When Chinese men first arrived in Australia from southern China as indentured rural labourers before the gold rushes, many found positions as cooks on outback stations and in country pubs. When gold was discovered, cookshops were established nearby serving the Chinese mining community traditional Cantonese dishes based on fresh produce, fish, poultry, pork and rice. The cookshop at Ironbark Camp, (Bendigo) was a substantial two-storey canvas and wooden structure. Victoria's first 'Chinese' restaurant to actively seek out the patronage of Westerners was probably that established by John Alloo on the Eureka Lead, Ballarat, offering roasts and puddings to hungry miners. (Note that it is Alloo's second restaurant which has been immortalised in the water colour sketches of S.T. Gill)
Apart from an isolated entry in 1863, Chinese restaurants began to appear in Melbourne commercial directories from the 1880s, however small 'cookshops' were operating continuously around the Chinatown precinct, sometimes in conjunction with other business activities (see Yin Bun Low & Co). Early newspapers and travel diaries confirm that by the turn of the century, some cookshops were being patronised by Westerners. Like all early Melbourne restaurants, the quality of the food and condition of these establishments varied significantly, sometimes reaching culinary heights as one Argus reporter discovered in 1904: 'There are cookshops where the long soup is good and where the short soup makes a winter's night an evening in December' (Argus, 18 May 1904).
A small number of early restaurant sites endured for many years; most notably 11 Heffernan Lane, off Little Bourke Street. Established in 1894, it operated from 1916 as the Chung Wah Café for many decades - arguably Victoria's most fondly remembered and longest continuously operating Chinese restaurant. The earliest suburban cookshops date from the 1890s. Established in and around Melbourne's markets, they fed stallholders and market gardeners. Over the first two decades of the new century, Chinese restaurants comprised around 10% of Melbourne's restaurant sector, but numbers dropped in the 'twenties as discriminatory immigration took its toll on the size of the local Chinese community and depression slowed the economy. Although the community could still enjoy fine Cantonese cuisine for special occasions, Western custom was becoming increasingly important for economic survival. In addition to the Chung Wah, some of Melbourne's best known early restaurants who catered for Chinese and Western tastes, were the Hong Kong Café in Little Bourke Street (1913-1946, later the Kun Ming Café which operated for many decades); in Russell Street - the Pekin Café (1911-1926); the Oriental Cafe (Yin Bun Lowe & Co. operated a cookshop/café in Little Bourke Street from 1899, moving to Russell Street in 1920 and adopting a Western name, 1920-1970+) and the Eastern Café (1924-1947). By the 1930s, city workers, business associates, intellectuals, university students and newly arrived refugees from Europe were regular customers along with the Chinese community, enjoying a hearty, tasty and inexpensive meal. By this time Chinese restaurants were also expanding into the inner working class suburbs of Fitzroy, Brunswick and Footscray.
Opportunities for further expansion occurred in the mid 1930s when changes to the Immigration Restriction Act formally allowed cooks and café workers into Australia under Exemption from the Dictation Test for limited periods. Eligibility to bring in staff was determined on annual turnover; the kind of food served and predominant customer base; 'Chinese' food and Western customers being regarded favourably by authorities. 'Australian' Chinese - sweet and sour dishes, for instance, became standard fare around this time, and rather more beef dishes, than the staple Cantonese emphasis on pork and fish. If an applicant's menu was considered too 'ordinary' the restaurant was regarded as servicing the 'lower' end of the market (working class Chinese and Westerners), and applications were generally rejected. The Tientsin Café (later Restaurant) opened in Acland Street, St Kilda at this time, drawing its customers almost exclusively from the growing local Jewish community. The Tientsin operated successfully over many decades, enabling the partners to qualify to bring in many family and clan members under exemption provisions. Others taking advantage of these changes included the Canton Tower Café (1925-1949) in Bourke Street near the Eastern Market, which acquired its Western name in 1934.
