28 May 2024

Melbourne's amazing Chinatown

The discovery of gold in 1851 attracted Chinese imm­ig­ration to Vic­toria. Ships sailed to Australia from Hong Kong with their cargo of men who had come in search of the new gold fields. From 1853-5, thousands of Chinese disembarked here. Very few Chin­ese women came to Australia during this period so by 1861, 38,000+ Chinese largely men lived in the colonies. Thank you Chinese-Australian Historical Images

Little Bourke St, Melbourne

The burgeoning Chinese community in Little Bourke St pro­vided for all the diggers’ needs; lodging houses en route to the goldfields were quick­ly joined by merchants and provisions sh­ops, food, equipment and medicine. In the 1860s many Chinese dist­r­ict associations began to purchase land in Little Bourke St to build clubrooms which served as Chinese com­munity meeting places. From there business, social and clan networks spread out.

Chinatown experienced a growth stage from the early 1870s. As the diggings emptied, those who didn’t return to China went back to Me­l­­­bourne which pr­ovided their only community. They found work and es­tab­lished businesses to cater for the local Chinese and non Chin­ese markets. The 1880s saw booming industry in Marvellous Melbourne.

The new labour laws combined with the White Austral­ia Policy introduced in 1901 plunged Chinatown into darkness. It was no longer the residential haven for the Chinese, as the popul­at­ion declined along with business. When the government eased immig­ration laws in 1947 Chinatown revived itself again, spreading its population over Melbourne. As a result China­town remains an impor­t­ant social and economic centre for the Chinese Comm­unity and proudly stands as one of the City’s most popular venues.

Chinatown now extends along Little Bourke St between Swanston and Spring Sts. Its cabinet makers and lodging houses are long gone but eateries and top class restaurants now take their place with the streetscape and its low-rise brick buildings, retaining its historic character. Plus each year there are many traditional festivals, making Chinatown a popular city destination for local and inter­nat­ional visitors.

The Facing-Heaven Archway, Cohen Place
By the 1940s and 1950s the Chinatown area was looking endangered. From the 1950s, some of Melbourne's major depart­ment stores, which fronted Bourke St, expanded by taking up the whole block; many of the smaller buildings on one side of Little Bourke St were demolished. However in the 1960s, in a spirit of nostalgia and inspired by the tourist dollars that were being made in San Francisco's Chinatown, Chinatown entrep­ren­eur-City Councillor David Neng-Hsiang Wang persuaded the Melbourne City Council to embark on a radical redevelopment of the area, start­ing with archways constructed at the ends of Little Bourke Street. Emotional support from the Chinese community was mixed.

The refurbishment of the 5 key arches was an important statement of the City’s commitment to Chinatown. The arches have been restored to their former glory with added modern touches including red neon lighting on the columns. The arches clearly announce the entrance to Chinatown.

Melbourne’s Chinatown says it is the longest continuous Chinese settle­ment outside of Asia. Its essential character and main focus is along Little Bourke St, including the laneways and alleys which link the area to Bourke St and Lonsdale St. The heritage streetscape has been well preserv­ed, with few buildings reaching over three storeys in height. The area is dominated by restaurants from fine dining to laneway and arcade noodle houses, and is home to a number of Asian grocery stores, Ch­inese medicine and herbalist centres, bookst­ores, fashion shops and other retail outlets in arcades like Param­ount Plaza. This Ch­ina­town is truly cosmopolitan with cuis­ines including Thai, Jap­an­ese, Malaysian, Vietnamese and Contemporary Euro­pean.

Improving the streetscapes and atmosphere in Chinatown has been a prior­ity, including kerb widening, blue­stone paving, bright street lighting combined with neon signage, creating a distinctive night-time atmosphere. The refurbishment of Chinatown’s five key arches is an important state­ment of the City’s commitment to Chinatown. The tall, strik­ing and neon lit arches clearly welcome arrivals.

front of Chinese Museum of Australian History

Chinese Museum's collections

A magnificent archway was handmade in China according to trad­it­ional techniques and materials. It was shipped to Melbourne in pieces and assembled in Cohen Place under the supervision of highly skilled Chinese craftworkers. It’s the perfect backdrop for photo­graphs and the main entrance to Cohen Place, Chinatown Square and the Chinese Museum of Australian History in Cohen Place establish­ed. These redevelopments incor­po­r­ate greening, lan­tern lighting, rock sculptures and seats. The beautiful refurbish­ment of the Fac­ing Heaven archway is the great backdrop for photos.

Chinese Dragon Puppet Workshop

Tianjin Garden marks the eastern Spring St entrance of China-town. This is an important icon that was created by Tianjin & Melbourne designers, offering an area with water feat­ures, pavilion and seating space for office workers and visitors.


roentare said...

Thank you for this wonderful piece on history of Melbourne China Town. I feel so relevant to the images in the post.

River said...

Adelaide has its own Chinatown area and it is bright enough with colour and eateries, but doesn't compare well with Melbourne's in my opinion.

Chinese Cuisine said...

China Bar Group of Restaurants began in 1996 with a single flagship store in Melbourne, and it has since expanded to over 29 restaurants and 6 brands, establishing a strong presence both locally and internationally. In Little Bourke St alone, have a look at The Crane Restaurant, Crystal Jade and Chine On Paramount.


jabblog said...

The Chinese have established a community everywhere they have gone. I had to smile at the juxtaposition of Cohen Square and Chinatown.

DUTA said...

Chinatown communities in the world stand out everywhere with their streets, buildings,cuisines, atmosphere. Perhaps in Melbourne, it's more evident.

Katerinas Blog said...

