“These will bring passion and romance into your life”, the bloke behind the counter said to me as I handed over my planned purchase. “That was the general idea”, I told him and we smiled at each other.
It was towards the end of an “Historical and Cultural Tour” of Chinatown, co-inciding with Chinese New Year Celebrations in Sydney.
I love a good walking tour, and when I saw this one advertised a few weeks ago, I signed up immediately. Interestingly, I recognised two couples from some previous history walks I’ve undertaken in Sydney.
Of those attending, I was probably about mid-range in the age department, and possibly knew a little bit more about Chinatown than many of the others attending judging by some of the questions asked. More than general interest in cultural activities and history, I also spend a fair bit of time in Chinatown due to its proximity to where I live and work. I eat at least one meal each week in Chinatown.
But even so, there are lots of things I didn’t know about, and lots of things I’ve passed without paying too much attention to them.
I’ve never really looked at the big archways at either end of Chinatown before. I’ve never noticed the wording about how it’s about “Chinese and Australian Friendship”. I’ve also never really closely looked at some of the ornamentation on the archways and on neighbouring buildings. “They’re more of the style of Northern China” our tour guide, an older Chinese man told us, noting the incline of the rooftops allowed rain and snow to fall to the gutters easily.
Our guide was a man in his 70s, I’d guess, who had lots of great anecdotal stories of Chinatown in the past. For example, he spoke about going to an opium den at a very young age with his father. And he had a great knowledge of some of the different families and family businesses of Chinatown, and who did what to whom and so on.
But as we walked around and looked at various buildings, I felt a certain sadness: it sounded like the Chinatown of today is not as interesting as it used to be. Our guide mentioned Chinatown is getting a bit of a make-over in the next three or four years, and that’s probably a good thing, because as I walked around, I also noticed the place could do with a good lick of paint.
Aside from the architecture and the history, it was also interesting to do a few things I wouldn’t normally do: such as visit the Chinese Ginseng Centre of Herbs, and go into the depths of the kitchen of The Emperor’s Garden Chinese Restaurant, one of my favourite places for a plate of roast pork.
And it was great to look a little more closely at things I’d normally pass quickly by, such as the Golden Tree (a great meeting place in Chinatown) and the offices of the Chinese Nationalist Party, the KMT.
The tour lasted two and a half hours. And at the end of it all, Colin and I went out for some yum cha at Hingara, which I now know is a restaurant which has been in Dixon Street (an incorrect spelling apparently, it should be Dickson) for over forty years (though now with different owners).
We chatted about a few things including the gorgeous looking peaches selling in Paddy’s Markets at the moment. Although it’s mostly thought Paddy’s is an Irish reference, by the way, there’s an alternative reading that it related to people from the rice paddys, we were told today. So at the end of yum cha, we popped in there, where I bought some peaches and apricots.
A lovely day, and a very enjoyable tour.