By World War II the spread of Chinese restaurants was being noted as increasing numbers of people were working in the city in war related industries, putting pressure on dining facilities. War not only provided a significant economic boost to the restaurant trade recovering from depression, but more importantly, it introduced new groups to the concept of dining out. Servicemen, particularly allied troops who liked to eat out in preference to eating in their barracks, were also reported to be putting pressure on city restaurants. Many in the Chinese community credit the American presence in their restaurants in 1942 and 1943 with changing local attitudes towards Chinese food.
Growth picked up quickly in the city after the war and several country restaurants had also opened by the 1950s, significantly the Chan family's Toi Shan Café in Mitchell Street, Bendigo (1948 - c.1998). Following an easing of Australia's discriminatory immigration laws from the late 1950s, the Chinese population began to rise again, and by 1961 seventy-one Chinese restaurants were open for business in and around the city. There was hardly a Melbourne suburb or major Victorian town without a Chinese restaurant and 'take away'. Being accessible, and providing a relatively inexpensive and healthy meal, they had become more noticed by their absence than their presence.
The restaurant industry was central to the way many in the Chinese community supported themselves and their families back in China over the early decades. Return visits home and the opportunity to develop migration patterns reinforced culture, perpetuating and strengthening the dominance of Cantonese cuisine in Victoria. Forced at the turn of the century into one of the few occupational avenues available to them, the Chinese developed highly successful and enduring businesses which have made a significant economic and cultural contribution to Australia.
Note - The term 'cookshop' was generally used to describe small nineteenth and early twentieth century Chinese eateries - the name deriving from similar early establishments in England.
Sources used to compile this entry: Choi, C.Y., Chinese Migration and Settlement in Australia, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1975; Chong, Elizabeth, The Heritage of Chinese Cooking, Weldon Russell, North Sydney, 1993; Shun Wah, Annette & Aitkin, Greg, Banquet: Ten Courses to Harmony, Doubleday, Sydney, 1999; National and State archives, in particular Immigration Department records relating to Applications for Exemption from the Dictation Test. Sands & Kenny and Sands & McDougall, Trade and Professional Listings, various editions, 1857-; C.Y. Choi, Chinese Migration and Settlement in Australia. (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1975). Elizabeth Chong, The Heritage of Chinese Cooking (North Sydney: Weldon Russell, 1993); Mrs Aeneas Gunn, We of the Never Never (Richmond, Vic: Hutchinson, 1908); Eleanor Mordaunt, On the Wallaby: Through Victoria by E.M. Clowes.(London: Heineman, 1911); Annette Shun Wah and Greg Aitkin, Banquet: Ten Courses to Harmony (Moorebank, NSW: Doubleday, 1999); (London: Heineman, 1911); Newspaper articles: Sun News-Pictorial, 15 May, 1937, p.32 and 17 May, 1955; Herald, 7 February, 1946; Sunday Age: Sunday Life, 22 February, 1998, p.7; National Library of Australia picture collection, http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an6016195-v and http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an6055902-v.
Prepared by: Barbara Nichol, University of Melbourne
- Choi, C.Y., Chinese Migration and Settlement in Australia, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1975. Details
- Chong, Elizabeth, The Heritage of Chinese Cooking, Weldon Russell, North Sydney, 1993. Details
- Shun Wah, Annette & Aitkin, Greg, Banquet: Ten Courses to Harmony, Doubleday, Sydney, 1999. Details
- Nichol, Barbara, 'Sweet and sour history: Melbourne's early Chinese restaurants', Memento, no. 34, January, pp. 10-12. Details
- 'Melbourne Illustrated - In the Chinese quarter'
- 13 November 1880
- Australia - Victoria - Melbourne - Little Bourke Street
- 'Sketches in our Chinese Quarter: Fan Tan playing, and a Chinese restaurant'
- 22 May 1880
- Yin Bun Lowe cookstore, unloading bananas in Little Bourke Street
- c. 11 February 1899
- Australia - Victoria - Melbourne - Little Bourke Street
Created: 9 November 2005, Last modified: 2 August 2009