At Home With The Icons Behind Adelaide’s Miss Gladys Sym Choon

Photos: Josh Geelen

Joff Chappel and Razak Mohammed have watched over Rundle Street from their tiny apartment balcony for 32 years. Nestled atop iconic boutique Miss Gladys Sym Choon, their home bursts with stories. While the walls can’t talk, Joff and Razak certainly can.

We met at Yum Cha, on a Sunday, in Sydney,” Joff says as he sips a bottle of SA red at his weathered dining room table. It doubles as a desk. Future Miss Gladys plans litter the surface. He’s always planning. The sun streams through the crooked French doors leading out to ‘that’ iconic balcony. As the pair reminisce how they met, bright colours bounce off the artwork that covers every wall.

“I was living in Sydney at the time,” Razak says. “Joff said, ‘Come to Adelaide for a party’. So I did. We drove. It took us two days, in 40-degree heat. The car would heat up every two hours.” Razak smiles, shuffling on ‘his spot’ on their well-loved lounge. He unruffles his shirt and reaches for a glass. “That was just for a party!” He laughs, pouring the wine. “We were just friends then.”

Miss Gladys Sym Choon

The duo never left Adelaide (and they’re still known for their parties). They became stalwarts of the East End, watching the city change
from their coveted vantage point. “I have my breakfast out here every morning, watching
the world” Joff says, tending to his beloved pot plants in their urban balcony jungle.

They’ve seen it all from up here. “The first Grand Prix there was a rowdy crowd on the verandah and this guy down on the street gets the shits when he saw us up here. He decides he’s going to give us a brown-eye!” Joff says.

Controversial sightings aside, the apartment has become an Adelaide social magnet. “We’ve had everyone up here,” Joff says. “In the nineties, I would be down at the Ex [the Exeter Hotel] and bring up 15 people and Razak would cook his famous beef rendang for them and we’d chat about the street for hours.”

He’s been in love with the building for as long as he can remember. “I used to walk from school through here [Rundle Street] to catch the bus,” Joff says. “I marveled that this place was like it was a hundred years before. I thought something nice must happen to it eventually.” It did, thanks to hard work and a bit of serendipity.

Miss Gladys Sym Choon

“Where do we start,” Razak says. Originally from Malaysia, he moved to Sydney to finish his degree. “I failed miserably.” He laughs. After losing his academic migrant scholarship and
in need of money, he started making clothes.
“I was living in North Sydney with a friend. We started making little frocks, tops and all sorts. In the eighties, anything goes!” Sellout appearances at Paddington Markets led to a fashion label for the talented designer. After meeting Joff, his designs led him to Adelaide where he continued his clothing line.

Razak’s designs are scattered about the cosy apartment on hangers. Dusty glam heels perch on bookshelves and a rabbit warren of clothes they ‘love too much’ hang on racks in the levels connecting the shop and apartment. They live and breathe what they do.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. “Nobody would take my work,” Razak says of the move. “So Joff said we should have a party to promote
my work.” They entered the Lady Mayoress Lady Fashion Awards and made it a party. “We scrounged up a table for 10 for the event and he won all rounds,” Joff says proudly, pointing to a series of black and white photographs of the night hanging proudly in their living room.

Miss Gladys Sym Choon

Nostalgic prints are a theme here. History
is woven in the walls and crooked picture frames. Old prints of market workers line a hallway. The East End produce market was still in action when the pair moved in 1988. “That’s the spud man, and the banana king,” Joff says pointing to the vintage prints.

It’s all part of the reason they fell in love with the East End in the first place. International migrant workers were prominent here, something the pair felt personally connected to. “I got done for over-staying my visa [after winning the fashion show awards],” Razak says. To sponsor him to stay in Adelaide, they opened their first boutique on Rundle Street (opposite their current location).

“The sponsorship didn’t work, so they threw Razak out about two days after the shop opened, and suddenly I’m in the rag trade! I didn’t know anything about it,” Joff says. But
it became a labour of love, especially after securing their dream shop space and home at the now Miss Gladys.

