Tuesday was the official day of Chinese New Year, a festival that has been celebrated for generations in Sydney,  so today I thought we’d look at the long history of Chinese people in Sydney.

Listen to the whole conversation with Lisa and Tess on 2SER here 

Chinese export ware punchbowl depicting Sydney Cove before 1820, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (a281002 / XR 10)

Chinese export ware punchbowl depicting Sydney Cove before 1820, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (a281002 / XR 10)

There has long been a Chinese influence in Sydney. Many people may not realise it, but there has been trade with China pretty much from when the penal colony was established.

In the first year of settlement a convict woman wrote home bemoaning the parlous state of the settlement, adding as the only positive note that ‘we are comforted with hopes of a supply of tea from China.’

Trade routes between Britain and China under the East India company’s trade started using Sydney as a port of call.

The gold rushes of the 1850s brought many Chinese men to Sydney. By the 1860s, Sydney’s business directories listed Chinese premises, especially in The Rocks, with a concentration of Chinese shops, cook-shops and boarding houses on Lower George Street, close to the wharves.

By the 1870s, Chinese merchants and gardeners were moving further afield to Alexandria, Waterloo and Rushcutters Bay, leasing market gardens. Alexandria became the food bowl of Sydney, sending fresh vegetables to the markets every day.

Sydney Mail 8 February 1862 p2, via Trove

Sydney Mail 8 February 1862 p2, via Trove

One of the earliest impacts of the celebrations of Chinese New Year to be felt in Sydney was on vegetable prices. As Chinese people took a few days off work to visit family and friends, or even took weeks off to go back home to China, vegetables at the markets became scarce and prices shot up! This side-effect of Chinese New Year celebrations can be traced through newspaper accounts of market prices from the late 19th century.

Celebrations took place at Sydney’s oldest Chinese temples,  at Alexandria and Glebe. The celebrations were both exotic and exciting for white Australians and celebrations were regularly reported in the mainstream newspapers.

Fireworks and lion dances were all part of the spectacle. And on more than one occasion the tram along Botany Road was brought to a standstill by the huge crowds that followed the lion dance.

Older people recall lion dances in Botany Road up until the 1930s. But with a declining Chinese population, these traditions faded, and it is only since the refurbishment of Chinatown as a tourist destination in the 1980s that Chinese New Year has become significant to the wider population.

As Chinese and Asian communities that follow Chinese traditions have increased in number, festivities have spread to suburbs including Cabramatta, Parramatta and Hurstville.

The City of Sydney’s Chinese New Year Festival has become the largest celebration of the Lunar New Year outside Asia, and is a major event in the city’s calendar. The lunar festival in the inner city runs until 10 February.

Happy New Year!

Check the City of Sydney’s website for details about planned events in the city: Sydney Lunar Festival

You can also find events at Chatswood  listed here: Chatswood Year of the Pig Festival

Further reading

  •  Sze Yup Temple in Edward Lane, Glebe 1904, Sydney Mail 3 Feb 1904 p287

    Sze Yup Temple in Edward Lane, Glebe 1904, Sydney Mail 3 Feb 1904 p287

    Check the Dictionary’s subject headings to find out more about Sydney’s Chinese history: dictionaryofsydney.org/subject/chinese

  • The Chinese Australian Historical Society’s website is here: chineseaustralianhistory.org
  • Historian Kate Bagnall’s blog: The Tiger’s Mouth: Thoughts on the History and Heritage of Chinese Australia can be found at www.chineseaustralia.org


Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa!  You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio

Listen to Lisa & Tess here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15-8:20 am to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney. 

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