By Alexander Murrie, Bachelor of Psychology (Honours)
What is Sydney’s Chinatown to you? I have lived in Sydney my whole life and have visited Chinatown numerous times in search of one perfect thing – a cheap delicious feed. There was one place that filled this search completely and contributed even more: Dixon House Food Court. Stepping underground into this glorious food court was like stepping into a whole different world. It was a place shrouded in mystery, from words in languages I didn’t know, to smells I had never encountered. As I gazed up, the ceiling of mirrors reflected the beautiful mysterious world back towards me. It felt like the only thing it needed was a smoke machine and the place would have been fit for a disco. But disco wasn’t the kind of magic that happened here, instead it was chefs making the magic happen, while ladies peered through a small hole in the wall calling “Number 42”. This food court was truly something special.
While I loved this food court and had always enjoyed the area, I was always ignorant to the rich history of Chinatown. This is something I was able to learn about on the GLP Cultural Insights Day. The information presented on the day broadened my understandings of the significance of Chinatown. The presenters Vincent Lim (president of the Haymarket Chamber of Commerce) and Kevin Cheng (co-founder of Soul of Chinatown) allowed us students to appreciate the former beauty, the current culture, and the future potential of Chinatown.
The presenters informed us of the rich history of Chinatown dating back to the 1850’s during the gold rush. Initially, Chinatown was established in The Rocks as Chinese people catered to the needs of other Chinese people arriving in search of gold. Chinatown later moved into Haymarket for its proximity to the fresh fruit and vegetable markets which were important to many in the community. Chinese restaurants came to be established nearby. The face of Chinatown shifted as areas were demolished, the markets moved, and Chinese people became established across Greater Sydney.
The inception of Chinatown as we know it today coincided with the end of the White Australia Policy in the late 1960’s. At this time, the community fundraised to build the famous gates, and the area became closed off to traffic. Businesses took on Chinese style lanterns, iconography, and the use of the colour red. The 1980’s seemed to be described as the golden era of Chinatown, with business booming the location busy and vibrant.
However, present day Chinatown does not still have the same rich feeling. As part of the Cultural Insights Day, the GLP students took part in an “Amazing Race” style adventure that took us all over Chinatown. We dashed from Thai supermarkets in Thai Town to the fruit markets at Paddy’s Markets. We admired the artworks of Jason Wing which celebrates his Chinese-Aboriginal ancestry and enjoyed custard puffs at the Emperor’s Garden. While there were so many things to enjoy, a hollowness was still felt on the streets. The presenters had educated us about this perceived hollowness. The loss of the Entertainment Centre and the business it brought, combined with the pandemic related closures and xenophobia really effected the atmosphere of Chinatown. This led to the closure of world-renowned restaurants such as the Marigold and Golden Century (although there are some restaurants with long legacies such as Nine Dragons that are still operating).
Although, all is not lost, there is a new spark of hope, a team revitalising Chinatown. Soul of Chinatown is a multigenerational team aspiring to breathe new life into the area, supported by the community, government, and businesses. During Kevin Cheng’s presentation to the GLP students, he passionately declared his dream to reinvigorate Chinatown – a dream that is already in the works. His team at Soul of Chinatown was instrumental in running Neon Playground, a neon-lit community block party celebrating the diversity of Asia and of Chinatown. The streets were adorned with art installations created by numerous local Asian-Australian artists. Soul of Chinatown, supported by Haymarket HQ and the Haymarket Chamber of Commerce are asking for the state government to invest millions into Chinatown, to help re-establish its former glory.
In contrast, the Cultural Insights Day showed us students an example of a business that appeared to remain strong as ever - Choy Lee Fut Kung Fu. Here we had the honour of participating in an introductory Kung Fu session with Sifu Paul Nomchong.
Students on the GLP Cultural Insights Day were able to learn about Chinatown’s rich history – a history which deserves to be celebrated, preserved, and continued. Throughout the day, I came to realise that through the strength of the leaders in the community, Chinatown will restore its former liveliness and continue to a thrive as sight of significant cultural value.