Showing posts with label Hamilton Macedonian Greeks. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hamilton Macedonian Greeks. Show all posts

Thursday, 8 August 2013

The Miller’s Legacy

“You can sit next to him. He’s one of those”.

George Yanis was 8 years old, in 3rd class at Tighes Hill Primary School. The boy told to sit next to George was Vancho Jovanovski, a Macedonian from what was then Yugoslavia. Since George could speak Greek, Macedonian and English, his teacher thought George could take Vancho under his wing. They spoke Macedonian to each other at first, and Vancho learned English.

George always remembers being dubbed one of those.

The teacher was oblivious to what might be deep and long running tensions between the Greek Macedonians, and those from Macedonia in Yugoslavia.[1] In this new country, the boys became mates, fast friends who as adults, also became partners in property development.

As we talk over a coffee in the Cibo Tapas Bar, which George established and operates with his wife Anna, I learn something of the drive which propelled a four year old migrant boy to become first, an electrician, then an entrepreneur and property developer and finally a Hamilton restaurateur.

George Yanis at home in Perasma, Greece, before migration to Australia
Photograph from the personal collection of George Yanis

 Hamilton is renowned as the multicultural Eat Street of Newcastle. I want to hear the personal stories of the Italians, Greeks, Macedonians, Chinese and Vietnamese who made Hamilton what it is today. I start with George.

Sign promoting Hamilton's Eat Street near Hamilton Station

George’s story began with his grandfather.

Risto Yanis (n.d.)
Photograph from the personal collection of George Yanis

 Risto Yanis lived in the village of Perasma, a few kilometres from the busy market town of Florina[2] in the mountainous region of north west Macedonia, Greece.

Photograph by S. Hristov, from the personal collection of George Yanis

Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece and capital of the region, is just two hours' drive away. Risto had been born in what is now called Polipotemos,[3] moving to Perasma as a young man to build a grain mill.

Since the mill was water operated, Risto had first right of access to the water, according to village law. Farmers brought their wheat or corn to him to be ground. He would keep a percentage of the milled produce as payment, selling that to support his family.

While water mills have been around since 4000 BC, it is interesting that in the 1st century BC, the first reference to a water mill was made by someone from Thessaloniki – an epigrammatist called Antipater.[4] Water mills were one of the earliest mechanical labour saving devices.

Medieval water mill (Ref.4)

Risto also had the licence to operate a “whisky still”, built over the viaduct. The popular national drink rakia, distilled from fermented fruit or grapes, was made for villagers on a similar percentage basis as the grain.

Village families aimed to be self sufficient. They grew vegetables, raised chickens and worked small plots of land – one a vineyard, another for fruit trees, and yet another for wheat. It was a simple but hard life, and cash was scarce.

The Greece that Risto lived in was politically volatile, with coups and counter coups. The Macedonians were an ethnic minority in Greece, and were forbidden to speak their own language, risking punishment if they were overheard. Greece was mainly dependent on agricultural exports; rural people were very poor and unemployment high. Young people felt they had little future.

Thus it was that in the late 1920s, Risto left the village to travel and work abroad. His wife Anna remained at home, continuing to operate the mill, and care for their young son, George’s father. Her small income was supplemented by what Risto was able to send home.

Risto Yanis' home, Perasma
Photograph by S. Hristov, from the personal collection of George Yanis

After some time in France and America, Risto found his way to Newcastle, NSW, Australia. His first work there was cutting sleepers for the railways; later he worked as a stevedore (or “wharfie”), loading and unloading ships on the Newcastle wharf.

Newcastle wharves (n.d.)
Postcard courtesy of Roger Cox

Risto began to plan for what all migrants dream of – bringing their families to join them. It was 1951 before that started to become a reality. George’s father – now a young man in his early twenties with family responsibilities of his own – was the first to come. The following year, Risto paid for his wife Anna and oldest grandson, Simeon, to travel to Australia. In 1953, George, then aged 4, emigrated from Greece with his mother, Sofia.

