The Chinatown district is a familiar part of countless urban centres throughout the world. For many city dwelling westerners it has often been the source of their primal Asian culinary and cultural experience.
Melbourne’s Chinatown, claimed to be the oldest in the Southern Hemisphere, was established during the Victorian gold rush of 1851. Thousands of people from all corners of the globe began arriving in the city and soon headed for the goldfields to try their luck. Many of the Chinese arrivals, however, stayed in Melbourne, setting up businesses to provide prospectors with temporary lodgings and supplies.
Focused primarily in and around Little Bourke Street, the entrepreneurial community flourished and by the 1860s the early wattle and daub structures were being replaced with more substantial brick and stone buildings. Growth continued throughout the late 19th century but was dramatically stymied in 1901 with the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act, essentially part of a populist ‘White Australia’ policy that would officially remain in place until 1973. The policy was, however, gradually dismantled from 1949 onwards, enabling an increasing number of non-white immigrants, including Chinese, to settle in Australia. After years of decline Chinatown began to emerge once again as bustling centre of business and commercial activity.
Many in the community saw even greater potential for the district.
David Wang was a Chinese born businessman who had arrived in Australia in 1948. In 1950, he opened a business on Little Bourke Street selling furniture imported from Hong Kong and by 1964 had constructed a large new emporium on the site of the old Canton building. Wang had noticed the lucrative effect that tourism had had on San Francisco’s Chinatown throughout the 1960s and, utilising his new-found influence as a city councillor (attained in 1969), pushed for a redevelopment of Melbourne’s own district.
As a result, four colourful Chinese archways, or ‘paifang,’ were erected at points along Little Bourke Street, between Exhibition and Swanston streets, in addition to the installation of traditionally styled street lamps (replaced by paper-like hanging lanterns during the 1990s).
The newly refurbished Chinatown re-launched in 1976 and remains to this day a hugely popular dining and sightseeing precinct for both locals and tourists alike. In 1999, an additional arch was added to Cohen Place Plaza; a replica of a Ming dynasty paifang donated by the People’s Republic of China.
As a result of limited re-development, and long term ownership of many properties, the Chinatown section of Little Bourke Street possesses a rich variety of architecture from the late 19th century. Many buildings, such as the Chinese Mission Church (1872), still perform the purpose for which they were originally constructed. The district also displays a supremely modern selection of bars and restaurants, not to mention contemporary street art, that places it firmly in the urban context of the city of Melbourne.