Sydney’s Chinatown. It’s bustling, exciting and just a little intimidating. I’ve walked through Dixon Street, the main thoroughfare a few times. Apart from Yum Cha years ago, I haven’t eaten there. The number of small food outlets offering a huge range of dishes baffles me.
Discovering Sydney’s Chinatown
I need to learn more about Chinatown and Chinese food. So, I’m joining a Chinatown Tour with Justin Steele of Local Sauce Tours. He promises food and stories.
Our small group meets outside Paddy’s Market opposite Dixon Street. We’re a mix of locals and visitors. As we wait for a straggler, Justin introduces himself.
Justin, Our Guide
Justin grew up in Sunnybank in Brisbane, the home to many Chinese Australians. Half his class was of Chinese heritage. His interest in China began. He swapped lunches with them and later lived in China for two years where he learnt Mandarin and enjoyed the cuisine.
Now living in Sydney, Justin spends time in Chinatown revisiting the foods he knows and loves. For his Chinatown tour Justin, has cherrypicked his favourite Chinese street food. The tour is his way of sharing his knowledge of Chinese Australia and supporting the local businesses.
While there are not chicken feet on the menu, he warns that he’ll take us “a little bit outside your comfort zone”.
A Journey Through China
Justin leads us on a journey through China. As well as enjoying street food from different regions, we see art by Chinese Australians and learn about Chinese migration to Australia. The stories are real. They’re not always positive.
In the early 1800s, the first Chinese man arrived in Australia from Southern China. He worked hard in different jobs, later opening a pub near Parramatta. His descendants are now 7th and 8th generation Australians. They’ve been here longer than many white Australian families.
A dark period for Chinese migrants to Australia began with the Gold Rush 1851. There were race riots and discriminatory taxes. Justin reminds me about details of the White Australia policy that many Australians know little about.
Oldest sculpture in Sydney’s Chinatown
Justin points out a weathered tree trunk decorated with gold highlights. I have walked past this oldest piece of public art in Chinatown many times without stopping to look at the detail or understanding the meaning of the different elements in the artwork. I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself!
Hints on Eating Our Street Food
Peppering his tour with little surprises and gifts, Justin suggests ways to eat our street food without it falling to the floor or spilling over our clothes. I stab at slippery fish balls with my chopsticks and nibble at my soup filled dumpling to allow it to cool before devouring the tasty morsel. A suggested milky yoghurt drink helps to lessen the heat of chilli.
Through a window we watch dumplings being made by hand. We sample food from Southern China, Nanjing and a province near Shanghai. Tasting a kebab from China’s northwest one guest comments “You can taste the cumin”. Another says “Tasty”. The spices used are quite different.
Art and Monuments in Chinatown
Artworks with a digital feature hang on walls in a privately owned arcade. This ‘hidden gallery’ of works by a Chinese art collective deserves careful attention. The fun works feature playful moving LED figures. One is interactive. It reacts if you clap. I smile to myself at the result.
An Aboriginal artist with Chinese heritage painted the blue figures and cloudlike patterns in a nearby laneway. Justin explains how the work is a play on words with the words for clouds and good fortune sounding similar in Chinese. Good luck is supposed to rub off onto you as you walk down the lane.
Although I’d walked past it many times, I haven’t noticed the Chinese Australian ex-services monument before. Justin tells us about Chinese Australians who enlisted in the armed forces. One became the most successful sniper “ever in war” he tells us.
A Group Challenge
While Justin goes off to order our next treat, he presents us with a challenge. To identify the celebrities in a pub style trivia question. Our overseas visitors don’t have a clue. Us locals don’t fare much better. Out of the nine photographs we manage to identify only four with a generously awarded half mark which gives us a pass mark.
I won’t give the game away, but suffice it to say we’re all surprised by the identities of those we missed.
A Chinese ‘pork burger’ from Xian at the start of the silk road ends the food part of the tour. To order it ourselves, Justin tells us “Just say ‘Roger Moore’ quickly”. The result approximates the Chinese word for Rou Jia Mo.
The Largest Chinatown in the Southern Hemisphere
Sydney’s Chinatown is the largest Chinatown in the Southern Hemisphere and we’ve only touched the surface. As Justin explains, we’ve only visited four of the many restaurants in Chinatown.
To help us explore this exciting part of town with so much good food on offer, he hands out a list of more restaurants to visit with suggestions of what we to order at each one. Justin issues us with yet another challenge. To tick every place and food item off the list. I’ll do my best.
Ending the Tour with Emperor’s Puffs
Our tour of Chinatown ends where it began. The fast moving queue for Emperor’s puffs is possibly longer than it was when we passed it two and a half hours earlier. They’re all after the hot, freshly made bite sized custard filled puffs.
I bid Justin farewell and join the queue for a bag to take home.
Note: I joined the Sydney Chinatown tour at my own expense.