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From 1851 during Australia’s gold rush period, Chinatowns in Australia were established as areas where Chinese migrants and workers could congregate.
Surrounded by their fellow countrymen, these early Chinese settlers found a sense of belonging in a strange new land.
Ien Ang is a cultural studies professor at the University of Western Sydney and says these 19th century Chinatowns were a refuge when anti-Chinese sentiments in the wider population were high.
“And as a result a lot of the Chinese gathered together and lived close together in an area that became seen as an unclass of Chinese. And from the outside world this unclass was seen as an area which was exclusive to Chinese, Chinese people, Chinese culture, Chinese communities and mostly seen in a very negative light.”
Chinatown Tour Guide George Wingkee was born in Australia of Chinese descent. He says Chinatown was where he discovered his roots.
"I was actually Chinese and Australian at the same time”
“It gave me a new body. It meant that I was actually Chinese and Australian at the same time.”
He says there weren’t many other Chinese families when he was growing up.
“We were the only Chinese family and I lived in country Queensland.”
He was overcome when he saw Sydney’s Chinatown for the first time.
“And until I came to Sydney, 1948, we arrived, I was overwhelmed by the number of Chinese people the bustling market place of Chinatown Sydney from the day I arrived here we went to Chinatown it was such an exciting and explosive atmosphere.”
He says the area was an important social and economic hub for the Chinese community.
"You only had the messages that the seamen had brought up from the nearby wharf at Cockle Bay. So it was a real social gathering place"
“You could go in and drink tea at no charge talk to associates who came from the same village. And my dad and I used to go down there. We got to buy our goods in Chinatown at the markets, at the vegetable markets and the fish market, and you’d end up at the clan shop chattering about the news from China. At that time there was no Chinese newspapers or Chinese radio. So you only had the messages that the seamen had brought up from the nearby wharf at Cockle Bay. So it was a real social gathering place.”
Back then Chinatown looked nothing like it does today.
According to Professor Ien Ang, it wasn’t until the end of the White Australia policy in the early 1970’s that Chinese centres like Sydney’s Haymarket started to experience a makeover.
“For example those gates, those Chinese gates, the really Chinese iconography, the use of colour red and lanterns and so forth, it was actually only started around that time around that time, around 1980. It gave the area an identity as Chinese.”
He says changing social attitudes brought new customers into Chinatowns across Australia.
"Chinatown became seen as an area where you can experience Chinese culture"
“The meaning of Chinatown throughout the century has also changed. Over time it has become more positive when societies became much more accepting of multiculturalism and cultural diversity and so on. Chinatown became seen as an area where you can experience Chinese culture where a lot of Chinese restaurants are located and so forth.”
Established in 1851, Melbourne’s Chinatown is one of the oldest in the West.
Its internationally renowned Chinese cuisine continues to attract visitors from all over the world.
Chair of Melbourne’s Chinatown Precinct, Danny Doon, says working with other communities has helped the area stay relevant over time
“Even our committee half of them is Aussie the other nationality half is Chinese original the other one is all sorts of people like hotel operator, car park operator, and even theatre operator, all in the committee we all come up with different ideas that’s why we keep our Chinatown going, keep our Chinatown on the map.”
Queensland’s Gold Coast is hoping to revitalise its tourism industry with a new Chinatown development in Southport, in the city’s central business district.
Head of the Gold Coast Chinatown Association, Ted Fong says the Chinatown will encourage business growth.
“Gold Coast is the tourism capital of Australia and we should have something to attract not just the local, tourists as well, to our own Chinatown. It’s to bring prosperity back to the area.”
Meanwhile, shopping centres in Queensland suburbs with large Chinese populations are becoming the new local Chinatowns.
Brisbane’s Sunnybank has a prominent Chinese community. Twenty-eight per cent of Sunnybank residents speak either Mandarin or Cantonese, according to the 2011 Census.
Local resident Christina Li says more and more people are choosing to shop and dine there.
"Also lots of Chinese migrants, Chinese families living in this area, also a lot of international students"
“There are a lot of restaurants and café for the food like restaurant cafe or supermarket they open quite late, some open until 11. Also lots of Chinese migrants, Chinese families living in this area, also a lot of international students. Sunnybank is more convenient. Every weekend it’s a must go place for us to (sic) shopping, and do the grocery, the weekly food shopping etc. You can easily find a car parking.”
But Professor Ang says the early Chinatowns will always have a place in Australian society.
“The suburban Chinatowns as they sometimes are called is that they are occupied by much more recent migrants and they do not have the kind of city wide reputation as a Chinatown whereas the Chinatown in the inner city because its long history it is symbolically seen still as the symbolic core of where Chinese culture in Australia started.”
Tour guide George Wingkee says he hopes Chinese Australians will continue to visit Chinatown and connect with the culture.
"They are Chinese descent who’ve never been exposed to the Chinese language even, they don’t speak Chinese but they’re born Chinese"
“Where we have parades and festivities this is where you’ll find these people will come together again. That’s why we try to retain the character of Chinatown for these people. I know if we did not have that, they would be lost. We’d get people who come down here they want to learn. They are Chinese descent who’ve never been exposed to the Chinese language even, they don’t speak Chinese but they’re born Chinese. Let them come back and find out what this is all about.”
Throughout February, Chinatowns across Australia are hosting events for the Lunar New Year Festival, which is celebrated by Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese communities.