. Before the harbour bridge,   before East, West and South Auckland were developed, the road was the city’s major arterial to the central suburbs. Trams, fifth hand cars and bikes rode its length during the week.

In the hush that was Sunday, very little rumbled down its concrete flanks   because that was the tempo of Auckland as it slumbered in summers worthy of the name.

Balmoral was the middle-income, middle-ground on the road, as comfortable and familiar as an old sofa. Its shops reflected the accepted ethnic balance of the time: 99% Pakeha, one Chinese grocer down one end, and his rival in greens up the other. How all that has changed. Last month it culminated in a local debate about whether Balmoral should be called Auckland’s ‘China Town’.

A City Council commissioned report found that the China-born proportion of people living in Balmoral, grew from 5% in 1991, to 18% in 2013; that 61% of shop owners in Balmoral were Chinese, while Pakeha made up 13%. Balmoral’s Chinese business owners oppose the idea of the centre being called China Town because it would mark them being as different. Its Business Association Chairman Fang Hua says the owners want the area to be inclusive of all ethnicities.

New migrants have always congregated together to share information and experiences of their new land. It’s part of the journey to becoming Kiwi. And they aren’t the only people who can radically change the look and feel of an area – Pakeha have done a pretty good job as well. The former working class suburbs of Parnell, Ponsonby and Grey Lynn had mixed populations of Maori, Pakeha and Pacific islanders. The character of those ‘burbs disappeared as the Yups moved in and homogenised it.

But back to the old Balmoral. To any casual observer it’s still another drive through shopping centre, a journey to work and back home. It does look heavily Chinese but in fact the business owners have improved the look of the area with buildings painted in attractive colours, and signage in both English and Chinese.

In short it has a future which was something we never felt about old Balmoral which stood still. In the dawdle of the 50s, the place and its characters – the kind you’d find in any village – were unforgettable partly because we were so young.

There was the Barber of Balmoral. At first he refused to treat us to that fashion craze of the time, crew-cuts. Heaven forbid – that could lead to a slithery Brylcreemed slope, with kiss curls eventually to Bodgiedom and imitations of Elvis. As we sat in his leather chair wanting crew-cuts but often getting the short-back-and-sides of the time, he examined his work closely. And we examined him – and his schnoz – in ritual disbelief, for his nostrils were over an inch long. We could feel them blow-waving our hair as he laboured over us…

A few doors away and up a dread flight of stairs our equally memorable dentist waited to care of our caries. But not with the high pitched, vengeful screech of modern drills. No, he had an ancient treadle machine and he’d power his drill with his ageing leg and get it up to a respectable speed. Trouble was,  as he did this, his hand shook  and the drill hovered before our gaping mouths. In it went  – and sometimes he’d  miss the tooth altogether, grazing a gum instead…

The centerpiece of Balmoral though was the Capitol Theatre, where on Saturday matinees, serials screened before the movie, usually a Western. And we’d gaze transfixed, as Hopalong Cassidy chased the baddies,  and wonder why on earth the bigger boys wanted to stay in the back rows with girls.

On Saturday nights when the family went to the rival Princess Theatre, just a couple of minutes away, we felt as we were already half-way to Hollywood.  The doorman wore a tuxedo – and then TV arrived and things changed. The Capitol nearly closed and the Princess was used briefly by the Sinfonia. Central Auckland became Asia Central.

There’s a Hindu Temple five minutes’ walk from Balmoral. And if on a Friday you pass through the aroma of spices and curries in the Little India of Sandringham,   then drive on to Owairaka five minutes away, you’ll see white-robed muslims gathering for prayer in their local mosque.

It’s the nature of the new Auckland and yes, it sometimes comes with tensions as the housing crisis indicates – as did the Police dawn raids on overstayers, mostly Pacific Islanders, a generation earlier.

Auckland may be the City of Sails (which harbour city isn’t?) but now more than ever, it’s a concoction of colours and creeds. To walk through Balmoral today and look at the shopping centre we once knew, is to witness renewal not ruination of what went before.

As for our old Balmoral, well it’s only a memory – except perhaps when you lie back in a dentist’s chair…

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.