Foody Almanac : Hoy Heng, Lest We Forget

Anyone who’s met me will know when it comes to relationships I’m punching well above my weight.

A beautiful, vivacious and stunningly intelligent woman from honest western-districts bloodlines, my wife was educated at an elite Melbourne public school, edited a number of Arts publications and is often less than six-degrees separated from most of Melbourne’s entertainment movers and shakers.

I tell you this because if her husband being a “sports-media” person (with the fingers doing the air-talking quotes and everything) and taking her to a footy game as part of the courtship didn’t raise enough eyebrows, that he hails from Werribee is the pièce-de-résistance in her perceived downward spiral in some quarters.

In the early days of our courtship there were two Steves in her life and both of us were from Werribee. In order to differentiate between us in conversation, I was simply ‘Steve’ and the other Steve became ‘Werribee Steve’ – to avoid any confusion, I’m sure (Werribee Steve and I had even been to Uni together).

In a conversation with Werribee Steve one time, my wife turned down an invitation to catch up with him for a drink one Friday night: “I’m off to Master Wok in Werribee with Steve and his parents,” she says, politely declining. “Ahhh!” says Werribee Steve knowingly, “Master Wok: The Flower Drum of Werribee…”


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The Footscray of the 1960s and 1970s was a very different beast to what it is now. The wave of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees for which the area is now synonymous with was only just beginning to sweep through the area. Barkly, Paisley, Droop, Nicholson and Albert Streets buzzed with throngs of people rushing between one-time Footscray retail institutions like Coles, Forges, O’Halloran’s Shoes or Adams’ Cakes. Highpoint – that coliseum of consumption perched high above Warrs and Rosamond Roads was still a generation away from overtaking Footscray as the inner-west’s prime shopping destination.

In those days, Footscray made stuff; it made world-class ropes at Kinnears on Ballarat Road, it made bullets and bombs at the munitions factories on Gordon Street. It made tyres (the Adidas factory outlet at the Dunlop factory in West Footscray would have to have been among one of the world’s best-kept secrets), it made springs, it tanned hides and stored wool and it housed grain in giant silos adjacent to the Tottenham rail yards, only a drop kick away from the Western Oval. In those days, Footscray even had its own community swimming pool.

At the centre of life in Footscray was the Footscray Football Club. And at the heart of the Bulldogs were its fans, as it remains so today.

Every second Saturday, the faithful – and looking at the Dogs win-loss record of the 70s and 80s, faithful is an understatement – would gather at the Western Oval to watch the Bulldogs and hope. Hope that things would turn around and that names like Templeton, Hampshire, Edmund, Wheeler, Dempsey, Jennings and a young bloke from Braybrook by the name of Hawkins would add a new chapter the legacy left by Ted Whitten, Allan Hopkins, John Schultz, Peter Box and Charlie Sutton.

Instead, they got to witness numerous hidings at the hands of opposition teams and some of those names in which so much hope was invested – Dempsey and Templeton in particular (not to mention a couple of blokes by the name of Quinlan and Round)  – leave the club amid a generation of internecine warfare and administrative negligence.

Like all suburban grounds of that era – be they the Claremont Showgrounds or Glenelg Oval – there were rituals that accompanied the trek to the Western Oval for the faithful.

For some it was catching the same train to Footscray station and rushing to the jam donut trailer on Irving Street before your connecting train to West Footscray arrived.

For others, it might have been a few starters at The Plough, or the Buckingham or The Rising Sun  – sometimes, it was all three (and not necessarily in geographical order either).

Fans would use the same gate to enter the ground each week, take up the same spot on the Gordon Street wing, or perhaps the Barkly Street end, or (if you were ‘posh’ enough) standing in front of the Whitten Stand with the other familiar faces who were there every other Saturday and observed the same ritual as part of their passage to the ground. Extra cups, extra slices of tea cake or a few extra home baked Anzac biscuits were brought along and shared around with fellow travellers at cold, blustery half-time breaks.

Apart from dances at the Orama Ballroom or the Trocadero, an integral part of the Saturday night ritual for a lot of Bulldogs fans at the time – indeed right up until they moved to Docklands – was the after-match post mortems at the famous clutch of Chinese Restaurants at Barkly Street’s western end, before getting home to watch Mary Hardy and Mike Williamson on the Penthouse Club and crossing to the trots at the Showgrounds.

On Saturday evenings, long after the final siren had blown, places like Poons, Jimmy Wong’s and Hoy Heng would be bursting at the seams with the sons and daughters of the ‘Scray downing their Sweet and Sour Pork in batter or Szechuan chicken or beef in black bean sauce. Exotic options for the thrill-seeking diner at the time included dishes with names like Chow Mein, San Choi Bao and ‘special’ fried rice, which were prominently displayed in menus as ‘Chef’s Suggestions’, affording them added gravitas. (Singapore Noodles, for obvious reasons, took time to gain acceptance).

