Chinese fruit and vegetable hawker c1895

Chinese fruit and vegetable hawker c1895. Contributed by National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24615958

This morning on 2SER Breakfast, historian Nicole Cama joined Tim for the Dictionary’s weekly segment on all things Sydney. Being Chinese New Year, Nicole delved in to the history of Chinatown, once described as an ‘acre of mystery’.

Perhaps the first surprising fact to those of us who have grown up visiting Chinatown, is that it wasn’t always called ‘Chinatown’ and it hasn’t always been in Dixon Street!

The first concentration of Chinese residences and shops were actually in The Rocks. That was because during the 1850s, Chinese men would arrive and buy supplies in The Rocks for their journey inland to the goldfields.

By the 1870s, Chinese traders had moved to Campbell and Goulburn Streets. Eventually though, their focus turned to Haymarket because of the presence of fruit and vegetable market buildings before finally settling in Dixon Street, where it remains today.

Chinese hawkers, common around the streets of Sydney, were viewed with a level of mistrust by locals who saw them as alien and threatening. For an already suspicious public, sensationalised reports of squalid opium and gambling dens did little to improve Chinatown’s image. One report had the dramatic headline, ‘Police Declare War on Sydney’s Chinatown’.

For the more adventurous, Chinatown was a place of mystery. One contemporary account from 1923, written under the alias ‘a Sydney girl’, describes:

Slippers made of plaited straw, slippers made of felt, high slippers, low slippers, slippers old and new – so Chinatown shuffles. Life moves leisurely here – nods behind dark counters, glides like shadows in a phantom show in still darker and more remote interiors…Orientals, old, young, middle-aged, mysteriously come and go, out of everywhere into nowhere. Up and down passages that are labyrinthian they appear and fade with a facility that baffles the Western mind.”

It wasn’t until the 1940s that Sydneysiders decided to be adventurous and sample some of the food offerings that Chinatown had to offer. Which is amusing considering how fundamental Chinese cuisine is to life in Sydney today. An article in the Sunday Herald from 1949 noted the importance of this cultural centre in Sydney as a marker of the city’s sophistication, saying the Chinese are “a quiet-living, hard-working people, but in Chinatown they meet to dine and dance and play.”

Sun Tiy Sang Gardener c1920

Sun Tiy Sang Gardener c1920.From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, A453003/PXA 978, 529

You can read Shirley Fitzgerald’s account of Chinese in Sydney here and follow Nicole’s links to these newspaper reports:

  • Sydney Silhouettes, 24 November, 1923, The Brisbane Courier (Qld, 1864-1933), p 18
  • SYDNEY’S CHINATOWN, 20 February 1923, Western Argus (Kalgoorlie, WA, 1916-1938), p 9
  • SYDNEY CHINATOWN, 11 August 1930, Townsville Daily Bulletin (Qld, 1885- 954), p 6
  • CHINATOWN, 29 May, 1949, The Sunday Herald Supplement (Sydney, NSW, 1949-1953), p 1

Don’t forget to tune in to 107.9 again next Wednesday morning at 8:20 for more Sydney history from the Dictionary with Nicole and Tim.

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