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  • Susan Low

Postcard from Chinatown, Sydney

Updated: Apr 29



The past two months have passed all too quickly. Newly unshackled from full-time work, in mid-February I escaped soggy Britain and chased the sun: from Bali, to New Zealand and on to Australia, where I spent four weeks in Sydney with family and friends; decompressing, reassessing, making some new discoveries – and, yes, eating and drinking. A lot. Back at my desk now…

 

While I was in Sydney I signed up for a food tour of Chinatown with a company called Local Sauce. Worth it. Our host, Eddie Ma, grew up in Chinatown, the son of immigrants from China’s Canton region. His parents, as many immigrants did, opened a Chinese restaurant, where Eddie worked when he was growing up in the 1980s.

 

A bit of history

Eddie, who’s an architect in his ‘day job’, told us about the various Chinese communities who have made Sydney their home – from the early days of settlement (the first Chinese migrant to Australia was recorded in 1818), to the mid-1880s gold rush (the town of Ararat, in Victoria, is the only Australian city to be founded by Chinese immigrants, in 1857).

 

He also talked about more recent changes in immigration patterns – those brought about following China’s Open Door Policy of 1978, when the Chinese government relaxed strict regulations on Chinese citizens emigrating, sparking an unprecedented ‘going abroad fever’as well as the Tiananmen Square tragedy of 1989, after which the Australian government allowed resident Chinese students to settle in the country permanently.

 

These days, Australia has more people of Chinese origin, per capita, than any country outside Asia. About 5% of people born in Australia claim to have Chinese ancestry according to the (most recent) 2021 census.



Eddie didn’t shy away from some harsh realities. He told us that the success of Chinese immigrants in cities like Ararat and others during the gold rush years was a cause of racial friction, which resulted in a proliferation of anti-Chinese propaganda. That sentiment played an important part in bringing about the Federation of Australia at the turn of the century; one of the first acts to be passed by the new federation was the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, which explicitly called for ‘securing a white Australia’.  

 

As a result of this policy, the Asian population of Australia eventually shrank from 1.2% in 1901 to just 0.21% by the 1940s. The White Australia policy remained in place until 1973 when it was definitively denounced, establishing a policy of multiculturalism – a multiculturalism that is so evidently on display in Sydney’s Chinatown today.

 

The dishes that tell the story

That foray into history was eye-opening (for me at least) and Eddie deftly told the story of how Chinatown continues to evolve, in just a carefully chosen handful of dishes. First up was curry fish balls from Kowloon Café (see them in the main photo, above). The dish that has its roots in Hong Kong, Eddie explained, where it’s been a hugely popular street food since it was invented in the 1950s, a result of the mingling of Chinese and Indian cultures during British rule. It has also been a stalwart of Sydney’s Chinatown for decades.

 

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post (SCMP) has declared the curry fish ball to be an enduring symbol of the city: “In our food, our economics, our culture and our politics – the fish ball is Hong Kong”. It’s quite a recommendation and, yes, these pert, bouncy spheres in their curry-spiked sauce are pretty addictive. If you can’t get to Hong Kong (or Sydney) try this recipe from London’s School of Wok.



Next up, xialongbao (soup dumplings, aka XLB) from Nanjing Dumpling. These steamed, neatly pleated morsels of porky deliciousness need no introduction. They’re a worldwide hit from Manhattan to Milan, with the Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung credited for playing a part in bringing soup this dim sum classic to the masses worldwide. If you want to attempt them yourself, give J Kenji López-Alt’s soup dumplings recipe a go.

 

Xialongbao, Eddie explained, originated in eastern China, and are associated with the coastal city of Shanghai, where I first tasted them. As well as explaining the ‘mystery’ of how the soup gets into the dumplings (spoiler alert: the stock is chilled solid before it’s wrapped), Eddie also explained that the city of Nanjing, some 170 miles west of Shanghai, has its own version of the famed soup dumpling – they’re smaller and more delicate than the Shanghainese version.


Next on our menu was yang rou chuar’r, deliciously fatty, fragrant, smoky lamb skewers dusted with cumin. A popular street food in Beijing – and in Chinatowns worldwide – they’re a signature dish of the Turkic-speaking Muslim-majority Uyghur people in western China. Delicious though they were, I couldn’t help but think about the well documented repression and persecution of the Uyghur people in western China, many of whom have been forced to leave their homeland. Some 3,000 Uyghur people now make their home in Australia, according to the Washington D.C.-based non-profit organisation Freedom House.


We finished on a lighter note, with rou jia mo from Xi’An Cuisine – a small, family-run restaurant serving excellent, great-value food. Often referred to as China’s answer to the burger, rou jia mo (which translates, fittingly enough, as ‘meat sandwich’) is, to my palate, more succulent and flavourful. The braised-pork version, redolent of cardamom and star anise with a hit of Sichuan pepper, is stuffed into bread that’s crunchy and soft in all the right places (see main picture, above). Eddie explained that Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province in north-central China, once marked the eastern terminus of the ancient Silk Road that connected China with the eastern Mediterranean, and along which spices travelled along with the ideas, languages and religious perspectives that transformed cultures East and West – and which explains that multi-layered spicing. Fancy making rou jia mo yourself? Try this School of Wok recipe.



There’s enough variety in Sydney’s Chinatown to keep interested palates well fed for days. But, as with Chinatowns in other cities around the world, with real estate in central districts at a premium and housing pressures, all is not rosy.

 

The pic above is of the historic Kwong War Chong building on Dixon St, which dates back to 1910 and was at one time a store and cultural centre for Sydney’s Zhongshan community and, latterly, a tea house. It was sold a few years ago and, when I asked him after the tour, Eddie told me that the jury’s still out on the building’s future, but that “the community is fighting for it to remain as a tea house or a community facility”.


I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

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