Greek and non-Greek proprietors faced similar challenges—sourcing goods, raising capital, repaying loans, upgrading shops, and dealing with health inspectors, staff, rationing, etc.—but Greeks succeeded in spite of discrimination suffered at the hands of government, media, and everyday Australians. It brings to mind that joke about Fred Astaire: he wasn’t so great; Ginger did everything he did, backwards and in high heels.
Greece was neutral during WWI until she joined the Allies in 1917, and this sparked clashes between soldiers and proprietors. Around 10pm on July 18, 1916, soldiers marched on Freeleagus Bros. Central Café. Shouting ‘dagos,’ they kicked over tables and flung chairs into the street. Waitresses took refuge upstairs. One fainted. Another leapt from the veranda. A soldier smashed a chair through a window, and when police arrested him the crowd—reported to be “a couple of hundred” soldiers and civilians—released him. Newspaper articles described this as an exhibition of larrikinism.
One article in the National Leader urged Australians to boycott Greek cafés. It labelled Greeks pro-German, and claimed Australians were unpatriotic if they patronised them. The article criticised the Greek business model: a “muddy-colored degenerate” and “inveterate trader who thinks in money,” the Greek “with his gaudy shop-front, his plate-glass windows, and his general air of prosperity, acquired by borrowed money . . . draws trade to himself. He employs fellow-Greeks at low wages.” It criticised methods of competition—Greeks pay 30/- for a tray of whiting and sell it for 15/- just for the pleasure of “beating the Britisher,” and charge top prices for cheaper goods. And standards of hygiene: behind the façade lurks a “dominion of filth and disease” because “the average Greek is a dirty, greasy sort of animal who would not think twice about sleeping at the back of the shop.” The writer concluded, “We can’t massacre the Greeks in Australia, but we can boycott them. Loss of trade would hurt them more than physical injury” (12.1.17 page 2).
As Australia tumbled towards the Great Depression, the government commissioned an inquiry into the influx of ‘aliens’ in the sugarcane industry. Thomas Arthur Ferry reported, “Greek residents of North Queensland are generally of an undesirable type, and do not make good settlers. They live in the towns and carry on business in cafés, fish shops, boarding-houses, and other less reputable ways. They . . . add nothing to the wealth or security of the country” (12). The Ferry Report (1925) concluded, “On average their standard of living is lower than that of other foreigners. Socially and economically this type of immigrant is a menace to the community in which he settles, and it would be for the benefit of the State if his entrance were altogether prohibited” (12). Given the number of oyster saloons and cafés Greeks were operating by the 1920s, and considering their contribution for decades afterwards, Ferry’s assessment that Greeks were unhygienic and unassimilable, and that their admission to Queensland could “be of no possible benefit to the country” is partial at best (13). During the Depression proprietors often gave handouts (Conomos 538-551) and in the pre-war and war years Australia would not have functioned without the Greek café, according to Country Party leader Doug Anthony (Con Castan in Growing Up in Greek Cafés). Ferry’s assessment is absurd when one considers the Greek-Australians whose parents/grandparents were likely café proprietors: George Miller (director), Mark Philippoussis (tennis-player), Christos Tsiolkas (author), Lex Marinos (actor, writer, broadcaster), James Sourris AM (cinema-owner, philanthropist), Claudia Carvan (actor), Mary Coustas/Effie (Logie Award-winner), Michael Diamond (Olympic shooter), Mary Kostakides (television-presenter) . . . to name but a few.