If the Bulldogs had a win, then the kitchen could hardly keep up with the number of tables going with banquets. When Footscray lost, diners would just go with a main course, but the demand for beer was significant.

When I think of these restaurants, I’m always taken back to a time when (footy season and not) B.Y.O was the ‘new’ thing (“it’s what they do in fancy places”, I remember being told as a young pup), Graham Kennedy had Australia laughing along with Ugly Dave, Noelene and whatever – or whoever – ‘Cyril’ was blanking, Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Anna-Frid were ubiquitous and 3XY had  indeed co-opted October, re-naming it Rocktober.

Eskys made of Styrofoam and choc-full of icy cold steel- cans could still be taken into Victoria Park, Alberton, Leederville Oval and the MCG and parents’ blood pressure readings skyrocketed if their daughters’ trip to the drive-in involved being picked up in a Sandman Panel Van. Apricot Chicken was considered haute cuisine and your ordinary punter thought a Lazy Susan was an inefficient housekeeper.

These days, a visit to Poons, or Jimmy Wong’s (Hoy Heng, our family’s destination of choice sadly hung up its woks and steamers almost a decade ago) is a trip to comfort food heaven. The décor remains largely unchanged (save for the upgrading of the carpet), the staff still wear the (ahem) traditional uniform of black pants, six-button black waistcoat and white shirts and in some cases, still prefer that you just rattle off the menu number instead of embarrassing yourself trying to pronounce Szechuan or Pho (numbers 42, 59 and 176 if you’re playing at home).

As Footscray, Seddon and Yarraville gentrified themselves through the 90s and the early part of the 21st century – not to mention the evolution of the inner-suburban hipster – even the most cursory look at the comments section on Urbanspoon (surely the foodies equivalent of Twitter trolling?) for places like Poons and Jimmy Wong’s illustrates just how much times have changed in Footscray.

Sure, there would have people walked away disappointed in what was on offer in earlier times, but to give these places a whack as ‘tacky’ or low-rent is to have almost no understanding of their place in the cultural fabric of the inner-west nor their contribution to the place’s community.

They’re cheap. They’re cheerful. They pride themselves on their simplicity. Richard Clayderman cassette tapes are still on continuous loops providing background muzak. They don’t purport to be the Shark Finn Inn or the Flower Drum. It’s not gluten-free (although it is, probably, #Paleo, but I digress) there’s a fair bit of fructose in the sweet and sour sauce and as for regional produce, no one’s under any illusion that the veggies weren’t sourced from anywhere beyond the Footscray market.

These places are, though, about a time when a community – both real and imagined – would come together to break bread, share a meal, celebrate or commiserate as one; to feed both the body and the soul and remind one another that there was always next week, or next year.

There are still photos on the walls of Footscray greats like E.J and Chris Grant dining at the restaurants, there are still newspaper clippings recalling the heroics of Doug Hawkins, Libba, Chocco Royal and Scotty Wynd from The Footscray Mail, The Sun and The Western Times on the walls. The pages are browning with age. Like many parts of Footscray they have and they continue changing.

The road I travelled that saw me become an Essendon supporter is another story, but on the occasions when our immediate and extended families catch up at Poons, you can see in the eyes of the ol ‘timers the joyous recollections of the long-gone rituals, the sadness of missing friends and loved ones no longer at our table as they let themselves be transported back to a time that no longer exists outside the walls of the restaurant.

It is comfort food for the souls of the sons and daughters of the ‘Scray.



About Steve Baker

"Colourful central Victorian racing identity". Recovering Essendon supporter, and sometime weekend night racing presenter on RSN Racing and Sport.


  1. Emma Westwood says

    I really love this article, except for the blatant lies about your wife at the beginning. I know for a fact she’s a total bee-atch!

  2. Great to get some more Footscray fan history as I’m an Essendon to Bulldogs convert now living in Sunshine. When you gonna write the story of how you went the other way?

  3. cowshedend says

    Love it Steve, some brilliant nostalgia there, I was always an Albert and Jimmy Wongs man,
    To be a Poon or a Wong was the wests equivalent of the Hatfields and McCoy’s.
    How the suburb has changed, inundated by flogs who have ‘discovered’ the West, they smugly dismiss 150 years of history prior to their arrival, they planted their ‘chai tea’ flag declaring the west ‘terra nullius’.
    Thought you were a Scragger Steve, how did you end up following those goat riding bastards from strathmore?

