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Pubdate: 24-Jun-1997

Edition: Late


Subsection: ARTS

Page: 15

Wordcount: 1504

What price heritage?

* CHINATOWN Architecture

E. M. Farrelly

IDEALLY you’d run it as an experiment; impose height and heritage restrictions on one half of Chinatown, while giving the other half its druthers, development-wise. Then sit and watch for a decade. Property owners in one half would reap squillions from intensive cultivation of muzak-and-marble high-rise, while next door the current crop of scruffy warehouses and bare-floored grocery stores would become increasingly dilapidated.

Which half, though, would provide the friendlier long-term medium for the small-business-and-street-life that currently distinguishes Chinatown and sustains its tourist magnetism? You can argue this either way but, regrettably, you can’t try it.

Chinatowns the world over are last century’s phenomena, the products of gold rushes, railway building and discriminatory employment laws, their invisible walls reinforced in the 1930s by Depression-fed racial distrust. Think San Francisco, LA, Vancouver, Melbourne, Sydney. Traditionally, Chinatowns are vibrant, colourful, mysterious even, but not affluent. Interesting, from without, but not enviable.

In 1880s Melbourne, the police ran guided Chinatown tours, offering first-hand glimpses of crime and depravity – part cautionary, no doubt, but part titillation. To what extent this criminal frisson was ever reality-based is a moot point. These days, with gambling and other opiates more widely spread, Chinatowns still drag in the tourists – in 1994 Chinatown Sydney was Australia’s ninth most visited attraction. But how will multiculturalism, 24-hour trading, suburbanisation, re-urbanisation, development pressure and dramatically changing wealth patterns affect these icons of old-style intrigue?

Sydney’s Chinatown has been more peripatetic than most – starting life in the 19th century Rocks and moving thence to the Belmore Markets area, before following the fruit-and-veg markets over to Dixon Street as late as the 1920s. The Haymarket was then one of the city’s poorest areas, affordable for a people prevented by law from driving a taxi, owning a hotel licence, selling real estate or participating in mainstream business until the middle of this century.

So Chinatown grew into a precinct dominated by fringe business, its twilight nature in effect mandated by law. The limited range of ethnic restaurants, grocery stores and shady import-exporteries cusping it between legality and illegality, as well as East-West, offered rare employment opportunity for those on the inside. For outsiders, however, including most of the city’s decision-makers, this very difference ensured that Chinatown remained half real at best, a neglected uptown netherworld. Since then, much has changed. In the early 1970s, the City Council, under Lord Mayor Leo Port, recognised Dixon Street as the only city precinct that pulsed on after dark, and began for the first time to work with the Chinese community to develop the area’s tourism potential. The council malled and paved Dixon Street, a’ la mode, and the Chinese community energetically fundraised the two traditional arches (da men) that now stand as imposing portals to the street.

Some still blame this pedestrianisation for the subsequent decline in street life and business vitality on Dixon Street, and for the takeover of car-nourished Sussex Street as Chinatown’s primary retail strip. Others argue that the coincidental removal of the markets to Flemington created a rent lull in surrounding streets, especially Sussex, so that businesses naturally flowed that way, and will just as naturally return, see-saw style, as Dixon Street rentals drop. Unverifiable, but either way few would deny that Dixon Street is still the symbolic heart of the place.

Late last year, the release of the new city planning controls summoned Chinatown briefly into controversy, splitting the community and miring the council in a decision that encapsulates all the horrors of planning politics. The council sought to retain the specialness of the precinct, and saw that it inhered not in the physical fabric, which is undistinguished at best, but in the complex cultural life of the place and the myriad small survivors of street business.

Ground-cover retail of this kind is effortlessly blown away by plantations of gilded high-rise. Bitter experience, from Orchard Road, Singapore, to downtown everywhere, shows that sooner or later the exigencies of “highest and best use” dictate that the only forest-floor survivors are banks and lunchtime boutiques. The council therefore installed a 50-metre height limit and an allowable floor space ratio (FSR) range of five to nine times site area.

Fifty metres equals 16 storeys: not small, in a still mainly three-and-four-storeyed area. But the new controls represented a 10-metre height reduction in some parts of Chinatown, and an FSR reduction from a maximum of 12.5. Some property owners had lost millions (in expectation) overnight. The CBD was flowing southward but Chinatown, they feared, would be marooned, a dry island in the tide of prosperity. And as they looked about at Paddy’s Market (The Peak), World Square, and Central Square opposite Belmore Park they felt that Chinatown’s property values were being specifically and arbitrarily depressed.

