On a regular weeknight, hole-in-the-wall noodle shops and malatang outlets would be teeming with international students, making the most of the convenience of nearby street food eateries that have helped them feel at home. Known for its hub of neon-lit restaurants and kitschy Australian souvenir stores along Dixon street, the borders of what Sydneysiders know as Chinatown have extended over the years to include Sussex and Goulburn streets, Thomas Street, and Little Hay Street. But what was once a neighbourhood teeming with energy and a living symbol of the city’s multiculturalism is now a shadow of its former self, as the effects of the pandemic and lockdown have devastated restaurants and food businesses across Sydney. Chinatown, in particular, suffered more than most, as the effects of widespread Sinophobia and a curb in international travel has meant that tourists, business travellers, and international students — the latter a huge economic driver for the area’s restaurants — have all but disappeared.
In the 1990’s, according to restaurateur Eric Wong at Golden Century Group (who also run the acclaimed XOPP), 90% of their clientele was Cantonese, or spoke Cantonese. Now, in Chinatown, 60% speak Mandarin. In other words, the area is changing — over the years, migration from Northern China has increased, and now the neighbourhood boasts more of a hodge-podge of regional and diasporic Chinese as well as the more familiar Cantonese-style offerings, mirroring patterns seen in Chinatowns from Toronto to London.
Among the BBQ places with ducks and pork belly hanging in display windows, you’ll find multiple bubble tea options, spicy Sichuan, malatang, and various spots for soupy Hunan noodles, to name a few. While popular with tourists and a staple for Sydney’s migrant communities, Chinatown has always been a beacon for international students, its accessibility and proximity to some of the larger educational institutions in Sydney and diverse multicultural population making for a welcoming, bustling headquarters for the adventurous and homesick.
Australia has welcomed just under 700,000 international students a year since 2018 — the second highest in the world, just after the United States — ranging from high school to university level, numbers that continued to grow as the reputation of Australian education institutions reached greater heights. Before the pandemic hit, education was Australia’s third biggest ‘export’ industry, with universities in particular relying heavily on international student fees since the Coalition government moved to gradually and continuously cut investment in research and education. And in addition to contributing an estimated $40 billion annually to the Australian economy, many international students also took on casual work largely in the retail and hospitality industries, meaning that restaurants haven’t just lost a large part of their customer base — they’ve also lost an important source of labour.
In particular, pockets of Sydney have proved to be popular amongst said demographic, including Ultimo and parts of Chinatown, which also happen to be on the doorstep of Central station, three Sydney universities and a TAFE campus (Technical and Further Education). Additionally, Kingsford, next to UNSW, one of Australia’s biggest universities, is also popular. With the arrival of a global pandemic, though, the virus has had a ripple effect on these hubs, as well as on the students themselves. And while Chinatowns around the world have been hard hit, Sydney’s reliance on this international student base, coupled to heavy restrictions on entry, has created a perfect storm that these neighbourhoods have had to weather.
Now, in the midst of a pandemic, Chinatown and other student dining hubs are quieter than before, even though restrictions have slowly been lifted. The future of these neighbourhoods and the often family-run restaurants that form their backbone remains unclear, and murkier still given the uncertainty around the return of their biggest source of trade.
Living close to Kingsford, some of my favourite restaurants are just up the road from UNSW, including a malatang place called Flavour Place — which also happens to serve the best chilli pig’s ears in Sydney. “The students are all gone,” a staff member there explains. “They all left, and even the older students, the ones who started before, there aren’t as many of them around either.” At dinner time on a Friday night, a malatang restaurant would usually be packed to the gills with cheerful guests gathered around generous bowls of hot broth, but on this particular Friday night it is empty — Anzac Parade is quietly bustling, but missing that buzzy, cheerful vibe that international students bring.
Meanwhile, at the Dolar Shop, a perennially popular hot pot restaurant in Chinatown with some of the friendliest and most efficient staff in the neighbourhood, long queues were a daily occurence. Even before the pandemic truly hit Sydney, the wait time for a table here fell from almost two hours to five minutes — almost unheard of for most hot pot places in Chinatown.
“People underestimate the economic benefit international students bring to Australia,” says Billy Wong, who is Eric Wong’s son and oversees the running of XOPP. “They come to study and spend money on education fees but also on eating at restaurants. Their families visit so they will eat out too, and then they become great advocates of Australia when they go home — what a great place Australia is to come and visit, and that adds to the tourism aspect of the mini economy students bring.” With its contemporary takes on classic Cantonese dishes like prawn mantou rolls and steamed pipis in XO chilli, XOPP has been more popular with the younger crowd, with a portion of the staff international students themselves.
Universities in Australia have been agitating for restrictions on international students to be eased so they can be welcomed back to study face to face. Those who have stayed are largely ineligible for government benefits, though Victoria’s state government has taken the initiative to offer financial relief. Recently, the Federal Government began resuming the processing of student visas, and have previously relaxed work restrictions for those working in health, disability and aged care sectors. Pathways to employment for visa holders will also be put in place for students unable to return to their home country, extending a lifeline to those who have stayed.
In the meantime, dining centres across Chinatown, Ultimo, and Kingsford in particular have lost a large proportion of their usual guests and workforce. Without tourists and international students, these usually colourful and bustling neighbourhoods have become far quieter. It can’t be overstated that the embrace of these hubs speak to their power in helping students and others from abroad feel welcome so far from home, their multicultural energy just one of the aspects that makes Sydney an international city — making it even more important to keep places like Chinatown alive. And while tourists and international students have had to stay home, the flip side is that this means there is an opportunity for Sydneysiders to explore and support these neighbourhoods as visitors in their own home, to discover new regional flavours and styles for themselves (whether through takeaway or dining in, if safe), and to be more adventurous with their bubble tea toppings.
Wong admits that while dining out started to look more promising after NSW restrictions slowly eased, confidence has taken yet another battering with Victoria’s COVID-19 numbers. So far, the plan seems to be state governments making their own decisions about adjusting lockdown and other restrictions depending on the situation — an approach that does not inspire a lot of certainty for business owners. “As a business we’re doing the best we can,’ says Wong. ‘We’re also learning from overseas practices, speaking to friends in Singapore and Hong Kong and China about how they’re managing the risks.” Overall, diners have been noticeably more conscious about hygiene, and are frequently using the available hand sanitiser. “From our perspective we continue to stay positive and make the most of current circumstances. We’re looking forward to having people back again and making sure they feel safe.”