We uncover the secrets of our city with HG Nelson

After the runaway success of SBS series Secrets of our Cities, told in extraordinary and humorous fashion by Greig Pickhaver – aka HG Nelson – the three part special has been extended into its second season starting 23 February, and this time around, will include our very own Gold Coast.

“We’ve got the fabulous Gold Coast, the ever-surprising Kalgoorlie, and we’ve got Footscray – the home of everything in Melbourne,” Pickhaver enthused during our chat.

“It’s spread around a bit and showcases a variety of styles of cities so you have a very isolated city like Kalgoorlie then a dense holiday city as in the Gold Coast and a city inside a big city like Footscray.”

Gold Coast has the honour of kicking off Season 2, with Pickhaver putting a fresh and unique spin on the history of the prosperous tourist destination with a series of revealing tales.

“It is my understanding that the bikini was invented in France,” Pickhaver began with his infamous drawl, “but French people being what they are couldn’t see the advantages of wearing a two-piece and it took quite a bit of luck for the bikini to be popularised – which it was largely through the camera of Fred Vella.

“Fred was an overseas migrant who came with some understanding of how the camera worked and some understanding that if he took pictures – you wouldn’t call them racy in today’s climate – but fairly conservative pictures of models in bikinis then people would take notice. Paula Stafford then began designing the new look bikini and popularised it worldwide.

“As soon as the bikini was invented the local councils decided they should police it, so the Gold Coast became a symbol of fun maybe going too far. They thought they had better nip it in the bud so they had people measuring women and the bikinis to see if they passed what the council thought was acceptable.

“A few years went by and the local council decided what better way to advertise the Gold Coast than to have meter maids wandering around in bikinis putting money into expired parking metres so it has that sort of weird history that is very conscious of its position in the world that attracts people to the Gold Coast.

“This is a theme that runs through the whole history of the Gold Coast that needed to find an audience – either tourists from Australia or tourists from around the world – to come to the Gold Coast and have their holidays there.”

Leaving that topic with a chuckle, Pickhaver’s tone becomes more sombre when he broaches the next subject.

“I think the Blackbirding story is shocking,” he noted.

“This is the story of the need for labour in the cane growing areas in the time when America was dismantling slavery. People were being shipped out from islands in the Pacific Islands – Cook Islanders, Tongans, Fijians – and being taken to Australia and made to work as slaves in the Gold Coast sugar business. Then as the politics developed and the White Australia Policy took over these people were then considered not residents and were shipped back to supposedly where they came from – but often ended up on the wrong island – and this was a death sentence for many of them. It is a shocking story and should have more exposure than what we were able to give it in this program.”

Greig Pickhaver is better known for his sense of humour that has seen him lend his talents to radio, television and print mediums, but his forays into the more dramatic aspects of human life and the human condition are less frequent. With Secrets of our Cities, he is able to weave the humorous tapestry through historical facts to provide an entertaining and informative look at the events that have played a significant part into shaping the Gold Coast as we know it today.

“I try to bring a certain angle to it,” he reflected. “I’m no expert on the Gold Coast history itself but what I am is a gatekeeper in this program to allow other people to tell their stories. I find it all really engaging. A lot of the conversation even though it is grim has a humorous component to it.

“For example, when you talk about the Q1 I find it incredibly funny that the guy who built that is Iranian in background. He left Iran and went to Austria and became an architect then came to Australia and was in Brisbane and asked where to go for a day trip and was directed to the Gold Coast. He crossed over the Southport bridge and saw a lot of cranes and said this is the place for me, they want a lot of buildings here. He was approached by the people who were working on the Q1 and they had built two towers side by side and he said no, that’s not right. Why not just put one on top of the other?

“Now the Q1 is down a long way because there’s a lot of sand and they had to get through the sand to find something to put the foundations into and the sand is valuable so they would just sell it. It’s all incredibly interesting and unusual and odd but there’s a lot of humour in the whole development of the Gold Coast.”

One thing Pickhaver has in abundance is storytelling prowess. While maybe not suited to a nature series, it is used to great effect in Secrets of our Cities where he has seemingly been given full creative license.

“I have no trouble talking to people and hopefully making it interesting,” he laughed, “but it’s not that easy. The stories themselves are really interesting and you move along through a fair bit of information in the hour of television.

“There was a terrific story about a young Japanese gentleman who jumped ship and made his way to the Gold Coast. He was a very prominent member of the community who bought a pub in Southport – the Old Scottish Prince pub, although that may not be the name that people would recognise it as today. He wanted to get married and couldn’t find a suitable venue so he decided to buy the pub and have that for his wedding.

“He became very involved in the community through owning pubs and vegetable growing then of course as the Second World War came he was immediately under suspicion and when the war broke out he was forced to go to a camp for Italian, German and Japanese people in an area in the middle of New South Wales called Hay, which was a step away from where he had his influence – and he was, of course, an influential figure – but the rules didn’t say influential people are okay. If you were Japanese you were gone.

“Because he was in Hay they invented these songs and one in particular that went ‘Hay days, Hay days, make your Hay days your play days. You’ll get used to it, you’ll get used to it. The first year’s the worst and then you’ll get used to it. You can scream and shout, they’ll never let you out, and when you get used to it you’ll feel just as lousy as you felt before’, so it’s a pretty good song. I was amazed they had vision of that but they had people singing it so there’s lots of that sort of stuff. There’s a lot of black humour.

“What was lovely about the story was he had only a slim grasp of English so when his employers gave him I Owe You notes for wages he put these in a box under his bed thinking they were thank you notes as an exchange for currency. When he eventually went to the person who employed him and questioned why he was not getting paid the person told him the I Owe You notes were the pay and to go to the bank and exchange them for money so he did and found out he had quite a collection of back pay to start thinking of other things like buying another pub.

“I find those stories remarkable. They are always told by people who have a much closer relationship to the story than me but I enjoy telling them. People have to have a certain sense of humour to try these things.”

After spending a week on the Gold Coast in preparation for the episode, Pickhaver feels he has done enough to qualify to be a local.

“The great thing is – if I can be so cruel – is you only have to stay a week!” he said. “It appears to me that the majority of people that go to the Gold Coast only stay a week but there’s so much to do. Surfers Paradise was named… the word Surfers is not what we understand it today. In the older days, Surfers was considered rough water swimming so the real Surfers is at the Southern end of Surfers Paradise. It’s not where the main suburb or tourist destination of Surfers Paradise is.

“The turnover of people is amazing in terms of people there. You really can have a holiday without having to think about doing anything really which is a plus. The one thing that did surprise me was how different parts of the Gold Coast are. It may sound stupid but Southport is very different from Surfers Paradise is very different from Broadbeach is very different from Coolangatta. They all have completely different MO’s and those weird areas in between like Miami… that’s just bizarre the way that fits into it all.”

Catch Secrets of our Cities when it airs on SBS from 23 February.

IMAGE (c) Tammy Law

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