Food News

The future of Sydney’s Chinatown hangs in the balance

The city’s storied Chinatown precinct was one of the first areas to feel the sting of COVID-19. And for its many restaurants, bars and food businesses – some of which have been around for 30-plus years – it's hard to know how much longer they can endure the pain.

When Superbowl closed in March 2020, many considered it an ominous sign of the downturn in business for Sydney's Chinatown.

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The closure of Superbowl was the canary in the mine for Sydney’s Chinatown. Since the 1970s, the restaurant on Dixon Street has done a roaring trade in congee, beef hor fun (stir-fried rice noodles) and Peking duck. It was a solid option for lunch and dinner, and a hotspot for hungry late-night revellers who lacked the cash to splash at the glitzier Golden Century. When it closed, suddenly, unexpectedly, in late March, it was a sign of the struggles faced by the restaurant industry in the historic precinct.

The hospitality industry has worn the cost of the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown. But as news of a mysterious virus from Wuhan made headlines in Australia, restaurants and bars in Sydney’s Chinatown were hit the earliest. Spooked diners stayed away in January and February; then there was the limp, that ghostly limp, through the March to June lockdown where the once-bustling precinct became a shell, a husk, of its former neon-lit self.

The future of food businesses in the storied Chinatown precinct hangs in the balance. Because when a community has sustained intense damage in such a concentrated period of time, how much longer can it endure?

One of two paifang that bookend Dixon Street, the beating heart of Sydney’s Chinatown.

(Photo: Getty)

Melbourne lays claim to Australia’s oldest Chinatown, but Sydney’s is the largest in the southern hemisphere. Chinatown lies in the suburb of Haymarket in the south CBD, and the boundaries – Liverpool Street to the north, George Street in the west, Quay Street in the south, and Harbour Street in the east – form a wonky backwards L-shape on a map. The pedestrian-only Dixon Street, bookended by two paifang (traditional Chinese arched gateways) forms its beating heart.

Dining out is a major drawcard. A 2012 study by the Western Sydney University counted more than 200 food and drink businesses in the area, making it the second-largest industry in the Chinatown economy. The number of restaurants, and the breadth of cuisine, has diversified significantly over the decades. “When I came in the 1970s from Hong Kong, the Mandarin Club was the only place you could go to for yum cha. It was only available on the weekends, and the queue went all the way down the street,” says Simon Chan, president of the Haymarket Chamber of Commerce.

The flow of migrants from Guangdong from the 1850s and from Hong Kong in the 1980s to 1990s meant Cantonese food formed the core of Chinatown’s culinary offerings. But over time, the cuisine has come to reflect the changing face of the migrant, holiday-worker and international-student populations. You’ll find food from the Sichuan, Hunan, Xinjiang regions of China, as well as Japanese, Thai, Korean and Malaysian eateries across Chinatown, and the Thainatown and Koreatown precincts in the broader Haymarket area.

“If people go out late, they usually end up in Chinatown,” says Jason Ang, who co-owns bar Bancho with his brother Chris, wife Tina Wing Kee, and Yoshi Onishi. “It’s the glue that keeps the rest of the city going.”

That is, until things get unstuck. Billy Wong runs famed seafood restaurant Golden Century with his parents Eric and Linda – the restaurant celebrated its 30th birthday last year. Wong can, without hesitation, pinpoint the day it started going downhill for Chinatown. It was 26 January, the day after Lunar New Year, and the day after the first coronavirus case in Australia had been confirmed. Lunar New Year celebrations usually endure for 15 days following new-year-proper, but bookings dropped off a cliff at a time where families, friends and colleagues would usually pack out the restaurant.

The entrance to Golden Century on Sussex Street, Haymarket. Co-owner Billy Wong pinpoints 26 January, 2020, as the exact date that things started going downhill for the restaurant.

(Photo: Supplied)

For Bancho, the near-empty bar on weekdays was an ominous sign. “Earlier in the week it’s generally quieter anyway, but we’re talking really quiet Monday to Thursday,” says Wing Kee. “As soon as it wasn’t packed on a Friday, you could tell something was wrong.”

A week later on 1 February, businesses took another hit when the Federal Government closed Australia’s borders to foreign arrivals from China. “Chinatown relies heavily on tourist business. […] It’s one of the top three places to visit in Sydney after the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House,” says Chan. Closing the borders effectively turned off the tap of tourists and international students who flowed into the area.

