Sitting in a display cabinet in the upstairs lounge area of Ken’s is a statue of the Buddha. He has been there, unperturbed and undisturbed, for many years. Naturally enough, he is as quiet as a stone. Mute.
A good thing, too. If that Buddha statue could talk, who knows what it would say? It’s been silent witness to so many comings and goings over the years, seen so many pairings-off and so many shenanigans, that if it could talk, it would probably never shut up.
Rainer Becker, the owner-manager of Ken’s, says most customers think the Buddha statue’s function is purely decorative. (I must admit I always assumed it was a leftover from a Sleaze Ball Homosutra display that somehow never got packed away.)
I like a bit of spiritual protection on my premises, Rainer explains simply.
For some, the Buddha statue is immediately connotative of karma, the belief that what you give out in life is what you get in return. It’s a philosophy that seems to resonate strongly in a place like Ken’s, where so much depends on moments of connection and where so much is transacted. (I mean that in physical and emotional senses, not financial.)
Ken’s At Kensington turns 30 next month. In its own way, this is a milestone for a gay community establishment, and in some ways, it’s a marvel that Ken’s is still around. When Ken’s Karate Klub first opened its doors in 1972, sex between men was illegal in New South Wales, and like all sex-on-premises venues, it was almost shut down in the mid-1980s when fears about the spread of HIV were at their highest.
The gay history of the 83 Anzac Parade, Kensington, site stretches back even further than 1972, however. In the winter of 1962, cabaret drag venue The Purple Onion opened its doors, and quickly attracted a diverse crowd, which included many gay men. In his book City Of The Plain, gay historian Garry Wotherspoon quotes the theatre critic Katharine Brisbane, who said The Purple Onion offered a piece of rare and authentic burlesque; shrewd, witty and always up-to-date.
One of the stars of The Purple Onion was Ken -“ otherwise known as Kandy -“ Johnson, who refurbished the venue in the early 70s, replacing the stage area with a pool, and re-opened it as Ken’s Karate Klub in 1972. According to one source, the name was meant to explain the vinyl-covered mats, and the thudding and groaning.
Photographer William Yang remembers the early days of the venue, when Purple Onion-style performances were still presented around the pool area.
Kandy did performances which I was invited to photograph, he wrote in Outrage magazine a few years ago. As drag shows of the time they were campy and fun, but the setting with everyone in lap laps around the pool was marvellous. It was a good excuse to take my camera to the sauna, which I would then smuggle into cubicles.
Many thought the AIDS epidemic of the mid-1980s would spell the end for sex-on-premises venues in Sydney, including Ken’s.
In 1985 we thought all the sex-on-premises venues were going to die, shut down by the government, says Rainer. But throughout that period, men still made their way to the venue. We didn’t chuck people out if they had a KS lesion on their body, we didn’t chuck people out if they were skinny and emaciated, he says. Ken’s was also one of the first venues to offer free condoms, lube and safe-sex information to patrons, he adds.
Ken’s has also offered its patrons another important commodity: discretion. Located just far enough from the madding crowd on Oxford Street, Ken’s has over the years attracted many men who don’t strictly identify as gay.
There are still some people who for whatever reason can’t afford to be identified on Oxford Street, Rainer says. There is a huge base out there of men who are having sex with men who are not gay-identified.
Part of the appeal of Ken’s, Rainer thinks, is the fact that it offers the patron separate spaces in which to cruise and relax.
This can be as sexual a place as you want, or as discreet as you want, he says. You can relax in a neutral corner while you’re still on the premises and nobody’s going to hassle you, whereas in many other venues you can’t do that.
The crowd Ken’s draws is as eclectic -“ and multicultural -“ as Sydney itself.
It’s always been extremely broad-based, Rainer says. There are people who are non-gay identifying, there are Oxford Street queens, there’s the leather crowd, quite a variety. We don’t have this tag of just being for the body beautiful set, or just rice queens or just potato queens.
When such a diverse crowd mixes, the results can be surprising, Rainer admits.
You never know who is going to fancy who, he says. You can’t foretell what a person’s taste is going to be like. A towel is a great leveller.
To celebrate their 30th anniversary, Ken’s At Kensington is offering patrons a discount of $4 on the entrance fee throughout the month of May, upon presentation of the voucher located in the ad in this issue of the Star. In addition, for every voucher received, Ken’s will donate $1 to the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation.