The story and history of Chinatown Melbourne, located in the eastern Australian state of Victoria, can be traced back to the early 1800s. A man named Mak Sai Ying was one of the first documented Chinese migrants in 1818. He worked as a carpenter before establishing a restaurant in the neighboring state of New South Wales.
In the years that followed, numerous Chinese migrants came as word spread across the hemispheres about the gold rush in the Australian state. Dr. Ethel Villafranca, Curator and Exhibitions Manager of the Museum of Chinese Australian History, spoke about these as a guest speaker in the online event ‘Chinatown Portals: Melbourne,’ the last of a series of online events about the different Chinatowns around the world (organized by the Chinatown Museum and Bahay Tsinoy).
“Gold was discovered first in New South Wales, not Victoria, in 1851. But it wasn’t until more gold was discovered in Victoria, somewhere in Ballarat, that the gold rush fever really took hold,” said Dr. Villafranca.
All this took place in eastern Australia (both Victoria and New South Wales are in the east) in the 1850s, the gold rush era. As a context: the dynastic era of China did not always see prosperity for its people. So, if one suddenly found out that a mountain of gold would have possibly been within reach, of course, the person would have extended his arms to reach for it!
This happened to such an extent that “by 1858, Victoria’s Chinese population has grown to around 42,000,” said Dr. Villafranca. One recurring place stood out in Dr. Villafranca’s talk: a place called Little Bourke Street, one of the main streets of Chinatown.
This street has served as one of the most important places for Melbourne’s Chinese community. The community building of the Num Pon Soon society, established to support many of the Chinese, has been around since 1862. It still stands strong today.
“It is not completely known why the Chinese settlements were concentrated in this district, around Little Bourke, but one assumption is that it’s because of its close proximity to the port of Melbourne, where the ships would dock, and also because rent around were cheaper,” said Dr. Villafranca.
“What’s unique about Chinatown in Melbourne, although it’s a short laneway, the character of the buildings has been maintained. In Little Bourke, you still would see three-story buildings that were remnants of the gold rush period.”
Of course, the gold rush eventually slowed down in Victoria. A number returned home to China, but many also stayed in Melbourne to do labor work.
Anti-Chinese sentiments rose in the early 1900s. There was even an immigration law that was implemented. Fortunately, Chinatown survived despite the restrictions on Chinese migrations, which “saw the lowest number of Chinese people in Australia” in the 1940s.
Many of those who did stay in Melbourne flourished, however; family stores and businesses abounded. This paved the way for the emergence of the Chinatown Melbourne that exists even up to this day.
Thankfully, the 1960s saw a change in the anti-Chinese sentiments as the government took efforts to revitalize Chinatown Melbourne.
As in many other places around the world, despite anti-Chinese sentiments, the community continued to thrive. Despite the hardships of having to leave China due to poverty, the Chinese community in Melbourne strived and built the foundation for what was to become a bustling Chinatown today.
It’s also worth noting the familiar theme of family stores and businesses. It’s no secret that many were, and still are, humble remnants of the toils and labor of Chinese migrants, something we, Chinese and non-Chinese alike, ought to appreciate.
About the author of this article:
Aaron has written extensively on topics that range from business and ethics to culture and philosophy. He is currently a CHiNOY TV producer, a Philippine Daily Inquirer correspondent, a Philippine Association for Chinese Studies lifetime member, and an Ateneo de Manila University Chinese Studies Program constituent. He also enjoys watching Pokémon and (occasionally) doing TikTok videos! Follow him on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/aaron.joseph.s.medina/