Risto’s two sisters remained in the village house, but the water mill lay idle. It gradually fell into disrepair as electricity made milling more efficient.

The Perasma mill is overgrown (2009)
Photograph by S. Hristov, from the personal collection of George Yanis

George and his parents shared their grandparents’ home in Donald Street, Hamilton. After many years of enforced separation, Risto and Anna were finally reunited. Things were not easy, though. Perhaps they had gotten out of practice living together; or perhaps their relationship never had time to establish itself on a sound footing.

The domestic situation was difficult, and George recalls conflict between his grandparents. George’s father Athanasios (known as Arthur) decided they would be better off living independently. With George’s grandmother Anna, Arthur and his wife Sofia moved to Maryville with their young family.

George and his parents, birthday celebration
Photograph  from the personal collection of George Yanis

Migration to Australia didn’t mean life was immediately transformed for the better for the young Yanis family. George’s father had found labouring work at BHP, and remained there all his life.

“He was not ambitious”, George told me. “He gambled, and drank heavily. I grew up feeling very clear about what I didn’t want – to be like that”.

George’s mother worked hard to hold the family together and protect her children, but there was still ridicule at school. “For having funny Greek stuff in my sandwiches”, says George, “or for having green underpants, sewn by my mother”.

Family portrait - from left: Simeon, Anna, Meri, Arthur, Sofia, George
Photograph from the personal collection of George Yanis

George followed his father into BHP, but as an apprentice electrician in construction. When he obtained his electrical contracting licence, George took on private work at weekends, doing electrical wiring.

In 1970 he was given an opportunity to go to Groote Island for 6 months, where BHP operated a large manganese mine. Working in this remote Northern Territory location, George saved his pay and on return, bought his first house.

This was an “aha moment” for George.

“If I can do this”, he realised – “then I can do other things”.

George’s flexibility and willingness to work hard opened up more opportunities for postings to many different BHP mining towns in Queensland and Western Australia. The hours were long, but the pay was good. George worked, and saved.

His first entrepreneurial venture was building units and townhouses, in partnership with his old school friend Vancho (Van). A car rental company followed.

When BHP began to lay off workers, George escaped redundancy. After it happened again, he took “the golden handshake” so he could focus on his business interests and property development ventures.

So what led George into the food business?

“In the mid 1990s, I used to spend a lot of time with friends, drinking coffee in the Cafe de Beaumont,” George told me. “We saw how much money was changing hands, and thought – we need to get into this”.

Another “aha moment”.

A small gourmet chicken cafe came up for sale in Beaumont Street, where the expanded Eurobar is located now. George sold out of the car business, and was off in a new direction. Since then, there have been many incarnations of restaurant businesses and premises, flowering under his influence. The initiative and ideas of George Yanis have helped shape the streetscape of Hamilton today.

His entrepreneurial skills have extended to partnering the development of two commercial premises in Hamilton, an apartment block and what is now the Boulevard on Beaumont Quality Suites Hotel. As well, there have been buildings in neighbouring suburbs.

Mosaic in the doorway of 28 Beaumont Street honours Risto Yanis

But what of Risto?

Back in the 1950s, when George’s parents moved out of Risto’s house, their grandparents divorced. This was a radical step at the time.

Years later, in 1972, Risto’s Donald Street house was compulsorily acquired by the government so that the Donald Street overhead bridge could be built. He decided to return to the landscape of his youth, in northern Greece. What would he find?

Risto was set on installing a new bathroom. He had all the necessary materials shipped over – a hot water system, toilet, bath, shower fittings and - a Hills Hoist clothes line. Neighbours were invited in to enjoy the novelty of the new bathroom facilities!

But things had changed in the years Risto had been away. He started the mill going again, diverting the water without engaging in the necessary respectful negotiations with the farmers. An altercation erupted, and a farmer was shot. Risto was arrested.

This was a devastating turn of events for Risto, shattering what was to be a peaceful retirement in the home he had left as a young man. He evaded prison, but it took all the gold he had hidden away, to secure his freedom. Left with property, but with his savings depleted, Risto died about a year later.

