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Chinatowns across Australia

Chinatowns developed in Australia as a result of the large influx of Chinese migrants, which was driven by a system of indentured labour and then the gold rushes of the 1850s.

Hou Wang Temple, Atherton

Hou Wang Temple, Atherton. Image courtesy of the National Trust of Queensland, Hou Wang Temple.

Chinatowns developed as concentrations within capital cities and thriving rural towns, with businesses, temples, theatres and schools. The businesses in Chinatowns offered accommodation, medicinal herbs, fresh food grown by Chinese market gardeners and groceries. There were also restaurants, noodle houses, tobacconists, butchers, clerks, carpenters and interpreters. They were busy, noisy, aromatic places.

Chinese goods, especially tea, silk, vegetables, herbs, ginger and other spices were highly sought after items of trade by non-Chinese people. Tea rooms, importing and selling many varieties of tea, were very popular. Chinese silk was turned into fashionable evening wear and cloaks by Chinese tailors and seamstresses.

Over time, many of the early buildings were demolished subject to decay, lost to fire or, in Darwin, bombed in the Second World War. Today, Chinatowns are a unique part of Australia's cultural heritage. Broome Chinatown, for example, is recognised as having rare 'historical, cultural, architectural, archaeological and social qualities'.

Today there is an ethnically diverse Chinese population in Australia with links back to the south-eastern China as well as Vietnam and Hong Kong. The Chinese communities in Australia are brought together every year by public celebrations of Chinese New Year.

Chinese settlers in Australia

Ah-Xian, China China Bust

Ah Xian, China China Bust 71, 2002. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria.

Chinese traders were recorded as making voyages to the north coast of Australia from 1750s, but were probably visiting Australia long before. Chinese men arrived in Australia in small numbers after the 1788 British settlement as free settlers and convicts. A small population grew rapidly after 1848 under a system of indentured labour, after China had opened its ports to foreign trade in 1842. They worked in rural New South Wales as shepherds, cooks and farm labourers.

Indentured Chinese immigrants worked in all colonies variously as station hands, plantation workers, miners, on public works, cabinet makers, personal servants and in laundries. Most came from the south-eastern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian or, in the case of those in Western Australia (WA) from Singapore. Due to labour shortages in WA, the Colonial Government organised Chinese contract labour between 1847 and 1898, most working as labourers, cooks and gardeners. Many Chinese came from rural backgrounds and brought with them agriculture and water management skills. By 1885, there were 54 Chinese market gardens in Sydney. By 1901, 67% of New South Wales market gardeners were Chinese. (Yong, 1977, p. 262 in A brief overview of Chinese life and heritage places in Australia, Tracking the dragon, Australian Heritage Commission, 2002).

Chinese market gardener

Chinese market gardener Atherton. Image courtesy of the National Trust of Queensland, Hou Wang Temple.

Gold rushes in Victoria in the 1850s and New South Wales in the 1860s significantly increased the population of Chinese immigrants in Australia; about 45,000 prospectors arrived in Victoria alone in 1854-58. Numbers continued to increase as gold and other minerals were discovered in Queensland, Northern Territory and Tasmania.

When mining became less profitable, many Chinese worked successfully to provide goods and services such as furniture making, market gardening, fishing and, particularly, store-keeping including the import and export of goods from overseas.

As Chinese communities grew, Chinatowns took on the architectural and cultural characteristics of their inhabitants which gave them a sense of home in a foreign country. Temples were often the focal point of Chinese community life.

The White Australia Policy and concentration of Chinese urban centres

Resentment grew towards the cultures and traditions of the industrious and entrepreneurial Chinese, giving birth to Anti-Chinese Leagues. In 1901, the White Australia Policy came into law when the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was passed, restricting immigrants from working in Australia and restricting migration of non-white people.

Quong Tart, successful businessman outside one of his tearooms

Quong Tart, successful businessman outside one of his tearooms. Image courtesy of the City of Sydney and Australian Society of Genealogists PR6-26-14.