Melbourneς Chinatown is so beautiful!!
Thanks for the thorough presentation!
As always information and descriptions framed by beautiful photos!
Have a nice day Hels!

Jo-Anne's Ramblings said...

I have never been to China Town in Melbourne but have been to China Town in Sydney.
It sounds so interesting and the photos are wonderful

Hels said...


Agreed. Melbourne has some wonderful historical areas, hopefully that modern locals and visitors still enjoy now. In the 1950s and 1960s my family enjoyed most of its cultural entertainment and food experiences in Lygon St Carlton and Acland St St Kilda, so I know how important different historical areas are.

Hels said...


Adelaide's Chinatown is certainly very colourful and the entrance to Moonta St reminds me very much of Little Bourke St in Melbourne. The difference is probably because of the large and important Chinese population that arrived in Melbourne after the gold rush ended. In Adelaide
I imagine that the Chinese community didn't grow rapidly till well after World War Two.

Hels said...

Chinese Cuisine

many thanks for your page - one of the best ways of learning about, and enjoying a culture is through its national foods. I don't eat meat, so I relied on the students' reports about the food places; they thought the choices were wonderful.

Hels said...


I too had a giggle over some of the most important of Chinatown's sites were located in Cohen Square :) Cohen Square was named for two important Cohen family businesses in Lonsdale Street. In 1895, the entrance was flanked by a Chinese Mission Hall and later a pair of marble lions were placed before the archway donated by the People's Republic of China.

Hels said...


wherever communities move from their homelands to foreign cities, the migrants are usually very pleased about having somewhere familiar to eat and to socialise. Later on, as the new migrants are more settled, they probably like returning to Chinatown for their specialist shopping, cinemas, galleries, festivals and other memories of home.

That is probably why all my Australian, New Zealand and South African friends who went on aliya wanted to live in Ra'anana.

Hels said...


the entire area is colourful and full of action. Have a look at the gorgeous photos on
What's On

Andrew said...

It's a wonderful area, teaming with activity on Friday and Saturday nights. It certainly has an interesting history and for a time in 19thC was a rather sleazy and unsavoury area. The museum you mentioned is quite interesting to visit too.

Hels said...


Your Chinatown is stunning.
Now I am guessing that Sydney's Chinatown will have a lesser impact in the future because it spread out over much broader areas than did Melbourne's, and so its impact was became less visible. Furthermore in time other communities moved into parts of Sydney's Chinatown eg Little Vietnam.

Hels said...


The Chinese population and Chinatown in Melbourne itself were largely thriving in the late 19th century, so we have to ask why did it later become rather sleazy? Racial violence already existed but it wasn't until the White Australia Policy came in at the turn of the century that the worst occurred. The legislation resulted in a sudden reduction in the number of Chinese workers and an ugly increase in persecution of Chinese who were already working here. No wonder Chinatown failed to thrive back then.

Gattina said...

That's very interesting ! In Brussels we have a very little Chinese community, but when they celebrate their New Year, there's a New Year's parade with lots of dragons! It's said that in San Francisco is the biggest China town.

Hels said...


Thank you...your comment made me think about Chinatowns in cities all over the world. "Chinatowns Of The World" lists 35 Chinatowns in 19 countries in Asia, North and South America, Europe and Australia. They can be large or small, 18th century or very modern, as long as they are full of colour and are welcoming to locals and visitors.


My name is Erika. said...

I love visiting Chinatowns in the US. I bet this one is as interesting to visit. And why is it white people always feel so insecure about other races? I hope that is changing worldwide.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I certainly am impressed with Melbourne's Chinatown (in Cohen Square), but the list you mentioned seems inadequate, as Cleveland's Chinatown is not mentioned, and anyway there must be more than thirty-five worldwide.

Hels said...


Of course... far more :)
"Chinatowns Of The World" had listed only 35 Chinatowns, but I used it to indicate to Gattina that the development of such cultural centres had grown, and was still growing widely. And some had disappeared, as well.

"U.S Chinatowns" recorded that there are now Chinatowns in nearly every major city i.e roughly 50 in the U.S alone.

Hels said...


because the Chinese workers were so successful as gold miners, restaurant owners, shop keepers etc etc??? It didn't make sense back then and it makes even less sense now. Australia gratefully accepted the huge contribution of Chinese workers and I imagine it would have been true in other destination countries.

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa tarde de sexta-feira. Aproveito para desejar um bom final de semana e um ótimo mês de junho. Minha querida amiga. Depois se fazem uma procissão, pelos tapetes e pinturas.

Hels said...


that would be a perfect time to travel :)

Mandy said...

It's wonderful that the Chinatown was invested in and the arches refurbished. I hadn't heard of the White Australia Policy before. What a dark time in history

Hels said...


I am humiliated by a lot of Australia's past history, but the White Australia Policy was one of the most disgusting. Attorney-General Alfred Deakin wrote in Sept 1901:
Put in plain and unequivocal terms means the prohibition of all alien coloured immigration, and it means at the earliest time, by reasonable and just means, the deportation or reduction of the number of aliens now in our midst. The two things go hand in hand, and are the necessary complement of a single policy – the policy of securing a ‘white Australia’ with no non-British citizens.

In Dec 1901 the Immigration Restriction Act came into law. It had been among the first pieces of legislation introduced to the newly formed federal parliament.

The Whitlam Government completely eliminated the Act in the 1970s with the introduction of policies like the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

Liam Ryan said...

Thanks for the interesting read.
I didn't know about the waves of migration in the 19th century to Australia.
We have a china town in London. I expect you visited when you lived here Hels. does it comapre?