Grinding stone in derelict water mill (2009)
Photograph by S. Hristov, from the personal collection of George Yanis

George remembers the kindness of his grandfather. As a young boy, he would be given “two bob” (two shillings”) to go to the pictures at the Regent Theatre, Islington. After paying sixpence to get in, the rest could be spent on a feast of chips and ice cream.

Despite family troubles, George’s parents were kind and generous too. George remembers many occasions the family had to create a spare room in their small house for a new migrant Greek family. They would stay until they got on their feet; then the Yanis kids would get their old rooms back.

Feeling drawn to his origins, George, his grandmother and his young family spent three months in Perasma, in 1977. This was George’s second trip “home”.

The Yanis family home, Perasma
Photograph by S. Hristov, from the personal collection of George Yanis

The house was neglected and in disrepair. Albanian squatters had moved into many unoccupied homes such as this one, and had to be evicted. George did the house up, putting in a new kitchen and concreting the dirt floor.

Twenty two years later, George would confront his own mortality. In 1999, he became ill and spent some months in hospital. Forced to rethink his commitments, he reorganised his business affairs.

“I decided I needed to relax more”, George tells me.

Then he established the Cibo Tapas Bar, in Beaumont Street, Hamilton.

Once more, there would be redevelopment of the premises, partnership challenges and experimenting with food concepts until the right one was found.

Cibo on  Beaumont Street, Hamilton (2013)

So, is he relaxing more?

It’s a difficult time for the restaurant industry, and for retail businesses.

Cibo is more than a restaurant for George. Each afternoon, he sits at a table next to the bar, going through his papers, checking emails, and chatting with friends who know he can always be found in the same spot. Locals needing his services as a Justice of the Peace drop in.

“This place is my social life”, says George.

In this generous setting, huge photos of George’s Macedonian Greek heritage line the walls.

Interior of Cibo Tapas Bar, showing heritage wall

Cibo means “food” in Italian. George tells me it’s “a bit slangy”, like the Australian way of saying “tucker”, or “ a good feed”. It says something about the multicultural mix of Hamilton that this place has an Italian name, is run by a Macedonian Greek and his Australian/Italian wife, and serves European style tapas with a Mediterranean influence. George’s Mezzo and Cibo Paella are favorites.

Regular patrons include the Greek Macedonians, who sit inside the restaurant, and those who originated from the Republic of Macedonia. They sit at the pavement tables outside.

“What’s the relationship between the two groups like, here in Hamilton?” I ask.

“Just light rivalry”, he replies, diplomatically.

It is Risto who lingers in my mind long after I leave George.

Risto Yanis  in Sofia (1971)
Photograph from the personal collection of George Yanis

As a young man, he had the vision to realise he needed to do something different if he was to assure a future for his family. The path he took must have been a tough and lonely one. It was many years before his family were able to join him. By then, everyone had changed, and his relationship with his wife foundered.

More years were to pass before he retired and decided to reconnect with his Macedonian Greek roots. Perhaps he saw simple village life through rose tinted glasses. I can picture him, arriving home, greeting everyone, excited about the improvements he would make to the house. But things fell apart, and his dream of many peaceful years in the place he loved was never realised.

There was another sadness for the family, too. Simeon, George's older brother, died suddenly at the age of 29 from an inoperable  brain cyst. He had recently married, bought a house, and had his whole life ahead of him.

It took a couple of generations, but Risto Yanis did leave a legacy. It is here in Hamilton, the results of the imagination and labours of his grandson – landmark buildings, the smarter streetscape, and the smooth cooperation of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, which George Yanis chairs.

The five children George and Anna have raised are all on their way in life. His sister Meri lives with her family in a neighbouring suburb. They, too, will inherit the miller’s legacy.

George Yanis (1949-2017)


My thanks to George Yanis for hi story and photographs.


George Yanis passed away in May, 2017 aged 68.

[1] What is known as “The Macedonian Question” is a complex issue. For a short summary, refer to
[2] Lerin, in Macedonian.
[3]Nerat, in Macedonian.