The shrinking population became concentrated in urban centres of the eastern states. It included few women. The men worked as market gardeners, carpenters, laundrymen and in small business. One of the most famous was Mei Quong Tart, a leading Sydney merchant and importer from China. He had a network of tea rooms in the Sydney Arcade, the Royal Arcade and King Street and the famous 'Elite Hall' in the Queen Victoria Market. Sydney banana merchants Ma Yang Piu and Philip Gockrin founded the Sincere and Wing On merchant companies which became successful multi-national empires.

Chinatowns housed fluid communities some Chinese, including Quong Tart, took European wives, while others commuted between China and Australia. The community had relations with both Australian society and their home communities in China. Saturday schools were organised for learning Chinese languages and culture by children who otherwise attended local state schools.

Immigration laws were eased by the Australian government in the 1950s and were completely abandoned in 1973 when the Australian government adopted a more multicultural attitude. Today, the Chinese community is the fifth largest in the multi-ethnic Australian society with around 650,000 people of Chinese ancestry.

Victoria: Melbourne, Ballarat, Bendigo and Ararat

Charles Alphonse Doudiet (1832-1913),Chow Chow (Chinamen on Ballarat), 1854

Charles Alphonse Doudiet (1832-1913), Chow Chow (Chinamen on Ballarat), 1854. Image courtesy of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.

Melbourne's Chinatown is the longest continuous Chinese settlement in the western world. Ships sailed from Hong Kong with men who came to seek their fortune in the gold fields of Ballarat and Ararat. The growing Chinese community in Little Bourke Street provided lodgings en route to the goldfields, food, equipment, medicine and some of the comforts of home. As gold dried up, those who did not return to China went back to Melbourne's Chinatown.

Bendigo has been a hub of Chinese culture activity since the Gold Rushes of the 1850s. The Bendigo Chinese Association Building was built c.1895 to house the extensive regalia and processional objects for the community. This heritage building is similar to commercial buildings in old Hong Kong. The Golden Dragon Museum was opened in 1991 and holds the Sun Loong, the longest Imperial dragon in the world and Loong, the oldest Imperial dragon in the world.

In 1857, 700 Chinese miners from Southern China, travelling overland from the Port of Robe, South Australia, to the Central Goldfields in the Colony of Victoria, rested at Ararat. There they discovered the Canton Lead, the world's richest shallow alluvial goldfield that stretched five kilometres at length. The goldfield grew to a population of more than 30,000 in a few week. The Gum San Chinese Heritage Centre built in the traditional style of southern Chinese Architecture presents the story of Chinese in Ararat. At Sovereign Hill, Ballarat, a Chinatown, with interactive exhibitions, brings to life the story of Chinese prospectors on the Ballarat Goldfields in the 1850s.

Chinese Arch Melbourne, 1901

Unknown, Chinese Arch Melbourne, 1901, gelatin silver photograph. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an13117280-23.

Melbourne Chinatown's five key arches have recently been refurbished by the City of Melbourne as an important show of commitment to Chinatown. The Facing Heaven' Archway, which was handmade in China, clearly announces the entrance to Chinatown. Another entrance is through the Tianjin Garden which was jointly designed by the Melbourne and Tianjin councils to strengthen the bond the people of Tianjin and Melbourne. The heritage streetscape has been preserved, with very few building over three storeys in height.

This area of Melbourne is now home to restaurants varying from fine dining to laneway and arcade noodle houses. Chinatown also houses a number of Asian grocery stores, Chinese medicine and herbalist centres, bookstores, fashion boutiques and Australian banks with Chinese signs.

Western Australia: Perth and Broome

Len Chiew with Herbie Quan working at TS Chiew 1938-9

Len Chiew with Herbie Quan working at TS Chiew, 1938-9, Perth. Image courtesy of the Chung Wah Association.

In 1829 Moon Chow was the first Chinese person to settle in Western Australia. It was not until 1847 that another 51 Chinese men arrived from Singapore as a source of cheap labour for the growing colony. Chinese people migrating to Perth came as labourers and farm hands and ran businesses such as market gardens, laundries, bakeries, furniture factories, tailors shops and grocery stores.In 1904, there were at least 50 Chinese laundries in the Perth and Fremantle area. (Anne Atkinson, Asian Immigrants to Western Australia 1829-1901, p.6)

The worlds largest pearl oyster shell was discovered in Broome, Western Australia, in the 1860s, which sparked a pearling industry boom similar to the gold rushes. By 1900, about 3000 people of Asian and South-East Asian origin, a population of Indigenous people and about 1000 white people had settled in Broome. These people were either pearl divers or serviced the pearl diving industry whose fleet comprised of a few hundred pearl luggers.