Tabloids like the Truth maintained that Australians did not want “hordes of greasy, unwashed, ignorant, illiterate, semi-civilised, and only half-white humans” pouring into the country. Claiming that the oyster knife had displaced the sword, the paper announced, “Instead of handing the order of the boot to these degenerate and piebald remnants of an ancient glory, we are asking them to come along and join in the fun of providing Australia with cockroach soup, verminised bedding and filthy immorality.” It employed titles like “Greek Filth Excels Itself” and “Greeks Who Breed Disease and Decay,” the latter embellished with a hooded black figure looming over the city. This article referred to “soap-shy parasites” afflicted with unnamed diseases who may be serving food to the Brisbane public. It described Greeks as animals with beetling foreheads and a cesspool mentality who were greasy and filthy, both physically and mentally, and it used metaphors that portrayed them as “blow-flies hatched upon a rubbish-tip” and “human sewage flushed from . . . Mediterranean ports.” Referring continually to the handling of food, writers urged readers to shun Greek cafés.
Little wonder Greeks experienced prejudice at the street level. The White Australia ideal was entrenched, and fear of those whose faces, language, or customs differed from the dominant British archetype was widespread. So, while their shops were popular, Greeks were ‘dagos’ and, often, they were tolerated rather than respected. Some had dark complexions. Most spoke no English when they arrived and suffered abuse if they spoke Greek in public. Names were anglicised to avoid abuse: Londy fared better than Leondarakis. Furthermore, migrants, haunted by the poverty in their homelands, were called “hungry” for working long hours. Non-Greek proprietors encouraged customers to CALL IN BEFORE THE DAY GOES: everyone understood the meaning of advertisements like those for the Empire Café at Tweed Heads (above) and Grice’s Arcadia Café in Charleville. Children were not exempt. Born in Australia in 1928, Stephen Comino’s dark complexion caused derision in Lowood, and Helen Savvas had her hair pulled and her shoes thrown from the bus by Thangool State School children: “We were always being called greasy Greeks.” That Greek cafés never served Greek food is the most obvious effect of the White Australia ‘policy’ (Risson chapter 4).
Many proprietors overlook such treatment. Jim Bellas had cafés in Brisbane city from the 1940s to the 1980s: “I take my hat off to Australians. I was not trained for anything and had no English at all when I came in 1936 and I was just 16. And now I’m 86 and have a good life. I respect and honour them.” Hostility emerged when Australians were drunk; they tipped Holbrooks sauce into sugar pots, put salt in the sugar, refused to pay, even damaged cafés. Jim says, “That was the beer talking—that’s nothing.” Effie Detsimas recalls that judges and solicitors who packed into her father’s café near the Brisbane Law Courts in the 1950s were perfect gentlemen, except on Saturday night, when they were drunk: then it was, “You wog. Why don’t you go back where you came from?” (Risson 182-83).
The Greek café operated at the interface between an anglophile Australia and waves of migrants, and, despite widespread prejudice, it thrived. Proprietors also eventually changed the face of their adopted homeland. That this encounter took place around food provides insight into the role the Greek café played in the developing relationship between Australians and Greek migrants: in a sense proprietors were genial hosts who invited the community to share their table.
Growing Up in Greek Cafés: 29658, Solomos Society’s Hellenic Queensland Talk Series, John Oxley Lib. SLQ
Stephen Comino (Ross Johnston Box Acc. 29223 folder 4) and Helen Savvas (Ross Johnston Box Acc. 29223 folder 1)
Denis A. Conomos. The Greeks in Queensland: A History from 1859—1945. Brisbane, 2002
Toni Risson. Aphrodite and the Mixed Grill: Greek Cafes in Twentieth-Century Australia. Brisbane, 2007
National Leader “Why Patronise Greeks?” 12.1.17 page 2
The Week “Row in City” 21.7.16 page 23
Daily Standard “Soldiers Make Trouble, Greek Café Attacked,” 19.7.16 page 6
Brisbane Courier “Military Discipline,” 21.7.16 page 7
Truth ““Truth” Upheld by Royal Commissioner,” 7.6.25 page 1
Truth “Greasy Greeks—Bruce Must Boot Them Out,” 7.6.25 page 9
Truth “Greek Filth Excels Itself,” 23.6.29 page 21
Truth “Greeks Who Breed Disease and Decay,” 18.12.27 page 14