My grandfather Tony settled permanently in Melbourne in 1950. Despite his lack of English literacy and dark features, replete with thick single brow, he made it through the cracks in the white Australia policy. At twenty-two, he leaned over the side of his ship as it set sail from Cyprus and threw the last of his coins into the sea. He had no need for foreign currency in this new land of promise.
I heard him tell this story a number of times in his thickly accented English: of how he made his fortune from nothing. The coins, I learnt later, were a few worthless Egyptian coins – he’d spent his last pounds in the port of Alexandria, waiting for the ship to set sail. The passage fare he’d borrowed from a brother-in-law, with the promise of returning it with interest once he’d settled in Australia and made money. The brother-in-law surely couldn’t have believed he’d see his money again – not from a young Greek-Cypriot man disappearing to a country he’d hardly heard about, with no English or high school education. But Tony held his promise of making enough money, and millions more, to pay his brother-in-law back with interest.
Stepping off the ship in Melbourne, Tony wore his second-best suit and held a single suitcase, containing a foot-pedal sewing machine, a coal-heated iron, scissors, his best suit and some newspaper clippings with photos of home. In the three weeks sailing he’d learnt enough English from fellow passengers to get by: “thank you”, “how much?”, “can I have coffee?”, and “I am from Cyprus”. Handsome and confident, he struck friendships everywhere he went.
Tony had finished school in the village of Ashia at age twelve, with good enough marks and ambitions of going to secondary school in a nearby town, to study to become a doctor. In the grips of the Great Depression, a drought, and a family of six to feed, his farmer father couldn’t afford the school fees. Instead, Tony was apprenticed to the village tailor. Working in a small shop facing the street, he watched with tears as children passed to and from school each day. He resolved to read widely; to learn as much as he could about the world around him.
By eighteen he had received accreditation as a tailor and was able to open a small store in Ashia, becoming the first qualified tradesperson in his family. Business was largely based on a bartering system, as very little actual money changed hands in the village. Instead, a sack of wheat or barley, a melon or vegetables, or a chicken or two-dozen eggs, were the exchange rate for a suit jacket or shirt. Even the local vet, who played dual roles as the local doctor, putting broken arms and legs in plaster and pulling decayed teeth from horses and humans alike, was paid with whatever was on hand to trade.
When the Cold War hit, Cyprus’ economic situation worsened further. Unemployment was so high people had even less to trade for tailoring, and imports were so severely restricted that the price of materials was too great to be worth the investment of labour. Tony did what he could with material that was available, turning second-hand clothes into new suits and jackets. But he knew his future as a tailor in Ashia was limited, and, worried he was a burden to his family, he decided to seek his fortune elsewhere.
Friends had heard on the radio in the town kafenio (café) that the Australian government was inviting interested white Europeans – “the right type of people”, as immigration minister Arthur Calwell called them – to migrate to Australia. In the mid-1940s the Australian government had established a massive immigration program, with the aim of meeting labour shortages, stimulating economic growth and creating prosperity. When not enough Western Europeans could be found, the definition of ‘white’ was expanded to take in Europeans from the south.
Despite his lack of English literacy and dark features, replete with thick single brow, he made it through the cracks in the white Australia policy.
Between Tony and his friends, not much was known about Australia except what it looked like in the atlas – an island impossibly far from their own. After some research they discovered the country had a labour shortage, and that wages were almost seven times higher there than in Cyprus. It seemed this was just the opportunity that Tony was looking for. Along with eight other young men from his village, Tony travelled to the capital city Nicosia to apply for his first passport and sought help from a friend who spoke English to apply for an Australian work permit. In the months of waiting for his permit to be granted Cold War tensions heightened, making Cyprus’ economic situation worse still, increasing Tony’s resolve to leave.
In February 1950 his permit was granted and he made a booking for the next ship bound for Australia.
Tony arrived in Port Melbourne on May 7 in 1950, early in the morning. He couldn’t believe the size of Melbourne, stretching out across the shimmering bay. It looked enormous.
