This walk will take you from Sydney Town Hall, south into what was once the industrial backyard of Sydney.
Its first buildings were factories, workshops and housing for some of the city’s poorest citizens. Later it became a warehousing and market precinct. Today it contains Sydney’s Spanish quarter, its dynamic Chinatown, its burgeoning Thai and Koreatowns and one of the most significant 20th century Aboriginal sites in the city.
What the area lacks in grand buildings, it makes up for in its colourful social history of Sydney’s ethnically diverse population.
Allow 1–2 hours for this walk.
Start at Sydney Town Hall (1).
Image: Chinese New Year twilight parade (Photograph: City of Sydney)
Sydney Town Hall
Sydney Town Hall is the seat of local government of the City of Sydney.
It was built in stages between 1869 and 1889 on the site of what was known as the Old Burial Ground. Between 1792 and its closure in 1820, about 2,000 people were buried here. Before the Town Hall was built, the bodies were supposedly exhumed, but even today whenever there is digging in the area, a stray skeleton is likely to turn up.
The Town Hall’s high Victorian architectural style and decorative excesses earned it the nickname ‘the wedding cake building’. In the 1960s some people even thought it should be pulled down. Today, the Town Hall steps are a favourite Sydney meeting place.
Coat of Arms
Easily seen from Sydney Square, carved in sandstone above the side entrance to the Town Hall is an early version of the City of Sydney’s coat of arms.
Attributed to Council draughtsman Monsieur de St Remy in 1857, the design was refined over the next half century and endorsed by the College of Arms in London in 1908.
In the 20th century, the Aboriginal figure and ambiguous motto “I take but I surrender” became contentious. They were removed from the Council’s corporate signature in 1996, in favour of a stylised and simplified version. The human figures were replaced by a serpent, representing the Rainbow Serpent and the culture of the Eora people, and the maritime image of a coiled rope, highlighting the diverse cultural origins of those who came to Sydney later.
St Andrews Cathedral
Plans for a cathedral and a grand square in this spot date to the early years of the 19th century, but at that time this was too far from the centre of town to be taken seriously. With the old disused burial ground to its north, and brickfields and markets nearby, it was an isolated place until the second half of the 19th century.
Designed by Edmund Blacket and completed in 1860, Sydney’s Anglican cathedral is a fine, pocket handkerchief-sized version of older European examples.
Notice that the building stands with its back to the street and its main door and dominant spires fronting south. There was supposed to be a street here too but by the time the building was finished, the street layout had changed.
Walk down George Street, cross Bathurst Street and turn right into Albion Place. Turn left into Kent Street where you will see some good examples of turn-of-the-century warehouses in characteristic red brick, with sandstone trim. Walk to Liverpool Street. This is the heart of the old Spanish quarter.
The former Spanish Club
The number of Spanish migrants who arrived in Sydney from the 1950s was small by comparison with other post-war migrant groups, but Sydney’s Spanish community established a firm downtown foothold when the Spanish Club opened its doors in 1962. For 50 years the Spanish Club occupied the grand Federation-era warehouse at 88 Liverpool Street. Around this hub, a colourful network of Spanish restaurants, delicatessens and nightclubs developed, earning the area the nickname Little Spain.
The concentration of Spanish businesses has diminished in recent years, but this is where generations of Spanish, and later Latin American visitors and migrants have found a sense of familiarity, and where Sydneysiders can experience a taste of Spanish culture and hospitality.
Head west along Liverpool Street. Just before you reach Sussex Street, take the little dog-legged Douglass Lane (5).
Sydney streets were not the result of a planner’s scheme; instead they developed through custom and chance. Douglass Lane is a remnant laneway from the industrial era. Imagine coaxing a horse and cart up the incline of the cobbled section.
Turn left into Sussex Street, then right into Goulburn Street and head for the Trades Hall building (6) on the corner.
Trades Hall was designed by John Smedley and began construction in 1888 as a purpose-built facility for different trade unions to meet in the pursuit of common goals. Today it is the headquarters of Unions NSW. The interiors still retain some early 20th century signage and the building houses a large collection of trade union banners used in May Day and Labor Day street marches. Step inside and imagine the raised voices singing ‘The Internationale’.
Opposite the Trades Hall is the traditional paifang archway that will take you into the heart of Sydney’s Chinatown. Or you can turn right and discover a peaceful retreat (for a fee) in the Chinese Garden of Friendship at Darling Harbour. In 1988, these gardens were a bicentennial gift to the “young” city of Sydney from the ancient city of Canton (Guangzhou) in southern China, the region in China where most of Sydney’s early Chinese came from.
