As I look up at the Orchards Corner clock – it is 2pm but one of its faces says 5:20 and the other 7:25 – the crackle of a round of fireworks erupts from the direction of Chinatown. I follow the source of the sound, walking down Quay Street until I catch sight of two red and gold lions, cavorting amid a cloud of fireworks smoke outside the noodle shops in the courtyard on Thomas Street. Once the fireworks have burnt through, the lions move on slowly, further into Chinatown, as people descend on the pile of red fireworks papers with brooms, sweeping it up before the wind can disperse it.
I watch until the lions dance across the street, and then turn towards the restaurants on the ground floor of the Prince Centre, the mall that fills the corner block. The restaurant I know best here is the Chinese Noodle house, with its plastic grapes hanging from the ceiling, tapestries hanging on the walls, and the tables in a tetris-like arrangement that leaves only just enough space to sit down at them. For years I came regularly to the noodle house before realising that it was connected to the mall behind it on Quay Street. On the Quay Street side it has a plain facade, but on the Thomas Street side the building tapers to a point, opening up into a courtyard with glass stairwells at either end.
For as long as I’ve been visiting them I’ve loved the malls in Chinatown: the mirrored interiors, escalators and food courts and the travel agencies, hairdressers, fashion boutiques and herbalists, that are collected within. Aside from the busy food courts, the malls have a mood of quiet industriousness, their businesses tucked away above street level, there for those who need or want to find them. The majority of Chinatown’s malls were built in the 1980s, and Prince Centre is a good example, with its pink granite tiles, peach and grey colour scheme, and palm trees. One tree is interred inside an octagonal glass box alongside what is now a drained water-feature, which makes a perfect place to sit to wait for a table in the Chinese Noodle House. Sometimes the proprietor of this establishment comes out with a violin under his chin and plays a tune, using the acoustics of the courtyard to good effect.
On the Quay Street side of the Prince Centre there was, until its partial renovation a few years ago, a cascading crystal light feature and a ceiling decorated by thousands of white scales, which produced a shimmering, seashell-interior effect.
This interior was modernised in 2015, and replaced with a plain ceiling instead, although some of the 80s details persist.
The next mall of this kind is at the corner of Hay Street and Thomas Street: the Citymark, on the lower two levels of a late-80s-era office building. It is a fairly plain commercial building, but upon scrutiny of its facade it looks recognisably dated, a product of the late 1980s, as certainly as shoulder pads in a jacket. To build it, an 1800-seat picture theatre was demolished, one of the many that were built in Haymarket in the early 20th century, when this was the city’s theatre district.
The Citymark cuts through from Thomas Street to George Street, through an arcade of shops selling products such as shoes, cosmetics, and rice cookers. I often take it as a shortcut, but rarely have a need to venture upstairs. As is usually the case, the upper levels of the malls is a tranquil place, with few people around. I startle when I look through the window of a shop with a plain facade and see two headless mannequins in hazmat suits poised for action (the fork and spoon were a clue to its identity: it’s the office for a restaurant delivery service).
Across from this store is China Books, which has a copy of The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar in the window, and a view out towards Dixon Street and the Market City mall.
Of all of the Chinatown malls, Market City has the most conventional interior, and perhaps the most bizarre exterior, a postmodern collage of architectural features. Built to incorporate the shell of the 1909 market building, Market City resembles a rambling castle, with turrets and columns and cupolas, the kind a child might draw to fill up a sheet of paper. At the back of the castle, a residential tower of 48 storeys mushrooms up, so tall and embedded within the overall structure it seems oddly invisible from street level.
I have an affection for the one square window in the brick wall beside the Ultimo Road entrance of Market City, through which piles of folders are visible. It is the only window on an otherwise-windowless long wall, and after looking up and noticing it once, it has been conspicuous to me ever since.
Across Hay Street from Market City is Dixon Street, its ceremonial gates with green-tiled canopies marking each end of the pedestrianised section that forms the Dixon Street mall. The pedestrian mall was created in 1980, when the street was closed to traffic, a deliberate attempt to formalise the area’s identity as Sydney city’s Chinatown. There has been Chinese businesses in this area since the 19th century, although the location of Chinatown had moved a number of times before this: first in The Rocks, then Surry Hills, before settling in Haymarket. Although now Dixon Street is thought of as Chinatown’s centre, its boundaries have shifted and continue to do so. In the early 20th century, Chinatown was thought of as spanning Surry Hills and Haymarket: “a winding dragon with its head in Campbell Street, its body curling up Ultimo Road and its tail in Dixon Street”. The creation of the mall in 1980 settled Chinatown into this part of the city, reclaimed land which was once a swamp with a creek which fed into Tumbalong/Darling Harbour.
