31 January 2014

30 years ago today - Sydney's Chinatown leaves the laminex image behind

Eating World does not yet exist. Dixon Gourmet Food Centre has just opened. McDonald's on George St is opened by NSW Premier Neville Wran with a formal gala. It's January 1984 and Chinatown is undergoing a period of redevelopment.
On 31 January 1984 the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article by Leo Schofield on the changes happening in Sydney's Chinatown. "Chinatown and it's prices leave the Laminex image behind" was the headline.

30 years on there are strange parallels to the current state of our beloved Chinatown. With a huge development about to commence on the corner of Little Hay and Dixon Street that will change the feel of the strip, redevelopment of the Entertainment Centre, dismantling of the monorail, the opening of the Frank Gehry designed Dr Chau Chak Wing Building and walkway along the old train line and plans for Ultimo Rd to be blocked, Chinatown as we know it now will soon be gone.

His article is about a new evolving Chinatown and a growing respect for Chinese food in the early 1980's. "In the past 20 years we have witnessed the arrival of luxurious yum cha palaces, impossibly posh restaurants and a slew of new menus all over Sydney and it's suburbs." In the last five years there has been a similar revival, with The Century and Mr Wong's leading the charge, followed recently by Waitan and China Kingdom. "Some smart operators ... have created striking restaurants, original menus, upped food quality, and along with that the prices, and seem to be doing quite well as legitimate rather than ethnic restaurants" Schofield could be writing about Hemmes and co here too.

Schofield writes about Chinatown in the 1950's, having his own little nostalgia trip. Campbell Street was the dining hot spot then, only moving over to Dixon Street when it was transformed in the early 1980's.

Only six of the spots from the article are around today: New Tai Yuen, Nine Dragons, BBQ King, Dixon Gourmet Food Centre, Hingara and Emperor's Garden. Dixon House has dropped the 'Gourmet' from it's name (we can't understand why). Both Covent Garden and Star Hotel mentioned are still going, quite a feat when many old style pubs in the city have closed, including the Trades Hall.

There's some wonderful sounding places that we would have poked our nose into if they were here now: Nonya's, Barbeque House, Tea House of the New August Moon, Mandalay Seafood, Shanghai Village, Yum Yum.

Schofield may have been a bit of a fortune teller through to this decade, or perhaps food trends are cyclical and Chinese was bound to make it back to the top of the heap some time. "The smart set declared Chinese to be 'in', in much the same way as it is currently embracing Japanese cuisine". Dumplings are the new norm for a night out now, just as ramen has been embraced as fine Japanese fare. "Now, of course, standard Chinese food is not so cheap." The new places that have captured a smart cashed up clientèle certainly aren't cheap, some setting prices way above the traditional mainstays and also offering polished fit outs, cocktails and artwork.

"But it's the restaurants in the middle that appear to be suffering, your traditional undistinguished Chinese eatery." How true again. Some of the restaurants along the Chinatown mall area seem fusty and dowdy, while others trade on past glories.

We love this part about one of our favourites, we would have relished experiencing one of our favourite eating places in all it's new and shiny glory. "And in Dixon Street we now have a brand-new complex with a basement cafeteria, the Dixon Gourmet Food Centre, with self-service food racks, tin trays, bains-maries full of good looking and good-tasting Chinese food plus an American-style ice cream bar. It's doing boom business on price, speed of service and novelty."

To get a feel for what Chinatown looked like in the 1980's, the State Library of NSW has a number of photos in it's collection from around this time. It's like flicking through a beloved old family album, except the memories are of restaurants instead of grannies.

The gates at the southern end of Chinatown, showing the Covent Garden Hotel and Fosters Lager! A future Shawn on the far right looks lovingly inside, planning for the days when he can sit outside with a cold one.

The streets are leafy and there are old style lanterns hanging overhead. The little pagodas are a spot to stop and rest as well as decorative. Compared to the strip today it looked a whole lot nicer then.

Shot showing signage for the New Tai Yuen and Nine Dragons, both still going today. A future Alison sits eating an ice-cream, waiting for Eating World to open.

Strollin' through Chinatown. Dig the groovy striped pant suit!

The gates at the northern end. Eating World is still awaiting building and unleashing it's treasures.

Thanks to Sunil Badami (@Badami_Sunil) for tweeting the original article that started off the idea for this post.

Images of Sydney's Chinatown in the 1980's have been reproduced from the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, with permission.


  1. Brilliant post. I hope Chinatown is revitalised and not gentrified with all the new development. In recent years imo Chinatown has lost a bit of its 'soul', yes there are still as many restaurants/food places as ever, but the other types of businesses that you'd expect to find in a thriving Chinatown, such as Chinese grocery stores, fishmongers, butcheries, keep disappearing. If this keeps happening it seems that Chinatown will be nothing more than just a tacky Chinese-themed restaurant district for tourists. Hopefully the new residential developments will bring some more residents into Chinatown and in turn, businesses to serve them.

    1. Thanks, it was great looking back. We feel the same about the loss of the little shops, the regular retailers that make a community and a neighbourhood, not just a tourist attraction. Residential development might bring it back, or it might just mean another Colesworth in the city.

    2. Chinatown has been much the same since the late 80s. It's nothing but a tourist attraction, the same goes for Paddy's market and Darling Harbour.

      The real experiences lay west. You go to Cabramatta for example and it's far more colourful than Chinatown has been in 50 years. You have ladies selling food on the street, cheap butchers/fruiterers and it's CHEAP. Honourable mention for Ashfield and Kingsford as well.

  2. Thanks for the walk down memory lane, it was my childhood visits to Chinatown (a little over 30 years ago) that set me on my lifelong foodie journey. Xin Nian Kuai Le!

  3. lol at casual racism of the early 80s, "ethnic" restaurants can't be legitimate restaurants now ? this is a great read though, i learnt a lot about Sydney's Chinatown history.

    1. I think it's just distinguishing the eateries set up by immigrants, cooking the food of their home countries and selling it cheaply and fine eating establishments established by wealthy people to cater to the higher end of dining.

      It's still exists quite prominently today, and I generally have much better experiences at "Ethnic" eateries.

  4. Very interesting read, it's amazing how much Chinatown has changed in 30 years, and how similar the issues facing it then are to the ones facing it today. I wonder what the Kaison Food Centre was? I'm assuming a food court of some description?

    1. We were wondering the same thing, I couldn't find out much about Kaison. A mysterious lost food court?

  5. The Covent Garden Hotel was a haven for crooks and shifty operators in the early 80s. Strange how it could function as family friendly tourist trap aswell.


Thanks for your comment joy - please keep your musings happy - if you want to complain about a restaurant please do it on a restaurant review site (or your own blog) - we're all about celebrating cultural diversity and the great eats that come along with it :-)

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