Dugald Jellie


Big changes in little China

Sydney's Haymarket has come a long way but the journey has barely begun

"Can we actually 'know' the universe?" asked Woody Allen. "My God, it's hard enough finding your way around Chinatown." It's a jumble of activity; boxes of gai larn wheeled here, tubs of flapping fish there–glistening roast ducks, pungent aromas, tooting horns, tea-sellers, tapioca pearls and dried shark's fins gleaming like silken antique fans. Have you ever seen so much plump white flesh on so many Japanese radishes?

These knotted streets to the south of Sydney–condemned once by topography, as swampy lowlands that leeched to Cockle Bay–have risen from the mire. The dragon has stirred. Chinatown has boomed, on flats known since the 1830s as the Haymarket, where chaff and corn were sold, and it knows not where to stop.

"It has no boundaries," says Brad Chan, president of Haymarket Chamber of Commerce. "It's constantly changing, it's spreading. It's gone beyond Haymarket."

This marketplace of ideas and consumer goods and newfound identities has no fixed address. It has leapfrogged the Spanish quarter on Liverpool Street. Karaoke bars have crossed Bathurst and Pitt Streets. Noodles could soon enough be sold by the steps of Town Hall.

"The original Chinatown started off around Campbell Street near the Capitol Theatre," says Chan. "But what tourists think is Chinatown is usually the Dixon Street plaza between the two arches."

Officially, this great uproar of affairs and mercantile goods does not exist. Chinatown has no postcode as such. It has no delimitative edge, no borders, and no end to its possibilities. Rock lobsters swim in tanks lit up at four in the morning. High-rise units sell for a median $496,500. Neon characters illuminate an array of languages.

For outsiders, this place of cultural belonging has served as a metaphor for the greater realm of Asia. Here is a spectacle of the exotic: of jackfruit and crimson cheongsam and all the faraway mystique of the Orient. As G.C. Mundy wrote in 1851 in Our Antipodes, or, Residence and Rambles in the Australian Colonies, Sydney was essentially a British town, excepting "now and then a Chinaman...crosses your vision, as if he had dropped from the clouds...from a willow-pattern soup plate".

Sydney's first large arrival of Chinese took place in 1848, as 121 indentured labourers aboard the Nimrod. Another 2464 had disembarked by April 1851, living around the wharves and boarding houses of The Rocks. By the 1860s, they had moved to the city's south, selling market-garden produce and creating their own crucible, with its mah-jong games and bachelor stories and old clan ties.

"Many migrants spend years feeling that reality is somewhere else," V.S. Naipaul has said of the experience of the displaced. For these early sojourners from Guangdong province, it was no different. They sought adventure and fortune and better lives, but stepped into a new life ingrained with old prejudices.

Punitive immigration laws were first decreed in the colony of New South Wales in 1861, as a 10 pound poll tax and a limit of one Chinese for every 10 tonnes of shipping. New arrivals were caricatured in periodicals and newsprint with pigtails and bamboo poles. Many were cursed by so-called "Chinaman's chance"–that is, no chance at all.

But for those who first settled in congested housing in this pocket by the old Belmore fruit and vegetable markets, new opportunities were seized. The unofficial White Australia Policy ended formally in 1973, and local numbers of Asian immigrants spiked. Yum cha restaurants opened. Student populations ballooned.

"Chinatown was historically from Surry Hills to Dixon Street, where a lot of association and clan groups set up club houses," says City of Sydney councillor, Robert Kok. "But it's extended beyond this. People have arrived from other parts of China, from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam. A little Thai-town has developed in Campbell Street. Pitt Street has become a little Korea-town."

Now a City of Sydney planning policy sub-committee intends to unify this collection of identities. Community consultation begins in November on the Chinatown Public Domain Study that hopes to unite the precinct with upgraded public infrastructure, new street markets, and greater cultural expression through festivals and events. An implementation plan is expected early next year.

"There's been a big influx of residents to the area," says Chan. "Asian businesses now reach right up to World Square. But the old parts of the district need a general upgrade in aesthetics. The streetscape is looking tired."

Sydney's Chinatown, as fluid as quicksilver, is set for another change. Just as soon as someone determines exactly its whereabouts.