Locals too avoided Chinatown. According to Wong, the Chinese-Australian community was rife with worry and rumour about the encroaching virus. “They didn’t know what was going to happen, what the impact was, and how serious it was going to be.” Chan says misplaced fears within the community deterred visitors from frequenting Chinese-owned restaurants. “Even Chinese I know said they would go to a restaurant that was not Chinese. They were scared they might catch it.” Though he acknowledges there has been an uptick in racial abuse directed towards people of Asian appearance during COVID-19, he contends that racism in the broader community was not the cause of Chinatown’s downturn in those early pre-lockdown months.

For Wing Kee, however, the language being used to discuss the new illness was driving xenophobic attitudes. “Especially around that time when people were calling it ‘the China virus’, it was hard to see how that language wasn’t impacting Chinatown.”

That’s the thing about racism. It’s oppression that echoes through history and time at different decibels. One end of the volume scale sits the White Australia policy; the middle is the sound of white business owners naming their pan-Asian restaurant “Sum Yung Guys”; and the other end is the silence that falls over a precinct renowned for its Chinese-owned food businesses when fear, uncertainty and bigotry take hold.

Past and current Bancho staff, from left to right: Yoshi Onishi, co-owner and venue manager; Chad Choulai, now at sister venue Tokyo Bird; Tina Wing Kee, co-owner; Chris Ang, co-owner and group operations manager. and Jason Ang, co-owner.

(Photo: Supplied)

The March lockdown was something of a relief – a mandate, at last, to cease trading for the sake of public health, after a merciless few months of decline. “It was a matter of time. It was a good thing. We felt the sooner we get this over and done with, the sooner we can come back out,” says Wong.

Bars like Bancho had to close for the foreseeable future. On the last day of trade, staff did a final clean of the venue and headed to Superbowl for a late supper. As it happened, it was also Superbowl’s last day, not just for lockdown, but forever. Some speculate that high rent and low trade caused the owners to shut up shop, while others say the pandemic gave them a good reason to retire after decades of feeding hungry diners. Bancho staffers were Superbowl’s last-ever customers. “It was actually a really sad dinner. We’d packed and wrapped up everything at Bancho, then went to Superbowl and watched them wrap up,” says Wing Kee. “We were more sad about Superbowl closing down than us closing down,” adds Ang.

If Superbowl stands for the casual and comfortable end of archetypal Chinatown dining, Golden Century is its glamorous other half, a place frequented by chefs knocking off after dinner service, Lady Gaga and Rihanna, and visiting dignitaries. (Chinese President Xi Jinping famously requested Golden Century catering to his Sydney hotel during a 2014 visit.)

Over three levels, it seats 550 patrons who are attended to by bilingual front-of-house staff wearing black waistcoats, polished shoes and earpieces. In normal circumstances, Golden Century is open from midday to 4am, 365 days a year. A 10-week lockdown was simply unprecedented in the restaurant’s 30-year history. “There’s constantly people in and out, so to walk in there during the pandemic, it was quite surreal,” says Wong. The tables, usually draped in pristine white cloth, were stripped bare. The live seafood tanks were still and quiet. “It was just an empty restaurant.”

A staff member cleans the entrance to seafood restaurant Golden Century.

(Photo: Getty)

Danny Fu’s connection with Sydney’s Chinatown runs deep. As a teenager, he wrangled a job during weekend yum cha service at Marigold. In yum cha restaurants, it’s typically women who are given front-of-house trolley duties. “I was probably a pioneer back in the day,” says Fu. He was often assigned to the dou fu fa cart, peddling the dessert of warm silken tofu with ginger syrup. “It was called the Mercedes-Benz of the carts because you could push it around and not many people would order it.”

There are other memories too. Completing his homework on stacks of rice at the back of Season’s Fruit Market, the grocery store that his parents Irene and Chi Ching have run for 38 years. Delivering wholesale orders to Chinatown restaurants while studying at university. Watching his father rise at 4am to select produce at Flemington markets. And the enduring memory – one of which many first-generation children of immigrants can relate to – of his parents working back-breaking long hours, seven days a week, to see their business, and their children’s futures, thrive in Australia.

Danny Fu’s siblings, Jessica and Vincent, at Season’s Fruit Market in 1998. Pictured in the background is their paternal and maternal grandmothers.

(Photo: Supplied)

Season’s Fruit Market is a poky shopfront on Chinatown’s Thomas Street, its narrow entrance flanked by ageing bilingual signs in Chinese and English: “posters prohibited” “fresh fruit and vegetables, chicken fillet, frozen food, Asian food”. The retail shelves are crammed with bok choy, bamboo steamer baskets and condiments of multiple varieties. But it’s their supply to restaurants that forms the backbone of the business – 80 per cent of Season’s trade is wholesale.