The lion dancers are at the end of Dixon Street now, and I watch them tossing their heads, dipping and weaving, as the fireworks bang and sizzle. Throughout their dance, Elder Paik stands at the side of the gates, continuing to spin a green hula hoop from his usual busking position. Paik, who is now in his 80s, is reliably found in this spot, wearing white facepaint and outfits wreathed in fake flowers, twirling a hula hoop around his hips. Underneath the crackle of the fireworks the drummers beat out a steady rhythm, giving the lion’s steps a regular pace.
There is a crowd of people around the lion dancers and so I walk up to the very end of the Dixon Street mall, skipping over Sussex Centre and Dixon House for the time being, until I reach the Harbour Plaza building at the northern end. It is best known as the location of Eating World, the chthonic food court on the ground floor with its rows of worn and sticky laminex tables. For many years the bar here was staffed by a man who had an impressive crest of lacquered hair and always wore a cravat, a style which made me feel I should be ordering a cocktail rather than a chrysanthemum tea.
Underneath Eating World is an arcade which, on this Saturday afternoon, is deserted apart from a few people sitting inside their stores: a nail salon, a foot massage place with decals of huge hands pressing into huge feet, and a real estate agency which had, hung up in the doorway, a lettuce for the lions, a red envelope attached to it with a toothpick.
I could hear from the drums that the lions were approaching, so I doubled back along the mall and into the Sussex Centre, the brighter of the two central Dixon Street malls. Both it and Dixon House have interiors like an Escher engraving, their plentiful escalators producing a confusing optical effect, but Sussex House particularly so, as the levels of shops ascend in a series of ramps that lead up to the food court on the top level. As I walk inside the Sussex Centre I remember that in the 1990s there used to be a Laserdisc shop on the Sussex Street side of the shopping centre (for those who don’t remember them: CDs the size of vinyl LPs, pretty much redundant by 2000). In the 90s I’d pass by it on my way upstairs to have a Happy Chef laksa, sitting at the window facing the old Boyd and Hanlon produce store building on Sussex Street. Until recently it was decorated by faded L and P signs, an advertisement that I enjoyed for its lack of supplementary signage.
My favourite Chinatown mall is Dixon House, on the corner of Little Hay Street. Built inside the shell of what was formerly a Myer warehouse, it was completely remodelled in 1983, when it was bought by the heiress to the Tiger Balm fortune, a Hong Kong businesswoman named Sally Aw. She sold it in the 1990s, and then it was sold again last year, and described in the article announcing this as a “D-grade commercial building”.
Building grades are probably not the same as movie-grades, but even so, I will spring to Dixon House’s defence. My love of it comes from it being an 80s time-warp, with mirrored ceilings and columns, pink walls and carpet, artificial plants and a collection of small, independent businesses. Like Eating World its basement food court has a worn atmosphere, although it does have the additional novelty of the mirrored ceiling.
At the Dixon Street entrance are two directories that list the businesses inside, some of which seem to no longer be in residence, including the enigmatic Dockets and Forms Australia Pty Ltd. Escalators lead to the upper levels, and underneath them is a watch store, with a Seiko neon sign of a diamond. The usual Chinatown mall collection surrounds it: travel agencies, fashion boutiques and hairdressers. At the Sussex Street entrance is the tiny office for John Wong, Chinese Soothsayer, which has photos of him with prominent past politicians and at local events in the window.
I step onto the escalator, entering more deeply into Dixon House’s peaceful, mirrored world. Mirrors reflect off mirrors, so the journey up the escalators appears to be transporting multiple versions of me forwards, backwards, upside down and into other dimensions.
In the back corner of the top level is the legendary Ching Yip coffee lounge, a Hong Kong-style cafe-restaurant. Enter through under the pink neon sign and you find yourself in a pink and grey, laminex and vinyl oasis, soon examining a menu printed on pink paper, listing hundreds of items, from Hot Lemon Coke and Hot Tea & Coffee Mix to rice, pasta and borscht. In the corner, a cake fridge glows, its contents mostly lemons.
