Dictionary of Sydney

The Dictionary of Sydney was archived in 2021.


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If the term Chinatown was ever used in earlier decades – and it probably wasn't – it applied to two former concentrations of Chinese traders before it settled on its current location centred on Dixon Street at the southern end of Sydney's central business district. It is often said that Chinatown is like a dragon, with its feet in The Rocks, its belly in the Haymarket and its head in Dixon Street.

Chinatown in The Rocks

The first concentration of Chinese residences and shops was in lower George Street, in The Rocks. Men arriving to try their luck on the goldfields in the 1850s headed here to buy supplies for the trek inland, and soon rudimentary stores began providing more complex services to their countrymen, such as banking and letter writing. Some stores evolved into informal clan meeting rooms.

Many of the Chinese people who inhabited and worked in this area were interviewed for the 1891 Report of the Royal Commission on alleged Chinese gambling and immorality and charges of bribery again st members of the police force, which provides an unexpectedly detailed record of this first Chinatown. [1]

Some stores remained for many decades, including King Nam Jang, importers and ship providores. King Nam Jang was still trading a century after it opened in the 1860s. In the later part of the nineteenth century, some of the most successful Chinese businessmen and their families lived in nearby streets. However, by the 1870s the centre of the Chinese trade presence had moved south to Campbell and Goulburn streets, with residential areas spreading into Surry Hills.

Chinatown in the Haymarket

The reason for this move was the presence of the fruit and vegetable market buildings in Campbell Street in the Haymarket. Chinese market gardeners came in from the suburbs to trade, often staying overnight in boarding houses located in the surrounding streets. Cook-shops and stores followed, and eventually adjoining Surry Hills, based around Wexford Street (since removed), became home to many Chinese families. Mary Street in Surry Hills still houses some Chinese organisations today, including the old Chinese Masonic Society, and the more recent Australian Chinese Community Association.

There were wholesale demolitions of Chinese residences in this area of Surry Hills during early twentieth century slum clearances, and the city's markets moved to new premises at the head of Darling Harbour. Accordingly, Chinatown moved too, to its present location in Dixon Street.

Chinatown today

The Goon Yee Tong's meeting rooms at 50 Dixon Street, purchased in 1917, perhaps represent the longest continuous Chinese presence in this area. Other clan associations also remain here, including those of the Chung Shan and Go Yui people. Some of the local shops appeared to be humble enough, but were actually the headquarters of substantial trading organisations with heavy investment back in China. Here, too, boarding-houses were established, not only for transient market gardeners, but for market workers who lived out their days in a lonely Sydney existence.

King Fong, a public relations consultant, has been active in a multitude of Chinese organisations including the Chinese Australian Historical Society. He recalls his father's boarding house at 56 Dixon Street. It had been a notorious gambling house when Say Tin Fong established a grocery store at ground level. Eventually he rented the whole five storey building and converted it into 92 rooms.

I remember because I painted all the numbers on them. These men were the 'left-overs'. The Bamboo Curtain was down. No entry in, or out. In the 1950s and 60s no pension, no escape. Some of the old men sold peanuts at the Randwick races, in baskets once used for vegies. [2]

By the 1940s, the more adventurous Sydneysiders were prepared to sample the offerings at some of the Chinese restaurants, but the locality was primarily to serve the local Chinese community. The long connection to the markets was broken when they moved to Flemington in 1968, and as the community shrank in size, the place became run-down. The city council, anxious to promote a dying precinct, set up the Dixon Street Chinese Committee in 1971, chaired by Henry Ming Lai (1913–2006). Nothing came of this immediately, probably because the committee had connections to Taiwan, and the recognition of China shifted the focus elsewhere. However, in 1979 the council decided to push ahead, and as a first step closed Dixon Street to vehicular traffic, to form a mall. Local Chinese businesses donated money for a set of damen (arches), and the architectural firm of Tsang and Lee provided pro bono services. Stanley Wong, wealthy Chinese businessman and flamboyant racehorse owner, agreed to chair the committee. A newly revamped Chinatown was opened by Lord Mayor Nelson Meers to great fanfare in 1980.

There was some academic criticism of this 'Chinatown branding' being a commercially motivated romanticisation of 'Chineseness', [3] but others said it was a much needed acknowledgment of an old and well-established community. Either way, it proved a success. Chinatown spread to streets adjacent to the Dixon Street mall as Chinese businesses expanded, and property values in this part of town, which had missed out in the property boom of the 1960s and 1970s, began to rise.

By the 1990s Chinatown had expanded into many of the surrounding streets. It is not a place with fixed boundaries, but if Chinatown is defined by obvious signs of a Chinese presence, it now spreads from Darling Harbour back across into the Haymarket, reviving and connecting to the older precinct around Campbell Street.

As the numbers of Chinese living in Sydney grew, there developed many concentrations of Chinese residents across the metropolitan area. Nevertheless, symbolism of this old Chinese precinct has helped it to survive as a destination for many local Chinese, as well as for tourists and diners who enjoy the ambience and appreciate the complexity of the Chinese cuisine now on offer. Gone are the days of chop suey and long soup. While Chinatown provides outlets for traditional Chinese products and services such as acupuncture or herbal medicines, it also provides the whole range of services and products of a global economy in a Chinese setting. Although many places in Sydney offer outlets for Chinese products and services, this is the place most self-consciously Chinese. The 'experience' is enhanced by the tranquillity of the nearby Chinese Gardens, as well as by the deafening roar of fire crackers and the noise and colour of the dragons and lion dancers who herald in Chinese New Year with a procession that becomes larger each year.


Shirley Fitzgerald, Red Tape, Gold Scissors: The Story of Sydney's Chinese, 2nd ed, Halstead Press in association with the City of Sydney, Ultimo, 2008


[1] Jane Lyden, Many Inventions: The Chinese in the Rocks, 1890–1930, Monash University, Department of History, Clayton, 1999

[2] King Fong, interview with Shirley Fitzgerald, 1996; Shirley Fitzgerald, Red Tape, Gold Scissors: The Story of Sydney's Chinese, 2nd ed, Halstead Press in association with the City of Sydney, Ultimo, 2008, Part 3

[3] Kay Anderson, 'Chinatown Re-oriented: A Critical Analysis of Recent Development Schemes in a Melbourne and Sydney Enclave', Australian Geographical Studies, vol 28, no 2, October 1990