When Chinese people first came to Australia in the early 1860’s, lured in by the prospect of finding gold, those that settled in Sydney settled in the Surrey Hills area, the far side Central Station from today’s Chinatown.
These early Chinese settlers were not welcomed by Europeans, who had not long since settled in Australia themselves. Indeed they were greatly resented. This resentment boiled over in Young, a gold rush town a couple of hundred kilometres west of Sydney, in 1860 with the Lambing Flat Riots. You can read more on this in two separate reviews – Reading the Riot Act and Lambing Flat Chinese Tribute Gardens.
Suffice it to say here that the resultant Chinese Immigration Restriction Act of 1861 was the beginning of Australia’s infamous White Australia policy which lasted over 100 years until 1966. Under the White Australia policy, specifically directed at the Chinese without naming them (as other Asian immigration was minimal until the 1970s Vietnam War), it was well nigh impossible for Chinese to settle in Australia. While they could, of course, apply for entry to Australia they had to take a dictation test. Applicants sat this test in a language of the choosing of the officiating officer and needless to say the language chosen would not be Chinese, so few passed.
The dictation test was removed in 1958, though the White Australia policy persisted until 1966.
During the 1920s the small and dwindling Chinese community moved to where the Capital Theatre is now (lower George Street) and then with the development of Paddy’s market and other things in this area during the 1930s they moved to Dixon and Little Hay Streets, which remain the hub of Chinatown today.
The removal of the White Australia policy saw an influx of Chinese and South East Asian investment and people into Australia. This and the later influx of political refugees, from the Vietnam War in particular, saw a massive growth in, and expansion of, Chinatown such that today it stretches from Central Station to Darling Harbour encompassing a fair bit of lower George Street. While it now includes businesses and people of many Asian backgrounds the core part of Dixon, Little Hay and to a large extent Sussex Streets firmly remains in the hands of mainland Chinese and it is in Dixon Street you will see the traditional oriental architecture with paifangs (Chinese archways) and guardian lions at each end of the now pedestrianised street.
Food of all Asian persuasions is in abundance in the greater Chinatown area (if I may call it that). I would hazard to suggest that Vietnamese food outlets of various types now out number Chinese outlets. Indonesian, Singaporean, Korean, Japanese, Thai, Malaysian – in fact the whole ambit of Asian cuisine is readily available from the food court level (what most of them lack in ambiance they make up for in food quality and price) to Chinese banquets fit for an emperor.
Speaking of emperors, no matter which type of food you chose to eat here you simply must leave space for an Emperor Puff or two, if you haven’t snacked on one between meals. Do have a look at my separate review on Emperor Puffs to find out more about these tasty morsels and, most importantly, where to lay your hands on them.
If I may, I will single out one Chinese restaurant for special mention because it does an excellent, relatively authentic, yum cha (dim sum) and because it is hidden away on the 4th – 5ft floor of a building so you would be unlikely to stumble across it. It is the Marigold Restaurant, located in the Citymark building which is officially on 683-689 George St but easier to find/enter at the intersection of Hay and Thomas Streets as depicted in the next picture.
While there is no doubt that food outlets predominate in Chinatown there are also loads of Asian shops (including many tucked away in arcades) selling all sorts of things. As such, Chinatown is the place to come for all your josh sticks, incense and other altar table requisites including Buddhas of all shapes and sizes, Chinese medicines, Tiger Brand rice cookers (I swear by mine!), arts and crafts, gold and jewellery and so much more. It is no secret that I detest shopping but I do love poking around in shops here not knowing what I’ll find next.
While Chinatown is busy all day I personally like to come here at night when it is particularly vibrant and red Chinese lanterns light up Dixon Street. If you can make it on a Friday night when market stalls (food and trinkets) line Dixon Street, so much the better.
The area is certainly big enough such that you get that Asian street life feel and it should be on every visitor to Sydney’s to do list.
Address: Dixon Street, Haymarket
Directions: And many streets surrounding this.