Broome's Chinatown flourished during this time with pearl sheds, eateries and entertainment for divers who had been paid for their bounty. Chinatown is a very important part of Broome's local history and extensive city council restrictions have been placed on new structures being built among the original green, white and red corrugated iron huts of its pearling past.

The Sun Pictures building was originally a store owned and constructed by the Yamasaki family around 1900. The family devoted part of the building to traditional Japanese Noh theatre. In 1913, Sun Pictures was sold and converted into a theatre seating 500 people and is now the world's oldest outdoor deckchair' movie theatre.

Roe St Perth Chinatown

Roe St Perth Chinatown.

Perth has two Chinatowns: an official and an unofficial. The official Chinatown on Roe Street in Northbridge is guarded by two lion statues on either side of the pagoda archway. Roe Street Chinatown was officially opened in the 1980s as a commercial development to celebrate Chinese presence in Western Australia since early colonisation of Australia, following the earlier demolition of the last Chinese building in Wellington in the 1970s.

In Northbridge, the development of Asian shops and restaurants along William Street has created the real Chinatown. Here, shoppers purchase their provisions from oriental groceries, butchers, bakeries and specialty shops. The Pang Chong Fe and Sho Hen herbalist shops still remained in 2001. Herbalist Traditional Chinese cultural activities are encouraged at the three Chinese School campuses operated by the Chung Wah Association. From these activities there are now cultural troupes for the lion dance and other cultural performances at Chinese New Year.

New South Wales: Sydney, Albury and Tingha

Dixon St Chinatown

Dixon Street, Chinatown Sydney.

Sydney's Chinatown is a colourful mix of asian culture, shopping and cuisine. The area's distinctly oriental architecture, street lanterns and archways confirm it as a showpiece for Chinese culture in New South Wales.

Sydney's original Chinatown was located in the Rocks in Sydney during the late 1800s and a few years later it moved to an area bounded by Central Station, Surry Hills and Darling Harbour and finally began to grow in its current location of Dixon Street in the 1920s.

The history of Chinatowns and Chinese in New South Wales reveals that Chinese quarters or Chinatowns also developed in rural cities. At Albury, a Chinese quarter with a range of businesses became an important place for Chinese crossing between the Victorian and New South Wales goldfields.

In the 1870s tin was discovered in the northern tablelands of New South Wales. By the 1890s this area had the highest concentration of Chinese in New South Wales.

Wing Hing Ling Store, Ruby St Tingha, 1912

Wing Hing Ling Store, Ruby St Tingha, 1912. Image courtesy of Golden Threads Project.

In 1900 the Wing Hing Long store in Tingha offered the services of a noted Chinese herbalist, John Joe Lowe of Guangdong province, as well as groceries, drapery, silks, clothes, ironmongery, tobacco and pipes. Adjacent was a cafe run by Lowe's wife, Fong Quain Lowe.

Chinese food 'became common' in some mining towns like Grenfell, Inverell, Parkes, Forbes and Wellington. The skills and services of Chinese market gardeners were valued, particularly in the mining towns where water was scarce and vegetables hard to come by. Chinese people, however, were seen as exotic with different customs and beliefs, separate from white Australia. It wasn't until the 1950s that Chinese cafes and restaurants became common in country towns. This followed the decline in market gardening and storekeeping as viable outlets.

Today, there are over 65 restaurants in Sydney's Chinatown, offering Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese and Malaysian cuisines. In 1966, when the White Australia Policy was abolished, South East Asian investors bought properties along Dixon street which later became Sydney's official Chinatown. The ceremonial archways, lions, pavilions and other features were built with funds raised by Sydney City Council, Dixon Street property owners and Chinatown business owners.

Queensland: Palmer River, Atherton, Croydon, Cairns and Brisbane

Gold attracted thousands of Chinese to Queensland in the late 1800s. 'New Gold Mountain', as Australia was called, was seen by many as a way to get rich quickly before returning home.

