Chinatowns are dying: Why the Chinese centres of Australian cities are disappearing


THE future of Sydney’s Chinatown hangs in the balance. And it’s not the only one. Chinatowns all over the world are disappearing.

Our favourite place to go for Yum Cha is under threat due to major planned developments in the surrounding area, the changing socio-economic status of Chinese immigrants and the likes of Thai Town and Korea Town taking over areas that were once part of Chinatown, according to the president of Sydney’s Haymarket Chamber of Commerce, Simon Chan.

“When I came [to Sydney] in 1970, there was a fairly close-knit community — when I walked through Chinatown I knew everybody. There’s no way I would be able to do that now,” Chan said.


In decades past, Chinatowns around the world became a focal point for newly arrived Chinese immigrants.

“They tend to congregate together and start businesses,” Chan explained.

“Over the next couple of generations, they usually try to work towards a better life and their children become university educated. A lot of the next generation don’t hang around to continue the family business in Chinatown because they’ve become professionals.

“Over time, you can’t stop somebody else coming in to buy property or run a businesses.”

King Fong is one of those Chinese immigrants affected by generational change. He arrived in Australia in 1946 at the age of eight, and helped his dad in his shop in Chinatown before it was passed down to him.

He said that at that time, all of Chinatown’s business owners belonged to one of eight clans from Guang Dong province, and that while some clan owners survive today, the business community is far more disparate.

“My own children helped me with the grocery store but they stopped after they went to university because they preferred the academic life,” he said.

Chinatown brings so much more to Australia than a good Yum Cha. But it does deliver on that too.

Chinatown brings so much more to Australia than a good Yum Cha. But it does deliver on that too.Source:News Corp Australia

That’s not to say Australia has less Chinese immigrants. China overtook England and New Zealand as the most popular overseas country of birth in the latest Census. But those immigrants are coming to Australia are more often “white-collar” professionals.

“To come to Australia as a student is expensive, so the students that come usually have wealthy parents. They can afford to pay high rents and enjoy the luxuries of life here. And because they are pretty well off they are also better educated. We find that success brings more success,” says Fong, who is now the president of the Chinese Historical Society.

King Fong, president of the Chinese Historical Society.

King Fong, president of the Chinese Historical Society.Source:News Corp Australia


Chan says that due to Sydney’s Haymarket being located in an area where there will be a huge amount of property development, such as the demolition of Woolworths opposite Town Hall to make way for a plaza and the UTS upgrade, it will likely become more lucrative for Chinese-Australian business owners in Chinatown to sell up and make way for new developments.

“Campbell Street used to be part of Chinatown. There were well established Chinese grocery and restaurants, but now it’s Thai Town. There’s no law to say you can’t set up a business that isn’t Chinese. You can’t control that, of course,” he said.

Chan said he hopes that the City of Sydney is looking at the Development Control Plan for Chinatown and that it will try and maintain the Chinese character of the area, although as an architect he admits that not all the buildings are worth preserving.

Chinatown has been a part of Sydney for over a century. This undated photo was taken around 1900. Picture: Sydney City Council Archives

Chinatown has been a part of Sydney for over a century. This undated photo was taken around 1900. Picture: Sydney City Council ArchivesSource:News Corp Australia


Fong agrees that the world’s Chinatowns are irrevocably changing.

“Chinatowns all over the world are becoming less Chinese and more oriental. In Sydney there are now Koreans, Thai, Malays, Singaporeans, Japanese and Malaysians. And we’ve got the Caucasian shops mixed in there too, running the convenience stores. The whole mixture now has changed. It’s much more competitive now.”

Fond said the more global nature of Chinatowns in Australia is reflected by the gradual phasing out of the term ‘Chinese New Year’, which is now usually marketed as the ‘Lunar New Year’ or a variant of Chinese-Lunar because that includes celebrations among the Japanese and Korean communities.


The Gold Rushes that began in 1851 attracted the first major wave of Chinese immigration to Australia. Ten years after gold was discovered, there were 38,300 Chinese men — but just 11 women.

Under the discriminatory White Australia policy, there was a ban on Chinese women coming to Australia, whether they be wives or daughters. Only the most successful merchants could sponsor their wives and this shortage of women lasted for decades.

After federation in 1901, the numbers of Chinese started to drop off dramatically and reached a low of 14,300 in 1933.

“The Chinese started to leave Australia because they weren’t able to compete with the mainstream white population,” explained Fong.

“They were still called aliens and didn’t have citizenship, so they couldn’t own land unless they were married to a white lady. But this was impossible for most. Unless you were very wealthy or had an academic background, Chinese men were only allowed to marry Aboriginal women or convict women. You couldn’t marry into high society,” explained Fong.

Mr Fong said that when the British-owned East India Company started importing opium, many

Chinese in Australia turned to smoking it out of loneliness, poor job prospects and depression.

The White Australia policies began to be dismantled from 1949 onwards and Australian citizenship became easier to obtain. Aspects of Chinese culture — particularly the food — started to be embraced by wider Australia from this point onwards.

Chinese food had been a novelty until the 1950s, when the well-known cook and journalist Margaret Fulton was hired by a gas company to sell more gas to Australian housewives.

“One way of doing this was through Chinese cooking on a wok,” Fong said.

“She started including Chinese recipes in her column in Woman’s Day and told readers to buy the cooking utensils from us in Chinatown. We had to triple our import quota from overseas and were very grateful to her.”

It was iconic Australian cook Margaret Fulton who brought Chinese food to the housewives of Australia. Picture: Bob Barker

It was iconic Australian cook Margaret Fulton who brought Chinese food to the housewives of Australia. Picture: Bob BarkerSource:News Corp Australia


Chan said he came up with the idea of a Chinese Heritage Museum a few years ago when he realised that Chinatowns around the world are dying and has already started talking to other community groups about submitting a proposal to the City of Sydney within the next year.

His plan is for a Chinese Heritage Museum to be set up in the soon-to-be-vacated Haymarket Library.

Chan said that part of the space could also be used to host art exhibitions, while another part could be rented out for community events. He said the proposal to the City of Sydney will include a request for funding and a possible “dollar-a-year” lease.

Chan acknowledges that there will be rival claims to the building and that if their bid is unsuccessful, he wants to set up interactive kiosks in Chinatown that depict aspects of the history of Chinese communities in Sydney, which began in 1818 when the first documented Chinese settler, Mak Sai Ying, arrived and later opened a pub in Parramatta called The Lion.

The curator of Sydney Living Museums Dr Nicola Teffer told that despite being a global city, Sydney has no museum “dedicated to displaying its history of immigration and cultural diversity”.

Melbourne’s Chinese Museum opened 32 years ago while other global cities such as Singapore, Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles, London, Vancouver and Zurich all have Chinese museums.

Dr Teffer has curated two exhibitions devoted to Sydney’s Chinese history. She said “there are many more stories to tell and more material to reveal of its Chinese heritage.”

“[The stories] deserve to be interpreted and preserved in a permanent facility so that this important aspect of Sydney’s ongoing story of immigration and cultural diversity can be made available to the wider public,” she added.

By Jessica Mudditt


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here