Letters to Chinatown

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.

Australian Writers Week: the last leg

The first thing you notice about Beijing is the smog. Within minutes of landing, my whole body was working a bit harder just to breathe. The Australian Embassy staffer who had been with me since Mongolia gave me the stats: the day registered a 160 reading on the Air Quality Index on her Iphone. “What does that mean?” I asked. “It’s really not too bad. The World Health Organization’s recommended level is 50.”She smiled at my startled face. “Considering we hit over 700 at the beginning of the year, 160 really isn’t too bad.”

I had arrived in Beijing for the final leg of Australian Writers Week 2014, organized every year by the Embassy. Deigned as a celebration of contemporary Australian literature, and an opportunity to explore cross-cultural perspectives, I was about to meet the other eight authors selected to represent this slice of our national soundbite: magazine contributor and author Benjamin Law; stand-up comedian and author Oliver Phommavanh; young adult fiction writer Leanne Hall; investigative journalist Pamela Williams; writer and illustrator Gabrielle Wang; children’s writer Alison Lloyd; Iranian-Australian writer Ali Alizadeh; and novelist Dominique Wilson. Each writer had been given a different tour schedule –ricocheting to different parts of the country- and culminating in the climax of official duties that lay ahead in this final week in the smoggy but impressive capital.

Although united by the general theme of “Asian-Australian writing”, we were distinct in voice and practice. Being the only non-published writer (and feeling nebulously defined so) I felt embraced by this temporarily floating community. Each of our stories were held under the gaze of an interested but foreign lens in the overlap between politics and culture, bringing our essentially private acts of writing together into an embodied and public space. Being the performer in the group, I had my schtick down pat – more than comfortable with the extra layer of fiction the construct of performance provides to a set of words and ideas. But the trouble with speaking autobiographically is that it wrestles with the fluidity of personal memory to work and being back in China- and having just been in Shanghai, the theatre of my most dramatic recollections- the past and the present were colliding in a way that my pre-packaged story could no longer accommodate. As I searched for the truth in each moment of its re-telling, I realized that my research of being back was shifting –ever so slightly – the way I remember.

“Writing is like carpentry.” the Pakistani writer H.M. Naqvi told us that week – the grunt work of cutting, building and assembling blocks of information into something purposeful. And so, as I roll up my sleeves and get back to work, I’ve got my eyes firmly fixed on a changing landscape: my family history is no victim narrative, but one of triumph through adversity; my marriage may have been shipwrecked, but an indomitable friendship survives; and China in 2014 isn’t quite the same as China in 2008, though some things remain the same. It’s still the perfect backdrop of hedonism mixed with officialdom: where else would I have been met actress Bai Ling, pioneer of Asian erotic journalism (a.k.a. the first Asian woman to appear on the cover of Playboy) and Australia’s ex PM on the same trip?