Sydney: Chinatown guide

Photojournalist and Sydneysider Ian Lloyd Neubauer captures the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of the city's bustling Chinatown

Nearly every city in Australia has a Chinatown, though none is bigger or better than Sydney’s. And like so many of our old neighbourhoods, it has a dark and storied history. Going back more than a century ago, Sydney’s Chinatown was once a warren of opium dens and gambling lairs.

The Australia of today has turned full circle, embracing the Chinese community and its architecture, festivals and foods. Sydney’s Chinatown has followed suit, evolving into one of the city’s most popular attractions: a bustling, hurried, neon-lit extravaganza of Asian restaurants, groceries, cake shops, hairdressers, medical clinics and knick-knack shops. And boy has it grown. The district now reaches far past its historical heart on Dixon Street mall to encompass 12 city streets between Darling Harbour and Central Station.

You know you’ve arrived in Chinatown when you see the multi-lingual neon signs of the Dixon Street Mall. The mall is bookended by large ceremonial archways built with funds raised by local business owners and inscribed with well-worn but well-meaning phrases like ‘Towards Australian and Chinese friendship’. On either side of the archways lie large lion statues, apparently crafted under the guidance of feng shui experts to ward off idle gossip from nearby Paddy’s Market.

Set on the corner of Hay and Thomas Streets, Paddy’s Market is a shopping extravaganza where the prices are rock-bottom and bargaining is encouraged. From Wednesdays through to Sundays, it fills with stalls overflowing with sunglasses, flowers, DVDs, clothing, jewellery, homeware, the largest collection of Chinese-made Australian souvenirs in the country and one keen lady selling replica Samurai swords. On weekends you’ll also find a bustling produce market where stallholders holler over fresh fruits and vegetables sold at wholesale prices.

A short walk from Chinatown on the south end of Darling Harbour entertainment precinct is a large walled compound which is home to the Chinese Garden of Friendship. Modelled on the manicured gardens of the Ming Dynasty, it’s a place of peace and tranquility, with ponds filled with koi carp, pavilions and pagodas, weeping willows and exotic plants, and a traditional Chinese teahouse. The garden was gifted to Sydney in 1988 by its sister city Guangzhuo to celebrate Australia’s Bicentenary.

Starting at 4pm on Fridays, Dixon Street comes to life as it hosts the Chinatown Night Market. In sync with the Chinatown vibe, the market is an outlet for Asian students, artists and young designers selling clothing, jewellery, scented candles, paper lanterns, socks, smart phone accessories and stuffed toys – but above all, food.

The Night Market’s stalls sell street food delicacies from Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia and China. The variety on offer rivals the food markets of Bangkok and Hanoi.

In a mini-mall adjacent to Dixon Street Mall, I came across one of the Chinatown’s many hairdressing salons. The owner, Max Tan, a Chinese-American from Singapore who’s lived in Sydney for more than 20 years, told me it takes specialist skill to cut Asian hair. Does Max cut the hair of non-Asians? ‘Sure we do,’ he says. ‘We can cut anyone’s hair.’

A Sydney institution for more than 25 years, Golden Century Seafood Restaurant at 399 Sussex Street is Chinatown’s most iconic restaurant. The floor-to-ceiling facade of interlocking fish tanks stocks mud crabs the size of hub caps, scallops in coral-coloured shells, tiger prawns, crayfish and rock lobsters like these, the largest of which weighed an impressive 3.9kg. The chef’s recommendations include live pippies (a type of shellfish) with XO sauce, snow crab with black pepper, steamed scallops and slow-roasted duck.

Running parallel to the south end of Dixon Street is an alleyway called Kimber Lane. There you’ll see a most unusual installation by Sydney artist Jason Wing called Between Two Worlds. Part of an ongoing $20 million program to upgrade Chinatown’s public spaces, it comprises three interweaving elements: hybrid rose-cloud murals on the walls, plant-like designs etched into the paving and suspended metallic cupid figures that glow at night, watching over visitors as they wend their way home.

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