Miss Gladys Sym Choon

“I’d always loved this shop,” Joff says. Originally owned by Gladys Sym Choon,
a Chinese migrant whose family started a number of thriving businesses in the city. She opened Miss Gladys in 1937 at just 16 years of age. “She was quite the entrepreneur,” Joff says, pointing out family photographs of Gladys and her family, dotted about the house in homage to the influential woman.

“She was 80 when we moved into the store,” Joff says. “She didn’t rent it to us herself, she would have been too emotional.” After renting the store for 32 years from Gladys’ daughter Mei Ling, the opportunity to purchase it arose last year. They still rent the apartment.

Not much has changed since 1988, most obviously the name. “Gladys put the sign up celebrating her single status,” Joff says. “When we asked if we could use the name, she said, ‘I meant to take that down every Christmas for 50 years!” The sign remains, although a replica was eventually made.

“We had issues with [Razak’s] migration, so it was kind of interesting to use a Chinese name at the time because there were no Chinese around the East End. Razak was a complete spectacle!” Joff says. “It was quite symbolic. There is some social consequence of keeping that name. The Sym Choons were a successful Chinese family in the midst of White Australian policy. It’s a good news story about Australia as a good place.”

Miss Gladys Sym Choon

To keep with the original theme, they re-painted the shop red, as Gladys had. “The heritage builders were outraged. They’d gone and painted them all beige. I just painted over They were really shitty about it but they changed their minds eventually,” Joff says.

People still come to the store for Gladys, even after all these years. “Not long ago, a man came in and said, ‘I bought some napkins and I’m wanting a replacement, mind if I speak to Gladys?’ The napkins were from 1934,” Joff says. “I had another old chook come and see me recently who said she played with Gladys in the cellar here when she was four.”

The flat meanders down through a maze of half-floors, stock rooms and cellars, all developed by the Sym Choon family. Now, they’re filled with a treasure trove of goodies that will eventually make it on to shelves. It’s like a fairytale – entering your home almost as if through a giant Narnia wardrobe of frocks and footwear.

While the space may not have changed much, the East End has. “You could get a room up in one of these for 10 dollars a week when we moved in here. These places were full of artists,” Joff says. “We opened this shop on the Sunday before the first Grand Prix. We had
a party on the street… we thought nobody would mind. We woke up on the Sunday morning and the street had been blocked off. We had our party and we set up badminton
on the street. That was the beginning of something monstrous. We started an East End group and fought for heriage to be maintained.”

Miss Gladys Sym Choon

With a background in architecture and town planning, Joff has had a hand in much of the development in the East End, passionate about preserving what makes this pocket of Adelaide so special. It’s part of the reason they’ve never changed their flat. “It’s just never needed to be changed. We like it the way it is.”

They renovated their shop after the Rundle Street fires in ’93 to include a gallery upstairs, much of which now hangs in their flat, but they’ve made very little other changes. “I love the worn in, lived-in and occupied look,” Joff says. “Sometimes it gets really messy.”

His favourite spot? “The verandah. It’s an incredible viewpoint to the world. You can sit up here and be very discrete and see people walking past minding their own business, walking to work in their suits and sneakers. I’ve never stopped being amused by it.” He chuckles. Razak loves the kitchen. It might be tiny, but he’s stacked and packed in every bowl, wok and utensil imaginable for his Rundle Street soirees. “As soon as we get to town, it’s straight to the Central Market.”

Miss Gladys Sym Choon

The pair now split half their time between here and their second home, a retreat in Port Willunga. Leaving their beloved shop and home is a delicate subject. “If we can do a little less and grow older comfortably, we’ll just hang around I think,” Joff says. “If it gets too hard, we’ll have to make some calls. But right now we still have so much to do.”

See the Sym Choon: Changing Fortunes in White Australia exhibition at the Migration
Museum until 22 July. 10am to 5pm daily.

Have you visited this iconic store? Do you have a Miss Gladys Story? Let us know in the comments, below.

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