Though he told me with pride he arrived with nothing, I never asked my grandfather how he really felt as he looked over the new city he was about to join. In his notes, he mentions nothing of how he felt at this point, just a short sentence that the people looked casual and friendly while fishing and relaxing with their families on the wharf.
Fortunately for Tony, a friend he’d made on the journey offered him a place to stay for the night with a relative, in the corridor of his apartment. Tony found himself in the back of a truck with his friend, driving through luxuriously wide streets to Carlton. That night the corridor seemed to spin. Tony couldn’t tell if it was from being on still land, or from the relief at having a place to stay for the night.
The next morning they were taken to a Greek community club, where someone knew of a room available and a factory where there was always a job going. Tony immediately started work for a tailoring company on Flinders Street, earning £7 a week making women’s jackets and skirts. With so much experience he found he could do the work of three men, and after several months he learnt enough English to move to another factory where the wages were higher, at £12 a week, plus a bonus for high output. For the first time in his working life, he found himself rewarded for his hard work, fuelling his entrepreneurial spirit. He learnt quickly how factories worked, and put his mind to starting his own.
By September 1951, he’d found three friends willing to work hard and take a risk to make money. They found a room on the third floor of a city warehouse in Heffernan Lane for cheap rent and opened their own tailoring factory. Each put in a hard-earned £30 and paid a deposit for four Czechoslovakian sewing machines, a boiler and a steam press. They decided on the name ‘Europe Modes’, which they thought sounded modern and cosmopolitan. They wanted to introduce European style to Australia – at the time there was nothing comparable in Melbourne.
Without secure incomes, all but Tony kept their day jobs in other factories or as waiters, coming in after their shifts to finish the extra pressing jobs that came in. They worked until early in the morning in the dim and cramped room; the heat and fumes from the machines stifling. While there were plenty of requests for pressing, there was little of the more profitable production work available.
For the first time in his working life, he found himself rewarded for his hard work, fuelling his entrepreneurial spirit. He learnt quickly how factories worked, and put his mind to starting his own.
To find more tailoring work, Tony decided to seek customers out, rather than waiting for them to find him. He learnt to drive, and soon got his licence. He bought a jalopy van and drove across the city and into the countryside to find customers. In rural towns he’d approach shops or knock on the doors of people’s homes hawking suits or work uniforms, then return the next week with the finished suit or jacket. Rural customers jumped at the opportunity to buy modern, quality suits and work outfits, and business spread by word of mouth. Each time he returned with finished suits and jackets there were new customers wanting to be measured. Tony spent all weekend travelling, measuring and fitting, and the rest of the week working at the factory tailoring.
Due to his hard work the business grew, and the staff were soon able to move from one cramped room into an old but much larger factory on Waratah Place, still in the city. With the move to the new building, they took the opportunity to rename the business ‘Travellers Apparel’, having learnt that Modess was a popular brand of women’s sanitary pads. In 1956 they opened a retail store in Bentleigh, a south-eastern suburb of Melbourne, which became the first of a large chain.
The introduction of television to Australia in the 1950s helped the business to prosper. Travellers Apparel dressed popular television personalities, and sales soared. Tony was able to buy out his business colleagues by the mid-1950s and expand the business. In the late 1970s, he moved the factory to Hoddle Street in Collingwood to avoid rising city rates and to expand. By 1987, the factory employed several hundred people, and the business had forty-five stores across Australia. Today, Travellers Apparel remains the last major suit manufacturer in Australia, with 120 employees.
Much of what I know of my grandfather’s story is from his own notes, hand-written in the careful, sloping handwriting he learnt in night classes, after long days at work, taught by sympathetic university students who tutored for a shilling a class. He filled in the parts he didn’t write down over lunch with my father and I; meals he cooked with produce from his extensive garden in Templestowe, on a small farm near a bend in the Yarra River he bought thirty years ago. Planted with a fruit orchard, extensive vegetable garden, grapes and olives, and populated with goats, chickens, pigeons and quail, he was surely recreating the fertile farmland of the Mesaoria valley in Cyprus he’d left behind.