You can see their point. To some extent it’s a hazard of what passes in Sydney for a planning system. All three precedents are in fact aberrations. Central Square was built at least two city plans ago – albeit by the council itself – in a fit of misplaced enthusiasm; Paddy’s was approved by the Darling Harbour Authority, against the council’s strong advice, by way of maximising yield on territory which appeared to be outside the authority’s boundaries. And World Square, well, that was the minister’s baby.

Is it unfair to impose place-specific restrictions? Perhaps, but the equity argument finally sanctions anyone building anything anywhere. Wild West stuff. This might be just fine, but it ain’t the system we have. And in the end, even three mistakes don’t constitute a good excuse for more.

So, what of the effect on Chinatown the place? Tony Ma, president of the Haymarket Property Owners Association, argues it the other way. The council’s constraints, he says, will discourage investment to the point where the businesses will collapse or move away, possibly back to the Belmore Park/Capitol Theatre area east of George. The actual patterns of cause and effect are impossible to draw with certainty, especially in view of Chinatown’s willy-nilly spread eastward and southward even as we speak. And who can tell? Perhaps the whole Chinatown concept is outdated and now unnecessary.

A recent report by Melbourne’s Professor David Yencken challenges such a view, documenting the changing nature of the world’s Chinatowns and the changing business mix of Chinatown Sydney. The report charts the burgeoning range of professional services to be found in the Haymarket now – medical (Chinese and otherwise), legal, financial, educational and community services, as well as entertainment and the new-breed rag trade.

Yencken’s report, commissioned by the City Council and written in close consultation with a “Vision Sub-committee” headed by Deputy Lord Mayor Henry Tsang, specifically does not address the issue of development control (except to point out that for potential investors certainty is probably the most crucial factor of all).

The report, Chinatown Sydney, seeks other means of sustaining the vividness of the place. A feng shui expert, James Zheng, recommended that Dixon Street should remain as a shared zone but should be enhanced with water features. Other recommendations include:* Extending the mall one block north;

* Encouraging the Darling Harbour Authority to be more assiduous in requiring active street uses in its development approvals (such as the new hotel opposite Trades Hall on Dixon Street);* Opening Paddy’s Market during the week as well as weekends;* Encouraging Paddy’s Market to spill onto the street;

* Landscape-enlivening the dead space south of the Entertainment Centre;

* Making better connections – well, any connections – with Darling Harbour and the unavoidably introverted Chinese Garden, and;

* Establishing a cultural centre capable of hosting conferences, exhibitions, and an expanded Chinatown library.

Few community members, it seems, really believe that Chinatown’s core streets – Dixon, Sussex, Hay, Thomas – would be improved as streets by stands of high-rise along them. Already Dixon Street suffers from a degree of Singapore-style internalisation – vertical retailing, in the argot – from recent redevelopments such as Harbour Plaza and Dixon House. Here the attempt to maximise retail takes it off the street, set instead within air-conditioned escalator-centred atria. And Paddy’s, ditto. The place can be swarming, but from the outside you wouldn’t even know it was a weekend. Many, including the respected businessperson Catherine Chung, see the need now for a balance between encouraging development in the precinct and enriching its cultural heritage. Chung notes also the need for debate and for eventual consensus. “We need the vision to be a shared vision,” she says, “and we’re waiting for this leadership from council. It would be a shame if the report (Chinatown Sydney) just died.”

Shame indeed. The council has promised $5 million to the improvement project and although that won’t take it far down the shopping list, it is a start. It insists that the controls are final. Period.

Moments before gazettal, though, the Haymarket Property Owners persuaded the minister to write a review clause into the city plan. This brings a dangerous waiting game onto the menu bar, wherein local property owners, pleading poor mouth , decline to reinvest in Chinatown until the controls are lifted. Thus the prophecy of decline becomes self-fulfilling, as buildings languish, pedestrian traffic dwindles, and businesses die or shuffle off.

It may not be scientific, but the experiment is under way. Those of us settling back to watch the colours change in Hong Kong’s test tube over the next 10 years may find added local interest in observing the results of Sydney’s Chinatown experiment.


Two illus: Eye for detail…the festival poster and its designer, Adrian Adams.

Photograph by Adam Pretty.

The dilemma … cultural heritage or Singapore-style highrise?

Photograph by JAMES ALCOCK


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