Are We Losing Chinatown?

The rise and decline of Sydney’s most colourful, eccentric and loved district.

You can’t walk through Sydney’s Chinatown without feeling a strong sense of cultural identity, pride and character. The fragrant and familiar smell of Chinese cuisine, colourful buildings and hustle and bustle is something long associated with China town in Australia and all over the world.

Image: Daniel Walkington

But are the world’s Chinatowns becoming something of the past?

King Fong, president of the Chinese Historical Society in Australia, explained to News Corp Australia,  that Chinatowns are changing worldwide.

Image: Daniel Walkington

“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.”

Fong believes that the gradual phasing out of the term “Chinese New Year” and the adoption of “Lunar New Year” which includes celebrations among the Japanese and Korean communities has led to the gradual fading of China Town.

History of a Town

The cultural enclave that is Chinatown, was formed in Australia and America due to mass migration during the Goldrush. Chinese migrants were met with hostility and anger and were forced under strict laws, like the Exclusion Act in America and The White Australia Policy in Australia to settle in their own districts, sanctioned off from the rest of Australia.

The first wave of Chinese immigration came at the start of the Gold Rush in 1851, and ten years after gold was discovered there were 38,300 Chinese Men living in Australia, but only 11 Chinese women. This was due to the incredibly discriminatory White Australia Policy which banned Chinese women migrating to Australia. It was only wealthy merchants, who could sponsor wives and daughters.

Image: Daniel Walkington

Settlers and migration of the Chinese dropped off after federation in 1901.

“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.

Image: Daniel Walkington

After the White Australia Policy started to dissolve in the 1950’s citizenship was easier to apply for, and Chinese culture became more widely accepted in Australia, particularly Chinese cuisine, which started to become a novelty for Australian housewives. Going out to a Chinese restaurant became an exotic thing.

But now, the cultural hub in Sydney’s CBD is slowly becoming less Chinese influenced and more like an ‘Asiatown'. A study from the University of Western Sydney examined the area over three years and found that the borders of Chinatown were expanding away from Dixon street and new flavours such as Thai, and Korean were popping up instead. This cultural shift away from a distinctly Chinese influenced area to a broader Asian influence has been attributed to generational shifts and changing tastes of younger Asian students.

Image: Daniel Walkington 

Chinatown is an important part of Australia’s history. Despite, the cultural shifts in Sydney in the past three years, Chinatown’s colourful gates will always be a shining reminder of the once boisterous Chinese culture and the history of the first Chinese immigrants in Australia.

Watch documentaries like China From Above, Death Of Mao and more this Lunar New Year on the NEW National Geographic App. Download it here for 30 days FREE ACCESS on any Australian mobile number, thanks to Optus.

Lead Image: Sydney's China Town, Photo by Luke Williams

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