CHI CHI DELUXE, The Mars Bar & Beyond


Jon and Claire Adams played a role in Brisbane’s creative development 1983 – 2000 and contributed to a number of commercial and creative projects including Chi Chi Deluxe, The Mars Bar, Time Off, Expo 88, Expo Park, Club Absolute, Sleaze Ball, TOPS (Myer Centre) along with a numerous one-off art events and warehouse parties.

We landed in Brisbane in 1983 direct from Sydney where we’d played a part in that city’s burgeoning and vibrant underground arts scene. By comparison, Brisbane’s creative community was small, fragmented, hard to find and truly underground. Whereas Sydney had several community radio stations and half a dozen weekly street papers, Brisbane relied on Radio 4ZZZ and a shabby four page rag called Time Off as the only conduits of local information. Nightclubs and live music venues were also few and far between and apart from a couple of gay bars – including the Cockatoo in Fortitude Valley – there wasn’t much to interest us.


Back then Queensland was a police state and Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s much feared team of officers known as Special Branch controlled the streets, while the equally feared Licensing Squad controlled the venues along with the illegal gambling houses, sex shops and brothels – all the while keeping a lid on anything they deemed undesirable. Basically this meant anything or anyone that didn’t fit the bill – namely artists, political activists, gays, the avant-garde, and the Indigenous population. For these social outcasts, Brisbane was a dangerous place to live but despite the harsh political environment Brisbane was also full of immense potential. Hardship bred true creativity and while many, understandably elected to leave, circumstance and repression conspired to deliver hope – and innovation flourished.


In late 1983 the Roma St precinct – a triangle of real estate bordered by George, Roma, Turbot and Little Roma Streets had become something of a focal point for Brisbane’s creative community with a string of alternative traders, designers and artists setting up shop in the ramshackle buildings that had been vacated some years earlier. As more businesses opened their doors, the level of public interest grew and by early 1984 the Roma Street precinct had become home to Brisbane’s counter-culture with secondhand furniture stores, galleries, design studios, fashion outlets, a nightclub, and bookstore attracting a steady stream of visitors. Chi Chi Deluxe, The Observatory, Anna Bourke’s Atomic Studio, Sensoria and Ros Paton were among the tenants that gave the area an identifiable profile.

While the entire area had been earmarked for demolition, the tenants made the best of the time they had. Some buildings were converted and used for accommodation with lofts built to make them livable. Some had bathrooms and kitchens – most didn’t. Stores and spaces were renovated using timber scavenged from deserted building sites with neighbors helping each other out – trading construction skills and materials in a shared economy. Many of the businesses had relatively short lives but those that lasted, survived on hope and each other’s support.


The Roma Street precinct was important for Brisbane because it gave the creative community a visible and physical presence which had previously been denied them. People came out of the woodwork with a new sense of confidence and a ‘fuck you’ mentality. Sure there had been other spaces where artists had gathered and exhibited in the 1970s and 80s but these had been standalone, one off or individual art spaces. Having an entire city block occupied by artists was something else. It gave Brisbane’s alternate community a form of legitimacy and acted as a catalyst for others to follow. Would it be too bold to say it ignited a new level of art based activism? Over the ensuing months, other businesses and creative enterprises opened up along George, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Mary Streets. And while the government tried to contain and control its citizen’s, Brisbane’s creative community beavered away, building an underground art scene that went from strength to strength. Pockets of creativity sprung up wherever cheap rents could be found. Galleries and art spaces grew where flowers couldn’t and on the weekends there’d be rent parties or warehouse happenings around the city.


The Mars Bar, a progressive dance club opened on the corner of George and Elizabeth Street and soon became home to the musically aware who filled the venue every Friday night. Apart from its musical direction, the Mars Bar led the way with one of Australia’s first female DJs Jane Taylor presiding over the wheels of steel. The long abandoned Wool Stores at Tenerife and empty buildings on Elizabeth, Charlotte and George Streets became popular spots for one-off art / dance party events that would run until dawn. Unlicensed, unannounced and unregistered, these illegal parties were promoted using a network of friends, flyers, or a ‘secret’ telephone number hooked up to an answering machine. Punters would call the number at a pre-arranged time (usually just a few hours prior to the event) to find out where the party was being held. That way everything was kept on the low down and you’d avoid any trouble from gatecrashers or unwelcome attention from the police.


Throughout the 1980s there was an eagerness, if not desperation, to experience something new – a byproduct of the repressive nature of government. It was a decade of DIY – spawned by punk and emboldened by the forces of authority. Venues came and went and development took precedence over arts and culture but there was still an upside. Expo 88 and the Myer Centre provided opportunities to engage and employ local artists with sculptors, muralists, designers and set builders finding work.


Over the years the city’s legendary underground haunts were bought up, knocked down and built over in the glut of gentrification that consumed the city. White Chairs, the Canberra and New York hotels were lost to development. But despite the ever changing environment, Brisbane’s creative community was growing steadily. Everyone knew each other and there was a camaraderie amongst artists, musicians, designers, gallerists, promoters, DJs and venue owners that made it particularly special.


I remember heading home from an all-night party, walking down the median strip of a deserted road in Tenerife, thinking that one day I would look back at this period, proud that that I was living in a city with a future instead of a town with a bleak and violent past. Of course there were days when the temptation to leave was overwhelming; when the pace of change stalled and friends left for greener pastures. But despite it all, we decided to stay and we’re glad we did.


Words: Jon Adams 2016