Future of Sydney’s Chinatown ‘hanging by a thread’ with claims historic area has been forgotten

The future of Sydney's historic Chinatown is "hanging by a thread" as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic hits businesses hard.

The area has ties to Chinese migration dating back to the 1800s and houses some of the city's most famous restaurants.

However, some have been forced to close and many others are on the brink because of the pandemic and a new development at nearby Darling Square.

a young man with arms crossed looking at the camera
Chinatown is hanging on by a thread, says Mr Cheng.(ABC News: Harriet Tatham)

Kevin Cheng, the co-founder of advocacy group Soul of Chinatown, said the area was "really fading into obscurity".

"The situation is bleak. Businesses are hanging on by a thread," he said.

Earlier this week, iconic yum cha restaurant Marigold announced it would close in December after 39 years of business.

Manager Connie Chung started working in the family business at age 22 and said the restaurant was the first in the country to offer yum cha cart services seven days a week.

Announcing Marigold's impending closure has left her heartbroken.

"With COVID, there were absolutely no functions whatsoever, no wedding, no corporate events, no community events," Ms Chung said.

"It was very, very quiet during the week and we're basically only busy on the weekends."

people sitting down at round tables eating or getting ready to eat
After 39 years, iconic yum cha restaurant Marigold will close in December.(ABC News: Harriet Tatham)

Despite restrictions easing for Sydneysiders, without tourists, international students and with many people still working from home, Ms Chung said the business was no longer viable.

Coupled with this has been the new development of Darling Square.

"We desperately need to bring more vibe into [Chinatown]," she said.

"The buildings all very old and especially after Darling Square opened, people have moved over there for dining and entertainment."

Earlier this year, Golden Century went into administration before a group of creditors voted to save the restaurant from permanent closure.

a man and a woman walking along a street
Mobility data shows foot traffic has not recovered in the city.(ABC News: Harriet Tatham)

BBQ King shut in August 2020 and several 'For Lease' signs are visible in Dixon Street Mall.

Mobility data shows foot traffic hasn't recovered in the City of Sydney.

In the month of October, people entering retail and recreation were half of the levels recorded in January 2020, considered pre-pandemic times.

These figures have business owners worried.

Danny Fu's parents have owned Seasons Fruit Market for almost four decades.

Eighty per cent of their revenue comes from supplying restaurants like Marigold.

"With them gone and out of the picture, there's less and less need for being in the heart of Chinatown anymore because it's hard to run a business here because rent is expensive and spaces are small," Mr Fu said.

a woman fixing products on a shelf in a grocery store
Owners of the Seasons Fruit Market say they will be impacted by the Marigold's closure.(ABC News: Harriet Tatham)

In pre-pandemic times, Jiu Long Ding Chongqing Hot Pot restaurant would seat about 80 guests.

Now, owner Yong Duan said feeding 20 mouths was a busy day.

"It's still really quiet. Only Saturday and Friday is OK, but from Monday to Thursday is very quiet," Mr Duan said.

"But I think it will be recovered because I know the council will help us."

Since 2010, the City of Sydney has spent $43 million on the area, which included the pedestrianisation of George Street and the light rail.

a man with his hand up to his face sitting down
Restaurateur Yong Duan is pinning his hopes on council helping Chinatown to recover.(ABC News: Harriet Tatham)

The 12-kilometre light rail track has 19 stops from Circular Quay to Kingsford and Randwick — the benefit of which has remained largely unknown due to the lockdown.

Last month, a further $5 million was committed to renovate the Dixon Street Mall and refurbish the iconic Chinatown gates.

Despite the investment from the council, Mr Cheng said it wasn't enough.

"All levels of government have traded off the prestige and the fame of this Chinatown name, the Chinatown banner and it's been neglected for a number of years," he said.

"Parts of the city are booming. You've got Darling Square next door, it's booming but we feel like Chinatown has been forgotten about."

a woman with a menu ordering in a restaurant
Despite the lifting of lockdown, restaurants are still mostly empty.(ABC News: Harriet Tatham)

Lord Mayor Clover Moore denied that claim and was adamant the council would continue to support Chinatown.

"I think if there is criticism about this area … I think it's not a good thing to be doing. What we should be doing is talking up this area," Ms Moore said.

"I appreciate that businesses are really devastated because they've been in lockdown for so long and we want to do everything we can to support them coming out of this period and that's why we're spending this money on re-activating the city."

Even with reduced foot traffic, many business owners remain optimistic.

"My parents are tough. They've done it for 30-something years. They can weather most storms, so we'll just see how we go," Mr Fu said.

a woman looking to the side talking
Mayor Clover Moore denies council has abandoned Chinatown.(AAP: Joel Carrett)

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