Atherton Chinese maize farmer

Atherton Chinese maize farmer. Image courtesy of National Trust of Queensland, Hou Wang Temple.

The Chinese were most dominant on the Palmer River goldfield which was discovered in 1873. Chinese from Hong Kong in their thousands arrived twice a week on Hopkee Company steamers. At the end of 1874, they represented 40% of the mining population. By 1877, the Chinese population was 18,000 – more than 90% of the goldfield population. Today the area is a remote reserve although it retains many Chinese mining sites, houses, gardens, cemeteries and other sites of heritage significance. ( Tracking the dragon )

Atherton was originally a stopover point for miners and carters heading from Cairns to the tin mines at Herberton, when tin was discovered in 1880. Also, the discovery of red cedar and black bean timber in the Atherton Tablelands region offered job opportunities. The Chinese settled in an area known as Cedar Camp, on the outskirts of the growing town of Atherton. At its peak it had a large Chinese population. Chinese farmers leased land and pioneered the growing of maize, peanuts and lychees. A small but thriving Chinatown sprang up, complete with stores, herbalists, bakeries, laundries, a temple and boarding houses.

After the First World War, many Chinese–Australians were evicted from their farming leases. By the late 1920s Atherton's Chinatown was almost deserted.

The Chinese left a legacy a highly significant archaeological site and a rare form of Chinese temple. The Hou Wang Temple was the social and religious centre of the Atherton Tableland Chinese community. It is the only remaining structure of the original Chinatown.

Brisbane Chinatown

Brisbane Chinatown.

Chinese migrants played an important role in the early development of Cairns' agricultural industries and nearby regions from 1876 to 1920. The early Chinese migrants settled in an area which became known as Chinatown. In 1886 Chinese residents comprised 30% of the total Cairns population. An 1885 planning document for a new railway shows the 'Chinaman's garden'. The planning approval resulted in the Chinese family moving from their garden sometime after mid-1886 to make way for a cutting for the railway. The site has now been recommended to the State Heritage Register.

Croydon, a mining centre in the Gulf Country, also had a Chinatown, There are plans for Croydon's Chinatown to be resurrected from underneath the savannah grass.

Brisbane Chinatown was officially opened in Fortitude Valley in 1987. A pair of Lions donated from China mark a sign of friendship and respect between Australia and China and guard both main entrances to Chinatown on Wickham street and Ann street. In 1996, Chinatown was renovated by adding rotundas, ornate Chinese-style roofing and landscaping by designers from GuangZhou in China. There are new plans to again upgrade Chinatown with the help of designers from China.

South Australia: Adelaide

Adelaide Chinatown

Adelaide Chinatown.

The first dozen Chinese labourers arrived from Singapore in Adelaide in 1847 to work as indentured shepherds. Many Chinese people disembarked in the port towns of South Australia before travelling overland to the Victorian goldfields due to immigration restrictions in Victoria.

Chinatown in Adelaide began to grow in the 1970s and 1980s with the influx of Asian migrants particularly from Vietnam. Produce was sold at the Central Market by market gardeners and this began the growth of the Asian food shops and cafes in the area. The pagoda style roofs, red lanterns, restaurants and grocery stores are found on Moonta street, which is the centre of Chinatown. Paifang, which is a type of traditional chinese archway, are at the opposite entrances of Moonta street and are guarded by Chinese lion statues which were donated by the Adelaide city council and by the Chinese government.

Northern Territory: Darwin and Pine Creek

Chinese dragon at temple, Darwin

Chinese dragon at temple, Darwin. Image Courtesy of State Library of South Australia.

Chinese heritage in Darwin dates back to 1874, when Chinese labourers arrived from Singapore to dig for gold and help build the railway line to Pine Creek. Ships carrying miners from Guangdong soon started to arrive in Darwin. The Chinese helped to pioneer the Territorywith the Chinese population outnumbering the European population in Darwin, Chinese business and services were largely responsible for the growth of Darwin as a port and northern gateway. Up to fifty shops lined Cavenagh Street with Chinese lanterns lighting up the street at night.

