WHAT does Chinatown mean to you? Trinity College Foundation Studies students Kyrie Hu and Talya Cassim look at the history of Melbourne’s Chinatown, where it is now and investigate its current importance to Chinese visitors and students.
The discovery of gold in Victoria brought with it many immigrants from China, who settled in Little Bourke St and set up businesses that supported those who were digging the goldfields. The evolution of this trade hub throughout the 19th century gave rise to what is now known as Chinatown.
Chinatown has since become an important source of socio-economic growth for the Chinese community in Melbourne. Stretched between Swanston St and Spring St, it is home to many buildings and businesses that provide insight into the rich culture and history of China. These include sights such as the Chinese Mission Church and the Chinese Museum (itself housing the Dragon Gallery which contains a display of the longest dragon in the world).
Alleys that were once occupied by club rooms and lodges in the 1800s have now been replaced with a myriad of colourful souvenir shops, restaurants and apothecaries — businesses that no doubt will give Chinese nationals visiting or studying in Australia, an acute sense of home.
Given Melbourne’s large Chinese population — much of which consists of overseas students — it’s no surprise that Chinatown functions as a haven for them as it provides them with a source of connection to their culture. For some individuals, Chinatown may serve as a place to help curb feelings of homesickness as they are surrounded by so many others from their home country.
“In Chinatown you can meet a lot of people who speak Cantonese that makes you feel at home,” said Shelly Xie.
Loris Liu from Oz Best Gift Store has noticed a few interesting things during her time as a part-time worker in Chinatown. While many do come to Chinatown looking for gifts to bring back home, for Chinese visitors and students, they flock here to buy groceries and other items that cannot be easily found elsewhere.
Another student joked that Chinatown contained the only restaurants where she was able to read everything on the menu.
Once the sun goes down, Chinatown becomes no less interesting. On the third Friday of every month, the Chinatown Night Market takes place, and Heffernan Lane comes alive with pop up stalls selling everything from dumplings to souvenirs. The twinkling lights and enticing aromas transform the street for a few hours, during which you can explore several exciting culinary options.
Aside from the introduction of new restaurants and stores, Chinatown’s spirit hasn’t changed all that much. Just as Little Bourke St was once important to the first wave of Chinese immigrants settling in Australia, so too is the street in its current incarnation as it continues to preserve Chinese tradition and ensure a sense of social and cultural connectedness for the wider Chinese community in Melbourne.
This story was produced by Media and Communication students at Trinity College Foundation Studies as part of Meld’s community newsroom collaboration. Education institutions, student clubs/societies and community groups interested in being involved can get in touch with us via firstname.lastname@example.org.