Chinese immigrants arrived in response to the Victorian gold rush back in the early 1850s and brought with them their fabulous cuisine which was quite a curiosity to Australians at the time. It was in 1854 that Little Bourke Street became a lodging precinct for these immigrants as its location was convenient for the Chinese to move back and forth between the goldfields.
The Chinese population swelled in Little Bourke Street and the surrounding area and by the time the days of the gold rush had passed, they had already established themselves in alternate businesses.
Herbalists, fruiterers, storekeepers, furniture craftsmen and importers thrived there and by 1859, the state had recorded around 45,000 Chinese immigrants, mostly concentrated in the Little Bourke Street area, half of which is still known as Chinatown today. Read about Melbourne Chinatown’s shops, restaurants and festivals here.
The hustle and bustle is always happening in Chinatown but if you know where to look, you can find fascinating activities that give you a more intimate insight.
- Cocktail classes at Juliet Melbourne – Yes indeed, not everything in Chinatown is Chinese! In the basement at 37-41 Little Bourke Street, there’s a secret. Juliet Melbourne is a hidden bar that serves snacks and sublime raclette, along with some of Australia’s top wines. The business focuses on leading female Australian food and wine producers. You can take part in a Cocktail Masterclass or sit in on a two-hour Cheese and Wine class where you’ll taste three superb cheeses and learn about the cheese industry in Australia.
- Eat your way through Chinatown – Take a three-hour Dumpling Discovery Walk through Chinatown and sample the precious little parcels at four different eateries. You’ll also get to try Melbourne’s hottest chilli sauce … if you dare! The guide will fill you in on Chinese immigrant history and talk about their cuisine. With a maximum of ten guests per tour, it’s a fun, intimate experience that will make your tummy happy.
- Visit the Chinese Museum – At 22 Cohen Place, the Chinese Museum boasts five floors of displays showcasing the history of Chinese immigrants in Australia and their culture. There are three permanent exhibitions: Finding Gold, Chinese Australian History and Dragon Gallery, each just as fascinating as the others. There’s also a Temporary Gallery and the exhibitions are rotated every three or four months
Wherever you look, you’ll find tasty dishes throughout Melbourne Chinatown’s restaurants and eateries.
- Shanghai Street – Go for the steamed xiao long bao (Shanghai-style dumplings) filled with crab and pork. You can also get some delicious noodles there. The place seats up to 130 people yet there are often lines out the door.
- ShanDong MaMa Dumplings – Yep, dumplings again but everybody has their specialty. The pastry is made in-house; definitely try the seafood ones with the really delicate, translucent skins.
- Nam Loong Seafood Restaurant – It looks like your average Chinese joint with its vinyl and chrome chairs and red hanging lanterns but the food is something else – and cheap! Melburnians – Chinese, Aussie and everyone else – have been frequenting Nam Loong for decades, feasting on dim sims and all the other usual dishes. The menu is extensive and you can get an impressive ‘drunk chicken nest’ with crab meat here. The crab, prawns and fish dishes are brilliant!
- Flower Drum – Walk the red carpet at Flower Drum, a true Melbourne institution since it opened over forty years ago. That is, if you can get a booking. Sometimes it’s booked out for months in advance. A multi-award-winning restaurant, it offers fine dining from a Cantonese menu. There’s also a secret chef’s menu that regular joes don’t know about. Experience dishes like double-boiled soup with wallaby tail and loganberry, or select your live crayfish or mud crab and have it prepared for you. Braised wagyu cheek, saltbush rack of lamb and crispy skinned chicken are all very popular.
- Dragon Boat Restaurant – When you visit Chinatown in Melbourne, you really should make time for Yum Cha. Dragon Boat Restaurant is famous for its Yum Cha, served daily. Staff wheel around trolleys laden with freshly prepared dumplings, prawns in sticky rice, spring rolls, prawn toast, barbecue pork and more and you choose what you’d like.
The Chinese love a party!
- Chinese New Year – Depending on the year, it could be January or February, but whenever it is, it’s a huge celebration in Chinatown! Enjoy cultural performances, traditional lion dancers, fireworks and lots of tasty street food.
- Moon Lantern Festival – The Mid-Autumn Moon Lantern Festival has something for everyone. There are lantern making workshops, mooncake demonstrations, lion dancing, stage performances and the beautiful lantern parade. As you’d expect, there are food and market stalls too.
When your credit card is burning a hole in your pocket, the only fix is to spend some moolah. Chinatown has lots of interesting stores to explore.
- Satisfy your comic cravings – At 220 Bourke Street, Comics ‘R’ Us has what the guys from The Big Bang Theory would be after. It’s a shop full of the latest comics and back-issues stretching back to the 1960s. Browse through graphic novels from the big names – Marvel and DC – pick up a Mad Magazine for old time’s sake and let your inner child out when you see the action figures for sale. For vintage and contemporary publications and an all-round brilliant atmosphere, you must drop in for a look.
- Get your game on – Love your board games? Then you must make your way to Mind Games at 244 Swanston Street. Established in 1977, the shop carries a huge array of puzzles, board games, miniature and role-playing games and card games too. If you’re looking for a puzzle or game that’s already been withdrawn from the market, chances are you’ll find it here.
- Find your new favourite leather accessory – For handmade leather bags and jackets, visit Leather Cargo at 251 Lonsdale Street. They have backpacks, laptop bags, handbags, satchels, doctor’s bags and briefcases in a huge array of colours and styles.
- An old-school bookshop – There aren’t too many of these around anymore, are there? Paperback Bookshop at 60 Bourke Street stocks an extensive selection of books and can source backlist titles upon request. It’s a charming old independent bookshop that, back in the day – the 1960s – was one of just a few Melbourne stores stocking Australian and imported books. Book lovers swoon for the place and wander in as though it’s hallowed ground. It has the aroma and the feel of an old-fashioned book store and the prices are competitive too.
Some say that a visit to a city’s Chinatown gives a good indication of the city’s respect for ethnic cultures.