Darwin's original Chinatown was damaged both by Australian troops and by bombing during the Second World War and was later destroyed completely by a fire. The Sue Wah Chin building, built in the 1880s, is the only building associated with Darwin's nineteenth century Chinatown' which still survives. The Joss House was destroyed in the 1980s.

Since the Second World War, Darwin's Chinese community has grown and spread throughout the city. A Chinese school, a language and culture centre and a Chinese temple are operated by Chinese–Australians, and annual Chinese New Year celebrations are held throughout Darwin. A new Chinatown is currently being cultivated and a retail and walkway area with Ornate Chinese gates at the main entrances are being designed with the vision of creating a multicultural meeting place.


Dickson, in Canberra, is known as Chinatown and is a centre for Canberra's Asian community. A large number of international Chinese students from Asia study at the Australian National University and many Asian families have migrated to Canberra since its development as Australia's capital city in 1913. Dickson is a busy commercial centre and Eastern Medicine practices are popular amongst Canberrans. Asian restaurants and grocery stores line the brightly lit Woolley Street.

Tasmania: Hobart

Despite a presence in Tasmania since the late 19th century, when many Chinese immigrants mined for tin in the north-east, there has never been any city precinct that could truly be called a Chinatown. However, in the Hobart suburb of Sandy Bay, two impressive new restaurants, the Me Wah and The Bund in Shanghai, a long-established Asian food store, Wing & Co, and a collection of cafes catering largely to Asian students are now providing the closest thing Tasmania has ever had to a Chinatown.

The heritage significance of Chinatowns

Sun Picture Theatre Broome

Sun Picture Theatre Broome.

Australian Chinese cultural heritage is subject to inquiry and debate about priorities and balances with new developments. Some Chinese sites are heritage listed and others are restored, and now local museums preserve items of material culture.

Chinese heritage sites include:

  • The Broome Chinatown Conservation Area, Western Australia, was considered for interim listing in 2003. Broome Chinatown buildings have distinctive aesthetic features including: 'small windows, vertically and horizontally lined corrugated galvanised iron wall and roof coverings, storm shutters, lattice screens, verandahs and balcony additions'.
  • Cairns Chinese market gardens site, Queensland, is part of a Chinese Heritage Trail with interpretive devices, signage, artwork and plantings. The Cairns Botanical Gardens Cultural Heritage Study, 2005 identified the Chinese market gardens within the Botanical Gardens as an area of interest for the purpose of heritage recommendation.
Chinese New Year parade in the 1920s with the Sue Wah Chin building in the background

Chinese New Year parade in the 1920s, with the Sue Wah Chin building in the background. Image Courtesy of Northern Territory Library, Edwards Collection.

  • The Sue Wah Chin building, Northern Territory, one of Darwin's few remaining 19th century buildings, has been heritage listed. The stone building in Cavenagh Street, Darwin, built in the 1880s, is the only building associated with Darwin's nineteenth century Chinatown' which still survives.
  • Hou Wang temple, Atherton, Queensland. During 2000 - 2002 Atherton Chinatown was the focus of a conservation and interpretation project funded by the Queensland Heritage Trails Network after serious progressive deterioration. The recently rebuilt rare Hou Wang Miau temple is located in its original area, which continues to undergo regular digs, turning up artefacts from the Chinese occupation in the 1800s. The temple is built of typical north Queensland materials timber and corrugated iron but with a pagoda roof. The Atherton Chinatown museum and Hou Wang Temple is managed by the National Trust of Queensland.

Material culture

Packing case for incense sticks

Packing case for incense sticks. Image courtesy of Golden Threads Project.

In 2006, the Museum of Chinese Australian History Inc received $3200 for a preservation survey of its collection of more than over 2000 artefacts relating to the experiences of Chinese immigrants to Australia, particularly since the mid-nineteenth century onwards. It includes letters, manuscripts, photographs, title deeds, clothing, furniture, ceremonial and medicinal objects. Established in 1985, the Museum documents, preserves, collects, researches, and displays the history and culture of Australians of Chinese descent.

NSW Regional Museums holding items of Chinese material culture include: The Oxley Museum, Wellington, Grenfell Museum, Inverell, Parkes and Forbes Historical Society.

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Last updated: 13th February 2009

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