The history of Chinatown.

Essay by mrjatinchopra January 2004

download word file, 6 pages 3.7

Chinese immigrants first came to Victoria in large numbers during the

goldrushes of the 1850s and Melbourne's Chinatown began as a staging

post for the many thousands of Chinese passing through Melbourne on

their way to the goldfields. The overwhelming majority came from small

farming villages in the Sze-Yap (meaning Four Districts) area of

Kwangtung, China's southernmost province. Since the late eighteenth

century, young men from this region had been accustomed to migrate

temporarily to other countries. They sent back money to increase the

prestige of their clans and hoped eventually to return home themselves.

Melbourne's Chinatown is the oldest in Australia.

Lacking both capital and skills, the Chinese saw gold mining as a good

way to make a quick fortune. Why Little Bourke Street became their

Melbourne centre is not clear, although, like other Chinatowns, it had

been a low rental area on the outskirts of the city. The first residents

occupied a cluster of shops and boarding houses in Celestial Avenue and

then in Little Bourke Steet itself, between Swanston and Russell Streets,

in late 1854 or early 1855.

By the late 1850s, the zone comprised lodging

houses, provision stores, Chinese butchers, candlemakers and opium

manufacturers, all serving the needs of upcountry Chinese. Several shops

operating today in Little Bourke Street are run in a traditional manner

and stock a range of goods very similar to that of the quarter's

earliest shops. The building at 212-220 Little Bourke Street was

erected in 1883 and it has since been occupied variously by Chinese

fruit merchants, a fancy goods importer, a banana store and a Chinese

'cook shop'. Other Chinese businesses had formerly occupied the site.

This sequential Chinese occupancy of buildings is typical of Chinatown.

The Num Pon Soon building at 200-202 Little Bourke Street also dates from

this period and is one of Chinatown's oldest buildings. Built in 1862,

probably to the design of the early Melbourne architect Peter Kerr,

the building has been used as a district association meeting place and

worship hall by Sam-Yap people for over a hundred years.

(The Sam-Yap or Three District people are another Cantonese group,

in a minority among nineteenth century Chinese in Melbourne.) The Num

Pon Soon building is one of only two district association buildings

surviving in Chinatown today. The other, the Sze-Yap building at 124-136

Little Bourke Street, was built in 1911 but its facade was thoroughly

re-modelled in the early 1960s. Many such district associations were

formed in Western countries by Chinese sojourning abroad, to provide

social amenities and for mutual protection, and in the past they occupied

a central position in the lives of most Chinatown residents. Two car

parks in Little Bourke Street, at numbers 242-244 and 208-210, are the

sites of former district association clubhouses.

In 1859, the resident population in Chinatown of perhaps 50 people

comprised only a tiny fraction of the colony's population of more than

40,000. But as the more easily won alluvial gold was worked out and

restrictive legislation stemmed the flow of new immigrants, the remaining

Chinese turned to the towns and Melbourne's Chinatown grew larger.

Lodging houses and provision stores made way for businesses serving the

wider non-Chinese community.

Through a network of international trading links, Chinese merchants came

to control the wholesaling of bananas, tomatoes and some other tropical

fruits and vegetables in Melbourne, and their premises stretched out along

Little Bourke Street from Swanston to Exhibition Streets. Buildings

extanct today which were Chinese merchants' establishments include those

at 112-114 Little Bourke Street (erected for Lowe Kong Meng, Melbourne's

best known nineteenth century Chinese citizen) and the Geraldton

Trading Company building at 185-197 Russell Street.

The Chinese also entered the cabinet-making trade during this period and

flourished to such an extent that European competitors fomented a storm

of anti-Chinese feeling. By 1907, Chinatown had extended northwards to

Little Lonsdale Street and its adjoining lanes (where the cabinet-makers

were concentrated) and east as far as Spring Street. The Commonwealth

Government offices development has made a great impact in this northern

sector, demolishing dozens of buildings and eliminating many former lanes.

Very little evidence remains of the scores of Chinese cabinet-making

establishments once located there.

The internal community organisation of Chinatown also become more complex

in this period, with regional loyalties giving way to political loyalties

as China became de-stabilised in the first decades of this century.

The Chinese Nationalist Party building, at 107-109 Little Bourke Street,

is representative of this phase of Chinatown's history.

