Chinatown Sydney is as much about sampling the cuisines and cultures from all over Asia as it is about eating Chinese food. Food from Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan can all be found here now.
Once upon a time a visit to Chinatown Sydney was all about Chinese food — and Cantonese primarily, as most of Australia’s early Chinese migrants came from Southern China, and later from Hong Kong and Macau.
These days it’s about experiencing a taste of Asia in Chinatown, as cuisines and cultures from all over the region — Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan — have flourished. We love it.
Chinatown Sydney, Where You Can Experience the Tastes of Asia
As we walked the streets of Chinatown in recent weeks, spotting bubble tea shops and fresh roti being made, we’ve occasionally felt as if we were in Penang, Bangkok or Singapore, because Sydney’s Chinatown has become more like a ‘Little Asia’ than the predominantly Chinese-Australian community it once was. It quickly became Terence’s favourite place to shop for cooking ingredients, as it was when we lived in Sydney years ago
The early colony of New South Wales (of which Sydney is the capital) had links to Canton due to the tea trade and there were Chinese crew on ships bound for Australia in the late 1700s and early 1800s, however, the first documented Chinese-born settler in Australia was Mak Sai Ying, who arrived in 1818 — who, in typical Australian style, became a publican!
More Chinese arrived as indentured labourers in the 1840s and then en masse during the gold rush era of the 1850s to work in the gold fields in Victoria and New South Wales. A small industry based around the curing of fish to feed the miners developed soon after in The Rocks, making it the site of the first Chinatown in the early nineteenth century. It was later moved to its current location in the Haymarket area in the 1920s.
The pedestrian thoroughfare of Dixon Street, parallel Sussex Street, and surrounding streets and lanes have long formed the throbbing heart of Chinatown, lined with Chinese bakeries, grocery stores, supermarkets, and restaurants, including Cantonese, Sizchuan and Peking duck joints.
In recent years, Chinatown has sprawled, spreading its delicious tentacles into every laneway, arcade, mall, and basement in the southern CBD (central business district). It has also evolved, growing in different cultural and culinary directions to serve the overseas students from Asia enrolled at the University of Technology, Sydney, and the businesses and workers there to support them. In many cases, graduates have stayed on in Sydney after university or returned years later to open their own businesses and start families.
Sydney’s ‘Little Asia’ now extends beyond what was the central core of Chinatown before we left Sydney in the late 1990s, sprawling south to Broadway, where you’ll find Malay, Indonesian and Japanese eateries; west to the edge of Darling Harbour, which is home to the Chinese Garden of Friendship (designed by Sydney’s Chinese Sister-City of Guangzhou); east as far as Castlereagh Street, which is dotted with Korean spots and so many Thai restaurants, supermarkets and grocery stores that it’s now become known as ‘Thainatown’.
Now, you’ll also stumble onto Taiwanese dessert cafés and drink shops, Malaysian Nonya eateries, Korean BBQ joints, Vietnamese pho spots, Japanese noodle bars, Thai café-bars with hawker stands, a handful of shopping malls brimming with Asian fashion boutiques selling teensy little frocks of the kind common in Bangkok and Tokyo.
You’ll also spot Malaysian shoes, Korean music stores, Thai hairdressers, Balinese spas, and Chinese herbalists, along with some of the best Asian supermarkets we’ve seen anywhere, and big busy food halls where you’ll find everything from big bowls of curry laksa and ramen to sushi and char kuay teow.
The diversification of Chinatown began in the 1970s, following the arrival of ethnic Chinese from Vietnam and Cambodia, in the 1980s with Chinese from Hong Kong, and in the 1990s with Malaysian, Taiwanese, Indonesian, Singaporean, and Thai students arriving to study in Sydney.
The wonderful diversity aside, what we most love about Sydney’s ‘Chinatown’ is that it’s an authentic, living-breathing Asian-Australian community. It’s predominantly Asian-Australians running the businesses, going to university, and eating, drinking and shopping in this part of the city.
This means it’s an area of the city that’s always alive, from early in the morning when Asian stallholders open for business at Paddy’s Markets to late at night when BBQ King is still dishing up its delicious plates of succulent barbecue pork and duck. And there aren’t too many Chinatowns outside of Asia that you can say that about in the world.
