Australia’s Chinatowns were the first areas to feel the devastating effects of Covid. Three years on, things are finally looking brighter.
Mar 23, 2023 4:00am
It’s a warm Tuesday night in Sydney’s Chinatown, and judging by the crowd of diners happily chugging back bottles of Tsingtao beer as they feast on handmade dumplings and noodles from Chinese Noodle Restaurant on Thomas Street, you might think the headlines of Chinatown being dead were somewhat overcooked.
Traditionally bustling with activity, Chinatown in both Sydney and Melbourne fell silent in early 2020, as a wave of Covid-fuelled xenophobia swept the narrow alleyways, leaving restaurants empty and the streets deserted. In March, the closure of international borders saw tourists and international students disappear overnight.
But it wasn’t just upmarket Chinese seafood restaurants that didn’t survive. The popular Dixon House Food Court closed in early 2021 and Eating World Food Court has now halved in size. Popular late night Hong Kong diner Super Bowl narrowly escaped closure after it was saved at the eleventh hour by a new owner.
Melbourne’s Chinatown – the oldest in Australia – saw the closure of much-loved restaurants Shark Fin House and Ling Nan, while dozens of other businesses have never recovered from the city’s series of intense lockdowns.
Jing Jun Heng, president of the newly formed Melbourne Chinatown Association, said the pandemic wiped out a host of businesses that struggled to adapt. “They didn’t know whether to staff or not to staff [their businesses]. They weren’t able to retain staff, they weren’t able to continue with normal business,” he said
It’s only now, in 2023, that Australia’s Chinatowns are beginning to recover. Crowds are back at restaurants and people are once again clamouring for the best Asian food Sydney and Melbourne has to offer.
On Dixon Street in Sydney’s Chinatown, the queues are back outside the Emperor’s Garden Cakes & Bakery, where “Emperor’s puffs” – soft pastry filled with piping hot custard – are flying off the production line. The recent Neon Playground by Chinatown festival – a precinct activation funded by the City of Sydney – saw thousands of visitors flood the area to see the vibrant, neon-lit artworks and complementing retail offers between October to November. While earlier in the year, the City of Sydney’s annual Lunar Festival returned, drawing hundreds of thousands of people back to Chinatown and the CBD.
Jin Jung Heng says Melbourne’s Chinatown is experiencing a similar revival, with new restaurants taking over the prominent sites of past institutions. In Southgate, Red Emperor signed a 10-year lease on the space that was previously home to Shark Fin House and is trading well, according to Heng.
“We are seeing a very strong resurgence. Everyone’s very, very sick of being at home at this moment. There is a fair bit of ‘revenge spending’. A lot more people are coming back out…foot traffic has returned to 2019 levels,” he said.
In Sydney, the closure of Golden Century – one of Australia’s most revered Cantonese restaurants that welcomed chefs, dignitaries and pop stars alike – sent shock waves through the community. This was soon followed by the closure of Marigold, as the legendary yum cha eatery was unable to withstand the ongoing pressures of the pandemic.
Chillie Poon is the managing director for Zilver Group, which includes long-standing Cantonese diners The Eight located in the heart of Chinatown and Zilver in Bondi Junction. The Eight has been in Market City Shopping Centre for more than 12 years. Both are sprawling, upmarket diners that feature live seafood tanks brimming with lobster, crab, abalone and live fish – similar to Golden Century.
Poon says her restaurants have seen an uptick in “Aussie” customers searching for live seafood, with an appetite for lobster two ways (sashimi, and stir-fried with ginger and shallots) and deep-fried king crab with salt and pepper.
“There have been quite a lot of seafood lovers coming to The Eight and Zilver, mainly because they want to have live seafood that they used to consume in those restaurants [Golden Century and Marigold],” she said.
But despite the increased patronage from seafood-loving locals, Poon says trade still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. “Tourism hasn’t picked up yet due to restrictions in China and border issues there,” she explains.
“At the beginning of Covid, we were quite shocked. Nobody expected this to happen and especially in February 2020. Chinese New Year is the most profitable month for the whole year so unfortunately it was quite a disaster,” she said.
While delivery was able to offset some of the loss of business, Poon says the past two years have been “up and down” for Zilver Group and Chinatown as a whole, as government restrictions and lockdowns were implemented and removed. Today, staff shortages and inflation continue to challenge business.
Across Australia and the world, many believe the survival of Chinatowns globally will depend on encouraging more on-trend businesses to open, catering to a new generation of consumers.
In Melbourne, several new operators have brought a fresh demographic of customers to Chinatown that’s challenging the “old school” vibe of the area. At Korean dessert cafe Sulbing, queues of dessert-loving diners wait for their signature bingsu (shaved ice) treats, while Filipino-inspired gelato artisans Kariton Sorbetes have recently opened on Russell Street. Other new restaurants shaking up Chinatown’s eating scene include Jiyu Thai Hot Pot and Pearl Diver Cocktails and Oysters.
Heng says their modern approach is only adding to Chinatown’s charm, growing its appeal beyond yum cha.
“Most of the Chinatown ‘institutions’ encourage more diversity within the precinct because it adds value to everyone’s offering…they view it as not more competition, but more vibrancy that brings more people to the area.”