I don’t really know, though. I’ve seen photos and heard many stories, but I’ve never seen Ashia. In 1974, an Athens-backed coup overthrew Cyprus’ elected government and installed a dictator, in an attempt by Greece to annex the island. Days later the Turkish military invaded, entering from the northern part of the island closest to Turkey and moving through the country in a staged sweep, forcing Greek-Cypriot villagers from their homes.
The Turkish forces, according to the stories told by my family – illustrated by scrapbooks of newspaper clippings they keep to document the horror of the invasion – entered Ashia from the direction of Nicosia, moving through fields to destroy crops and any buildings in their way. Men were arrested and held hostage at a war camp on the outskirts of Nicosia, and anyone who fought back was killed or disappeared – eighty-three have never been found. Women and children were kept in a separate prisoner of war camp on the outskirts of Ashia. Only those on the eastern side of the village managed to escape, fleeing to the south of Cyprus. Their homes were pillaged and looted, and their land was distributed to Turkish-Cypriots and Turkish immigrants.
Ever since, Cyprus has been divided in two with a buffer zone known as the Green Line, a UN-controlled no man’s land that runs east-west across the country, not stopping even for the capital Nicosia. Until travel restrictions eased in 2003, Greek Cypriots were not able to enter the northern half of the island. Ashia today is a Turkish army base, enclosed in barbed wire.
By the time of the 1974 invasion, Tony was leader of the Cypriot Community of Victoria, a position elected by members to represent the Cypriot community across the state. He quickly formed a coordinating committee to provide support for Cyprus, organising demonstrations to protest the occupation and holding fundraising events to collect relief funds to support the 150,000 internally displaced Greek-Cypriots living in crowded camps across the south, and in small enclaves in the north of the country. Through their efforts they sent AUD$800,000 and fifty tonnes of clothing, frozen food and meat to displaced people in Cyprus.
Tony lobbied the Australian government to take in Greek-Cypriot refugees, promising he would find them homes and work if the government would grant them asylum. By the end of 1975, thirty-eight of Tony’s extended family members and friends arrived in Australia. Tony found room for them in his house in Templestowe, and in the homes of friends and the larger Cypriot community. He created jobs in his factory for many of those men and women to work – most had no English, making finding work elsewhere difficult. Years later, in 1989, Tony was awarded the Order of Australia for his service to the Cypriot community.
My grandfather’s life story seems so familiar it’s almost a cliché: another migrant who arrived by boat to Australia’s shores and who went on to make a lasting contribution to the country in many different ways. There are so many stories like his in this country – of hard-working migrants who drive taxis and run milk bars and takeaway joints, refugee support centres and top-tier law firms – that it seems hardly important to point to just one as exemplary.
Today it feels all the more pressing to reflect on my grandfather’s contribution. Forgetting the stories of the last two generations allows immigration policies to narrow the definition of what is the right kind of migrant. Those considered not to fit that definition are locked up indefinitely in detention centres or bribed to leave. Many of those, like my relatives from Ashia, were forced to flee their homes to escape war, persecution and drought, only to finally have their hope for the future also extinguished in a protracted form of cruelty, or abandonment. My grandfather’s life, the contribution he was able to make just by being able to apply his skills, is an example of how much benefit there is in expanding our conception of who belongs.
Like the debt he repaid to his brother-in-law for the passage to Australia, my grandfather also repaid the opportunity to work hard, in the form of hundreds of tailoring jobs – long after other companies moved offshore – and sanctuary for Cypriot refugees who later became Australian citizens. He led an incredible life: active in politics, and in supporting others in his community to thrive. He worked right up until his eighties, and was only stopped by his hands that shook uncontrollably and his memory that left him painfully. Tony’s story and all those like it need retelling, to protect from the violence done by forgetting.
Tessa Toumbourou is a writer and researcher from Melbourne who has lived in Indonesia on and off for years. Her writing has been published in Inside Indonesia, Crikey, Voiceworks and other places.
Illustration by Jia Sung. Jia is an artist born in Minnesota, bred in Singapore, now based in Brooklyn.