In 1904, during the Boxer Rebellion, rival groups of the Yee-Hing secret

society and the Bo Leong, an organ of the Sze-Yap Society, engaged in

street fighting outside the building. The Melbourne branch of the Chinese

Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, was formed in 1916 and in 1921 it

assumed ownership of the building - which had previously been occupied

by an unidentified political group - and had the facade revamped to the

design of Walter Burley Griffin. Unfortunately, this facade is now

defaced. A number of Chinese Christian churches date from this period -

the Chinese Methodist Church at 196 Little Bourke Street; the former

Presbyterian Mission Church at 108-110 Little Bourke Street, and the

Church of England Chinese Mission of the Epiphany at 119-125 Little

Bourke Street. In general, the churches provided a westernising influence

among Chinatown people, cutting across clan and regional loyalties.

Chinatowns throughout the world have seemed to outsiders to be exotic

localities, as often forming a city within a city, and with a closed and

sinister reputation. Melbourne's Chinatown has certainly had this

reputation. Most Melburnians in the late nineteenth century regarded

the Chinese as immoral, avaricious and devious and Little Bourke Street

as a sink of iniquity. Popular journalists played on fears of moral

contagion, producing lurid descriptions of the quarter's gambling halls,

opium dens and brothels. Close by was the 'Little Lon' red light district,

while at the Spring Street end of Little Bourke Street, Gordon House

was the city's main refuge for homeless and derelict men.

Popular fears of the Chinese were given legislative expression in the

labour, trade and immigration laws of the early Commonwealth period

and led directly to a decline in Melbourne's Chinese quarter. Cabinet-makers

who returned to China could not be replaced and wholesale merchants

were forced out of business by legislation, such as Queensland's

euphemistically titled Banana Industry Protection Act. By the 1930s,

Chinatown had shrunk to a handful of shops and the quarter seemed doomed

to extinction. However, since the second world war it has expanded and

revived. Chinatown's cafes and shops are now very popular and are

patronised by all Melburnians, not only Chinese. Thus, although the

quarter is now much smaller than it was in the first decade of the

century, it is by no means a relic feature; its business establishments

are viable, even booming, and Chinatown has merely entered another

phase of its development. At the same time, old established social

institutions (churches, district associations, political organisations)

provide a continuity with the pre-war period and offer undeniable visual

evidence of a unique and little known aspect of the city's history.

Character and Significance

The significance of Chinatown is embodied in its distinctive townscape

and in its unique history. The distinctive townscape of the area

derives from the preponderance of nineteenth century low-rise buildings,

combined with a present day concentration of Chinese businesses and other

concerns. In Little Bourke Street, in Celestial Avenue and, to a lesser

extent, in the other lanes of the Conservation Area, the buildings form

strips of nineteenth century commercial streetscape which were once common

in many of the 'little' streets and lanes of Melbourne's Central Activities

District, but which have now almost completely disappeared; replaced by

post-war high-rise development.

The contributory buildings are nearly all constructed of brick, are of one,

two or three storeys, modestly conceived and erected on narrow allotments.

Few of the buildings were architect designed, but together they display

a variety of nineteenth century architectural styles - classical, gothic,

mannerist and other - which contribute to a typically Victorian eclecticism

of streetscape. Several of the buildings are of individual architectural

merit, notably the Num Pon Soon buildings, the Chinese Methodist Church,

the Sun Kum Lee building, the former Presbyterian Church, the Church of

England Chinese Mission of the Epiphany and the former Globe Hotel.

Of these, the Num Pon Soon building and the Sun Kum Lee building display

unmistakable Chinese decorative motifs. However, it is not the design of

the buildings which gives a distinctively Chinese atmosphere to the

area as much as the buildings' uses - as Chinese cafes, grocery stores,

district associations, churches - and the accompanying Chinese shop

displays, signs, advertisements and street archways. All these elements

together indicate that the quarter is prosperous, lively and economically

viable and that it is demonstrably different in character from any other

part of Melbourne.

This concentration of Chinese businesses, associations and people is

recognised by most Melburnians and allows the area legitimately to be

called a 'Chinatown'. Chinatowns are found in many western and south-east

Asian cities and there were once a number of Chinatowns in mining and

rural settlements throughout Australia, but today Melbourne's Chinatown

is one of only two that remain in this country, the other being in


Chinatowns are very important historically. They are a special settlement

from which has resulted from a combination of factors - that of sustained,

selective outmigration from southern China, combined with an unwillingness

of recipient countries to integrate the Chinese migrants into the

mainstream of their society. The result was ethnic enclaves, typically

located in small mining towns or on the fringes of city centres.

Here, the Chinese were able to concentrate their own social institutions

and, in some cases, develop a light industry base (cabinet-making in

Melbourne, clothing in Boston, boot and shoe manufacturing in San

Francisco). The enclaves were seen by outsiders as 'a city within a city'

with strange people, shops, dress, smells and with the reputation as

centres for sinister and illegal activities.