Chinatown in Sydney’s Haymarket is one of Sydney’s most vibrant and exciting precincts. The streets are always busy with people coming and going, restaurants bustle with each other for attention, exotic foods and aromas take you briefly out of Sydney and into the world. While it may look like Chinatown has always been here, the Chinese community, like others, has moved around Sydney, migrating through the streets over 160 years or so. One of the earliest Chinese settlers was a man, Mak Sai Ying, who arrived in Sydney in 1818, settling in Parramatta where he ran a public house called The Lion.
Small numbers followed through the 1820s and 1830s, mainly working as labourers, carpenters and some shepherds. After 1842 and the Treaty of Nanking which ceded Hong Kong to England, more Chinese men began coming to Sydney many as indentured labourers bound for farms in NSW and Queensland.
About 2500 Chinese men had passed through in Sydney by 1852. A small community began to appear in The Rocks around the same time and was well placed when the numbers dramatically increased after the discovery of gold in 1851. By 1861 about 13000 Chinese lived in NSW, although only about 200 were in Sydney.
The Rocks, being the first port of call for most, meant it was here that Chinese guesthouses and lodgings first appeared, followed by Chinese merchants, dealers and other tradespeople fitting out those on the way to the gold fields. Inevitably not everyone made their fortune in gold and some of the Chinese returned to Sydney.
Many took up work in the market gardens that ringed the city at Rushcutters Bay, Alexandria and Waterloo. The gardeners would sell their produce at the Belmore Markets in Campbell Street, the site of the Capitol Theatre, staying in lodging houses around Campbell and Goulburn Streets. Gradually this became the focus of the Chinese community in Sydney, with the majority of Chinese living here by 1900.
As The Rocks wound down in terms of its Chinese community, the Haymarket area expanded, heading east into Surry Hills, around Wexford Street in particular. Chinese churches and temples were built, shops and traders moved in, as did gambling houses, opium dens (still legal then) and more lodgings.
The area got to get a bad reputation as a slum and a place of vice. This was driven more by xenophobic and anti-Chinese sentiment then reality, but it had an effect.
In 1905 when Sydney Council was granted the power to resume city areas for improvement and development, the Chinatown around Wexford Street and the lower end of Surry Hills was one of the first selected. Wexford Street was demolished and widened to become Wentworth Avenue. 100s of families, not just Chinese, were evicted and their houses razed.
By this time some Chinese had purchased property around Dixon Street, west of the markets and some of the families and businesses dislocated in the resumptions moved in to this area.
Through the first three decades of the twentieth century Dixon Street and its surrounding streets consolidated as the new Chinatown. Although it took some time for the population to increase (due to the White Australia Policy amongst other things), by the 1970s the Dixon Street area was the acknowledged centre of Sydney’s Chinese community and it began to spread back east towards the old Belmore Market area once again.
Some say that the Chinese dragon spreads through the area, with its head in Campbell Street, its body in Ultimo Road and its tail in Dixon Street.
Either way, it is one of Sydney’s great precincts.
Kung Hei Fat Choy (Happy Chinese New Year)
PS: If you want to read more see Shirley Fitzgerald’s excellent study of Sydney’s Chinese Community-Red Tape Gold Scissors The Story of Sydney’s Chinese