Where to Experience a Taste of Asia in Chinatown Sydney
You’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a Chinese city as you stroll around these pretty gardens, featuring stone paths, waterfalls, still ponds, pagodas, bridges, and a teahouse. I remember going to the opening way back in 1988 and it’s wonderful to see how much they’ve grown. This is a genuine oasis in the city.
Darling Harbour; southern end, adjacent to Chinatown.
In existence as a market since 1834, when it formed in the Haymarket area after a split with the Campbell Street cattle market, Paddy’s Markets is a must for anyone settling into Sydney for a while. It has been one of our favourite places to shop in the city since the early 1990s when we used to head here most Saturdays for our Asian greens after picking up a Peking duck across the road. It’s notable for the freshness and variety of produce, especially Asian produce, as much as the affordability. This must also be the cheapest place to shop in the city, especially Asian greens, fresh herbs, and fruit and vegetables.
Hay and Sussex Streets, Chinatown.
After you’re done at Paddy’s Markets, take the escalator up to this Asian-like shopping mall — if you haven’t felt like you’re in Bangkok, KL or Beijing so far, it won’t take long here. From the Asian supermarkets and specialist stores (the fish shop is one of the city’s best) to the bubble drink cafés, Hello Kitty shops, fashion boutiques, and cheap clothes stalls in the centre of the mall, shopping experiences in Chinatown Sydney don’t get more Asian than this.
Above Paddy’s Markets, Chinatown.
If you only have time to try one food court in Chinatown, try the Sussex Centre, the cleanest, largest and hippest. A warning: this is not the most authentic Asian food you’ll find in the city (many dishes have been adapted over time to suit the palates of Australians and Asian-Australians who’ve grown up on a fusion of cuisines), and you’ll notice this as soon as you look at a menu, which rarely features one cuisine. The food, however, is likely to be delicious, is super-affordable and is lots of fun. We like Happy Chef (for laksa), Saigon Pho (for pho), Kitchen OEC (Japanese tokatsu), and Yummy Thai (boat noodle soup).
Dixon Street, Chinatown.
Go to this sprawling Chinese restaurant — hugely popular with Sydneysiders of all heritages — for yum cha on weekends, where you can select your dishes from picture cards or the bamboo baskets on the trolleys that are continuously wheeled from table to table. It’s at its most chaotic from 11am to 1pm when it’s most atmospheric but can also be difficult to find a table, even in the two vast dining spaces. We love the prawns wrapped in steamed rice paper, the steamed prawn dumplings, and the pork buns.
421 Sussex Street, Chinatown.
With its hanging ducks glistening in the window and retro décor, this local institution has long been a popular late night and early morning eating spot with Sydney chefs, and it’s still one of our favourite BBQ joints. This is one of three places in Chinatown Sydney we’d go to source our Peking Ducks years ago when we lived in Sydney, and we recently ate here late one night with a friend after seeing a band at the nearby Metro and weren’t disappointed. While it’s been around forever, food can be (bewilderingly) a bit hit and miss, varying from sublime to so-so. But at 1am nobody seems to care. Keep it simple. Order plates of Peking duck, BBQ pork and rice, and wash it down with Tsing Tao beer.
18 Goulburn Street, Chinatown.
Chinatown Sydney has a handful of Chinese bakeries, but one of the most popular and long one of our favourites is the Emperor’s Garden Cake and Bakery’ on Dixon Street, which is part of the Emperor’s Garden Restaurant empire; we also like their BBQ and Noodles Restaurant opposite Paddy’s Market. Pick up a tray and pair of tongs and help yourself to an array of sweet soft Chinese buns — steamed, baked, fried, and even deep-fried. Our favourites are the sweet pork buns, coconut buns and egg tarts.
Sydney has an abundance of Taiwanese bubble teashops, but Chatime in Chinatown Sydney seems to be one of the most popular and is certainly our favourite. If you haven’t tried bubble tea before, it’s a frothy, sweet tea that comes in countless exotic flavours, but generally served over tapioca pearls. I love the coconut milk tea, jasmine green tea latte and lychee milk tea, but if you’re a first-timer, perhaps start with the roasted milk tea.
Several branches, including Dixon Street, Chinatown.
*Sadly, the legendary BBQ King has closed but I can’t bring myself to delete the entry.