  4. Neil Anderson says

    Thanks for that trip down memory-lane Steve. I have written a few stories growing up in Footscray as a kid and leaving as a ten-year old to live in the Eastern Suburbs. What I called traveling to another planet where the kids wore Melbourne and Hawthorn jumpers (post 1961)
    So it was great to read an ‘adult’ version of Footscray including the famous eateries.
    The occasional Bulldog supporter I met over the years who still lived there told me about Jimmy Wongs.
    You mentioned the ammunition factory in Gordon Street. I lived in Monash Street directly opposite and remember the workers riding their bikes down our street at knock-off time. Our school-excursion was to Kinnears Ropes and for a fun-time we were taken to the abattoirs to see a bit of slaughtering.
    Now we can return to the old Western Oval and watch the Scrays in action once more at least at VFL level and for the pre-season comp. I know it’s a sop from the AFL for us to attend matches there, but we’ll take whatever crumbs are thrown our way to see the Scrays play ‘at home’.

  5. Graham Dickie says

    Great times! Shorter people would be standing on LARGE VB cans (empty of product, need the space later) to see over people in front of you. You’d have your pie and sauce one hand, your can in the other and for 1/8 price of today. There’d be a good scrap on the ground as good as the one that would break out just next to you (one out, no mob). If you were good enough, you’d stand your ground. If not, have another go later. I remember trams going past the ground and parking cops having a field day around side streets. Yep good days.

  6. Catherine O'Halloran says

    As the eldest daughter of the O’Halloran’s it was great to read from someone who remembers my parents’ (and grandparents’) shop. They’ll be really impressed to see O’Halloran’s is still remembered as a ‘retail institution’ in Footscray. Lots of great memories from back then and we’ve all stuck with the Bulldogs rather than jumping ship! Oh and by the way, I preferred Hoy Heng too!

  7. Catherine, your family’s store was a huge part of my childhood, a place of incredible highs (my first pair of Puma footy boots, always cheaper than Jack Collins sports store!) and seasonal lows (the annual trip to buy a pair of Corvin school shoes, too poor for bata scouts!).
    The school shoe trip down on the tram came with a treat of watching a flick at the Grand and lunch at Coles Cafeteria.

  8. Hi Steve, Sensational! My old stamping ground. You allowed my mind and heart to go to a place that is very special to me. Your article made me feel it was like yesterday watching the doggies at the Whitten oval and Kinnears being an icon for employment in the west. They were the days. Thank you for sharing . Xxxx

  9. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Beautifully written Steve,
    You make the Old West come alive with a cornucopia of sensory delights!

  10. Michele Davis says

    Love it!

  11. Bakes,
    Thanks for a great yarn. Being one who has lived and worked in the west for most of his life, this piece really resonates with me.
    Poons was the first restaurant to which I took my first girlfriend. It actually seemed much fancier than Tai Hoon Cafe, the Lion Dance, and Dragon Sea (Williamstown’s Chinese restaurants).
    Occasionally I was alerted to being a little different, coming from the west. In secondary school, I recall going to numerous parties with a mate who went to St Kevin’s. A murmur through the crowd “the Willy boys are here” like we were some sort of circus freaks. And then, when doing Arts at Melbourne Uni, being quizzed in a tutorial “How long does it take you to get here all the way from Williamstown?”
    Ah, but the west has changed significantly, and none more so than Willy.
    Perhaps a story for me to relate another time!

  12. And, may I add, that as one who has met many of the Almanacker’s “better halves”, it seems to be par for the course for us to be punching above our weight.

  13. Great work Steve. The Footscray i work in now, 2015, is quite different to the Footscray of my long gone youth. Old favourites like the 10 pin bowls, American Billiards, Wards newsagents, the Grand Cinema, later arrivals like Leedin records, and of course the local watering holes, seven of which are no longer here including the Barkly, Buckingham, and Royal all resonate in my mind. Two places from my childhood remain here, the great pairing of Jimmy Wongs and Poons.
    Footscray has always had a diverse range of migrant cultures and the current predominance of those from the African continent, along with the more settled communities from South East Asia all enhance Footscrays attraction. It’s a different world over here now, but one i would highly recomend.


  14. Catherine O'Halloran says

    I can’t tell you how many people tell a similar tale cowshedend. I can assure you that I was well familiar with the Corvin school shoes. We were never allowed to have the Bata Scouts either – and the bloody Corvins would last all year! I can remember my parents putting a five cent piece in the box to stop us complaining. It never made up for having to wear the dorky shoes without the built-in compass! You were lucky to get the Pumas – my brothers were never allowed to have them, they were for the customers. We would often head around to Jack Collins with my Dad for a chat with Jack, Merv Rice, my old tennis coach from Kingsville, and a few others my parents had played tennis with back in the old days at Roberta Tennis Club and elsewhere.
    My parents were delighted with the article and the comments. It sparked a great conversation about our memories of the ‘old’ Footscray. We all miss it very much.

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