IT can hardly be compared with San Francisco or even Sydney for that matter, but Chinatown in Brisbane still has its appeal.
It’s really just one street, Duncan Street, although the flavour spills into the adjoining Brunswick Street Mall and surrounding streets where cafes and restaurants cater for not just Chinese, but also Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Thai, Malaysian, Taiwanese, Vietnamese and well, just about every, Asian taste.
Streets signs all around the Duncan Street pedestrian precinct in Fortitude Valley are in both English and Chinese characters.
As well as heaps of restaurants, there are supermarkets and stores offering such delicacies as duck tongues and chicken feet by the kilogram. My favourites for yum-cha are the Golden Palace and King of Kings.
Chinatown mall was officially opened in January 1987, on the first day of the Year of the Rabbit.
It was designed by Brisbane architects who went to China and Hong Kong, in collaboration with Chinese architects and engineers from Guangzhou, took six months to build and was based on the ancient Chinese city of Chang-An, a starting point on the famous Silk Road, and decorated in the style of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).
Many of the materials used including 24,000 gold tiles, were imported from Hong Kong. At the time it was hailed as having transformed a neglected part of the inner city into “a sparkling jewel in Brisbane’s crown”.
It was regarded as the most authentic in Australia and in 1996, featured in the Jackie Chan film “Police Story First Strike”. The story goes that the scene featured a car chase and an explosion which took out a pagoda. This was later rebuilt.
Alas, this original Chinatown didn’t last forever, or even close to forever, and after just 23 years, it fell into disrepair and the whole place had to be redeveloped. The original pagodas needed maintenance and were unsafe and the area’s feng-shui needed redirectrion, so this time three architects from Brisbane’s sister city Shenzhen came in to help with the design.
The new-look Chinatown opened in February 2010, the Year of the Tiger. The striking pagodas were removed but two white marble lions given by the People’s Republic of China still preside over the entrance and the rock waterfall is still there while red, white, green and gold Chinese lanterns are suspended above the mall.
A sign at the entrance tells the story of the contribution of the Chinese to the city since the first of many boatloads of Chinese from Xiamen arrived in 1848 to alleviate the severe labour shortage in the Moreton Bay district.
A statue of a carp whose spine represents the Brisbane River, raised eyebrows at the time as even though it is a lucky omen for the Chinese community, the fish is considered an environmental pest in these parts. An attached plate says that like China’s Yellow River, the Brisbane River is the city’s backbone in economic, cultural and social life.
“Here, the Brisbane River is represented by the carp’s spine providing structure and strength to the fish as it leaps over the Dragon Gate (Grand Awning) towards its metamorphosis into the Dragon (Ann Street Gate).”
Although now more futuristic than a monument to its past, Chinatown comes alive with lion dancing and fire crackers, which are used to celebrate any important occasion for the matched, hatched and despatched as well as the for the Chinese New Year festival.
Despite a lot of problems with the 2010 redevelopment, it is still a great place to visit, and a little bit of Asia in the middle of Brisbane.