When I come to Ching Yip I usually have jam toast and tea with lemon (it seems important to help out with the lemons), and while I consume these I take in the cool, quiet, pink atmosphere. Tinkly musak plays in the background, and I stare over at the line of tropical fish ornaments behind the counter, and the ads for Fanta and the laminated pink menus offering the afternoon special. Often it’s busy in Ching Yip, but I’m here at an in-between time, and so mostly my company is the artificial palm trees and the framed pictures of flowers and sailboats.
After I finish the tea I leave Ching Yip and descend down via the mirrored escalators, heading towards Dixon Street. The lion dancers have moved through and gone, leaving a trail of the red paper from the firecrackers in their wake. The red scraps mix up with the pink petals from the crepe myrtle trees, which are blooming for this last, humid month of summer. Both the red paper and pink blossoms seem to promise good luck for the new year ahead.
The quote about Chinatown being in the shape of a dragon is from Shirley Fitzgerald Red Tape Gold Scissors. Some of the Dixon House backstory I learnt on tour of Chinatown conducted by King Fong, thanks to Philip E for inviting me.
The row of 19th century buildings at the start of Campbell Street are surrounded by more recent, taller buildings, like a piece has been cut out of the modern city to reveal a past version.
The row is a miscellany, each building different. On street level there is a string of Thai groceries with displays of pickled grapes and dried bananas, and posters for the grand opening of a new Crocodile Junior restaurant (Crocodile Senior is around the corner on George Street). Number 14 Campbell Street is a butchery, with cuts of meat laid out in the window. If you find yourself here, stand back and look up, above the butchery and the two levels of barred windows on the upper storeys. The building is painted a liverish red, with white details. It is further decorated by three entwined letters – PRL – in a crest and, at the very top, a wild-eyed horse.
The Campbell Street Horse is captured in motion, ears alert, nostrils flaring, mane tossed by the wind. Its eyes are spirals of black paint against the pale, verdigris green, and it watches the city around it warily. It looks over at the outlines of the claw machines inside Purikura Photoland across the street. The horse has seen plenty of amusement fads come and go. Beside Photoland is the Capitol Theatre, a building the horse would have known in its days first as a market, and then a Hippodrome in the 1910s. Under a retractable stage the Hippodrome, run by Wirth’s Circus, had a concrete pool for aquatic shows, sometimes featuring seals and polar bears, other times King Neptune and his attendants.
The horse’s presence on 14 Campbell Street is something of a mystery. Myself and fellow Sydney scrutineer David Lever have puzzled over it again anew in the past few weeks, wondering what could have led it to be the mascot of this building. We followed the building’s previous identities, beginning around 1888 as a pub called the New Haymarket Hotel, then becoming the Nottingham Castle and then the Capitol Hotel. I found plenty of stories of interest, none of which were about horses. There were various accounts of woe and misfortune that took place at the hotel over the years: a man’s death after a fire caused by him smoking in bed, the death of a lion tamer named James Lindo, the arrests of swindlers and rogues. The heritage report on the row of terraces has plenty of information, describing Number 14 as “highly unusual” with “no comparable examples within the City of Sydney”. As compelling as this is, there is still no mention of the horse.
The initials in the crest were of the man who’d had the buildings constructed, P.R. Larkin. Larkin was known as a publican and liquor wholesaler on George Street. There are plenty of cheerful turn of the century descriptions of the “huge casks filled with spirits fit for the gods” at Larkin’s, but no mention of horses. In those days, though, horses were everyday creatures. The streets were full of horses and carts, people travelled by horse bus, and “block boys” had the dangerous and unenviable job of dashing out into the busy streets to sweep up the horse manure. They would have been busy: at the peak of Australia’s horse population there was one horse for every two people.The Campbell Street horse is one of a small number of city horses, statues most of them, of the bronze, memorial kind, as well as the weirder, rooftop kind.
But back to Campbell Street, and our mystery horse. Campbell was once one of the boundary streets of the market district of Haymarket. In 1929, a newspaper article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald in which a man named Mr Alfred Byrne remembered the days in the 1850s when wild horses would be brought in for auction. Alfred would join the crowds who clustered around to watch the men trying to catch the horses, especially if it were rainy, and “the men holding on to the horses would be dragged ingloriously through thick mud”.
So perhaps the Campbell Street Horse is the last of Sydney’s wild horses, captured in perpetual vigour, turning a fierce eye to the ever-growing city.