Letters to Chinatown

February 14, 2018

Chinatown, my chinatown
Where the lights are low,
Hearts that know no other land,
Drifting to and fro.

William Jerome

 

For its special Chinese New Year edition, Cathay Pacific’s Silk Rd magazine ran a collection of stories from writers around the world covering their special relationship to their city’s Chinatown. Here’s mine to Sydney, Australia:

Walking through Dixon St in Sydney’s Chinatown during its Friday Night Markets is like stepping into a colourful, crowded and kitsch-filled Asian kitchen: how many flavours, languages, scents, sounds and cultures can we throw together to feed one massive family and assorted guests?

Whether you’re blood related or not, multiple generations of different nationalities flock here for a seat at one of its 200 or so restaurants at all hours. But like so many other Chinatowns in the world, the roots of its inception were far less wholesome.

 

Photos: Irwin Wong Illustrations: Sam Ki

“It used to be called ‘Sleazetown’” octogenarian local expert George Wing Kee informs me.

“It was a ghetto before WW2. Australian people didn’t come here to eat.”

Due to the area’s proximity to the wharves, enterprising seamen used to fly under the radar importing contraband items such as opium. That – and the (quite true) impression that up to a hundred undocumented Chinese migrants lived in cramped quarters above storefronts. Considering the White Australia policy restricting the migration of non-European people into the country was only dismantled in 1972, being Chinese and ‘illegal’ pretty much went hand in hand in those days. Many of these migrants had been employed as cheap labour by merchant ships sailing between Europe, the USA and Australia and realising they would be out of work when the war ended – jumped ship wherever they could. Those in Sydney inevitably joined the expanding Chinese nucleus that would later come to be known as ‘Chinatown.’

By the time my family arrived in 1983, Chinatown was on track to becoming a tourist destination as part of Sydney’s new, multicultural outlook. Up went the traditional symbols which still stand today: Tang Dynasty style ceremonial arches inviting fortune and luck; a pagoda; a refurbished Dixon St reminiscent of Chinese laneway culture with restaurants, shops and grocery stores.

 

For my parents, it was a place that unambiguously reflected back their culture as well as fulfilling other – more urgent -needs. At that time, the only Asian supermarkets were in Chinatown. My mother was our sole breadwinner -and would also add a 45 minute bus ride several times a week to buy the groceries she needed to cook to feed her children, husband and in-laws who longed for the flavours of their homeland.

“Australia was boring in the 80s” my mother tells me over the phone. “Shops were closed after 5pm during the week, and on the weekend too. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go- except Chinatown.” She pauses. “And Kings Cross.”

As a child, there isn’t that much difference between holding your parents’ hand and weaving between restaurant hawkers in Chinatown or nightclub spruikers in Sydney’s red light district, but it does give me pause to think of how these two districts in Sydney are related. Not just in the way that they have played out in my own life, but in the way that place is a state of mind. Both Chinatown and Kings Cross are regarded as outliers in the idealised Sydney landscape. Both exert a type of exotic allure, a whiff of comfort, the danger of chaos.

And both at one time offered my family what they needed to feel less displaced – the physical immediacy of life in all its vivid and varied forms, on the street.

But today- where Kings Cross’ bohemian reputation has languished –  Chinatown has moved from the fringes to the mainstream. Sydney’s Chinese New Year celebrations are the largest outside of China, with more than a million visitors celebrating last year. After its 20th century White Australia policy, Australia in the 21st century is all about embracing “the Asian century.”

The proliferation of public art in the area expresses and activates this growing consciousness. A mural of Aboriginal rights activist Jenny Munro watches over Harbour and Goulburn St. The Golden Water Mouth – a yellow box gum tree covered in gold leaf- serves as a symbolic entry point on the corner of Hay and Sussex St. Lindy Lee’s New Century Garden borrows elements from the design of a traditional Chinese Garden to create a public domain for rest and reflection. Jason Wing’s Between Two Worlds consists of 30 suspended blue spirit figures which are illuminated at night, inspired by his Aboriginal and Chinese heritage.

“China is more than a singular entity. I think it’s important to be breaking the idea of a mono culture by showcasing more complex layers of identity” says Mikala Tai, Director of 4a Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, which has fostered Chinatown’s art projects with the City of Sydney over two decades.

In a globalised age where traditional boundaries of East/West are collapsing, Chinatown’s expression of visual culture seems determined to stay ahead of the game. But it’s a neighbourhood in flux. Like China, it’s mutating at a rapid rate –  and its preservation at the mercy of the wrecking ball of urban development.

But perhaps Chinatown’s uncertain future isn’t necessarily a reason to grieve. After all, its original raison d’etre was as an enclave for working class, alienated immigrants to eke out a better life. As China continues to boom, it has eroded the need for Chinatown to play this function. There is a reason there are no Chinatowns in China. Those who are assured of belonging have less need to demarcate their comfort zones.

 

As a state of mind, Chinatown will continue to be a cultural heartland for those that remember it as somewhere they felt tethered in a strange land. As I study the grainy photos of my grandparents in front of the Dixon St stone lions representing strength and courage, I feel hopeful that there will always a place for sanctuary and reinvention here.

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