When lockdown happened and restaurants shuttered, the hit to Season’s was massive. It forced the family to think of ways to weather the worst of the COVID-19 storm. Witnessing panicked buyers lining up at supermarkets, Fu’s partner Jen Ng had a revelation – no one was doing home-delivery of Asian groceries. Why don’t they give it a shot?

At first, orders, mainly from family and friends, were compiled on a Google spreadsheet. When it was shared to a cousin’s mother’s group, demand ballooned to 45 orders. Ng, who works in marketing, established an online store and the family, including Fu’s sister Jessica, brother Vincent, and their partners, would pitch in packing orders; Fu delivered them to people’s doors.

The online store has been a rapid change, considering the shop only installed an Eftpos machine at the end of 2019. Vestiges of its old-school operations remain. Wholesale orders are still taken with pen and paper, and the point of sale system only has two buttons: one for GST items, the other for non-GST items.

And it’s been a massive career pivot for Fu as well. The 29-year-old had worked in the corporate sector for eight years, and was just two weeks into a new finance job before calling it quits in April to concentrate on the family business full-time. His parents warned him against it, citing the long hours, stress and hardship that comes with running a small business. “They said, if you could have an easy job in front of a computer, why would you swap it for this? […] I’m definitely not as tough as they are. I’ve been in it for two months, and I can tell you it’s a lot more tiring,” says Fu.

In East Asian cultures, filial piety is a cornerstone of family relationships. In its modern incarnation, it manifests in the form of children demonstrating their unconditional love and respect for parents through support and sacrifice.

“Our parents are a different breed. They work a lot harder than we do. That’s the reason I did this – I want them to retire more comfortably,” says Fu. He says without his, Ng’s and his siblings’ intervention, his parents would have probably worked themselves into old age and simply closed the shop. But now, there’s an opportunity to see the business thrive well into the future.

Fu says his parents feel a mix of pride and guilt about him joining the business. Regular customers often remark how lovely it is that Fu is “helping” at the shop, before Irene corrects them to say he’s with the business permanently. “At the same time, they felt bad I was giving up my career. I could have earned more cash [in the corporate sector], and they keep saying they can’t pay me as much,” says Fu. “And I say, ‘I know Mum. But that’s not why I’m doing it.'”

Irene and Chi Ching Fu, son Danny Fu and Danny’s partner Jen Ng at the front of Season’s Fruit Market.

(Photo: Supplied)

So what now for Chinatown’s food businesses? As lockdown restrictions lifted, there was a glimmer of hope the precinct would right itself. In May when up to 10 diners were allowed in Sydney restaurants, Golden Century reopened three days a week. This month, it’s expanded its trading to five days a week, and is staying open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s a long way off from its regular 16-hours a day operation, but it’s a start.

But when Bancho reopened on 15 July, Melbourne was a week into Lockdown II, and the recent cluster of cases in Sydney has once again put diners on edge. Compared to this time last year, business at Bancho is down 50 per cent. Compound that with winter, a notoriously difficult season to sustain a hospitality business let alone one that’s trying to pick up the pieces of a global pandemic, and Wing Kee feels a creeping sense of déjà vu. “It feels like that week before lockdown again,” she says.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has signalled the state is unlikely to go into a second lockdown. But just on the weekend, a case of the virus spread through community transmission was traced to a restaurant off Broadway, less than a kilometre from Chinatown’s Quay Street border. For a precinct that months ago had to battle public misconception about its avoid-at-all-costs status, the latest incident skirts uncomfortably close.

A near empty Dixon Street food court.

(Photo: Getty)

The “for lease” signs that dot Dixon Street’s famed food courts are signs of a community in strife. The established institutions with deep pockets will see the other side of the crisis, as will those agile enough to recalibrate their businesses in new, creative ways. Some, concedes Chan, simply won’t make it. “We’re positive but there will be businesses that won’t survive,” he says. “I like to think Chinatown will be back, but it won’t be until we have a vaccine.”

No one can predict what will happen to Chinatown between now and then. But if there’s one reason, however small, to hope, it’s this: Superbowl has been bought by new owners. It’s currently being renovated, but it looks like much of the eatery’s most-loved menu items will remain. If all goes to plan, this week, that distinctive neon sign will burn brightly again, and Superbowl’s doors will creak open on quiet Dixon Street.

There are signs that Superbowl is about to reopen.

(Photo: Yvonne C Lam)

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