Standing near the ceremonial gates at the head of Dixon Street, look up to the left. The Chinese characters painted on this old building announce the Jong Wah (Chinese Republic) Association and the Dong Guan Goon Yee Tong. This old clan association was actively involved in the welfare of Chinese who came to try their luck on the goldfields in the 19th century. It has been meeting in this building since 1917.
There has been a Chinese presence in Sydney for almost 200 years.
Many of the early Chinese Sydneysiders were market gardeners and traders, so wherever the markets were, so were the Chinese. Between 1909 and 1915, the City Council built new produce markets on reclaimed mudflats at the head of Darling Harbour, close to the railway and wharves. Chinese traders and importers rented market space and stores from the Council. Shops and restaurants followed, especially in Dixon Street which became the focus of Chinatown. Rooms above these shops sometimes became home for the Chinese traders and for retired gardeners who were unable to return home to China.
The precinct was becoming run-down by the mid 20th century; the numbers of Chinese dwindled and the markets moved out of the city. Chinatown was refurbished in the 1980s as multiculturalism was embraced in Australian public life.
In Between Two Worlds
In 2011, Kimber Lane, a dingy service lane running parallel to Dixon Street, was transformed by Sydney artist Jason Wing. By night the silver figures light up the lane and the cloud murals with an otherworldly blue glow. The half-human, half-spirit figures, inspired by the Aboriginal and Chinese heritage of the artist, represent our past, present and future ancestors.
Continue along Dixon Street to the end.
The area around Hay Street has been known as Haymarket since the 1830s. At that time it was on the outskirts of town and was the site of Sydney’s main cattle and hay market. In the 1860s, fruit and vegetable markets were built here. Market gardeners, including many Chinese, would bring their produce to market and stay overnight in the nearby boarding houses. Shops and cookhouses followed, with the carnivalesque Paddy’s Market and several theatres providing added colour to the area. For people on modest incomes, Haymarket offered lively Saturday night diversion.
Find your way, either through Paddy’s Markets or along the street, to the intersection of Ultimo Road and Quay Street.
The Sydney Markets Bell Tower
This was once part of the City Markets complex. It was retained when the nearby NSW Institute of Technology (now UTS) redeveloped the site in 1985. As well as the distinctive bell tower, the market façade along Quay Street was conserved. On one of the old cart openings you can see the painted name of A Yee, a firm of produce agents.
Walk back along Ultimo Road.
This building at 37 Ultimo Road is one of the most intact of the old market buildings. Also known as the Wing On Building, it was leased to this large Chinese firm for many years. The Wing On Company began in Sydney in 1897, importing nuts, tea, rice, fireworks and ginger, and eventually it became a major retailer back in China and Hong Kong.
The Kuomintang (KMT)
You get a good view of the building at 75 Ultimo Road from the Thomas Street intersection. On the pediment you will see the inscription “KMT 1921”. This was the political organisation that ousted the Chinese Emperors and introduced the first taste of democracy to China in the early 20th century. This was the headquarters for the party in Australia and the Pacific.
Golden Water Mouth
The Golden Water Mouth sculpture on the corner of Hay and Sussex Streets stands at the entrance of the “village” of Chinatown, marking the place where, in a traditional Chinese village, a wooden pagoda would be built to protect the rivers and ensure wealth to the village. The artwork by Chinese-Australian sculptor Lin Lee was installed in 1999.
Said to represent positive energy and good fortune, the sculpture incorporates the Shui Kou elements – or five natural elements – of wood, water, earth, fire and gold to harmonise the natural environment with the urban environment. Water flows from the golden sculpture to symbolise money and life. The use of gold leaf provides a historical link to the early Chinese settlers in the gold fields that surrounded the site of the tree’s original location in Condobolin, NSW.
Walk along Hay Street and cross over George Street.
Hay Street Chambers
The little sandstone building on the corner of Hay and George Streets was built in 1875 as the Southern Branch of the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney.
Since then, the ground floor has hosted a wide array of businesses, including a café, a shoe shop, a martial arts practice and a video store.
In 1990, the Council restored the building and in 1992, it opened as the Haymarket Branch of the City of Sydney Library, which has the largest Chinese language book collection of any public library in Australia. The library also holds substantial Indonesian, Thai and Vietnamese collections.
Walk down Hay Street past Gallery 4A and some of the city’s most charming little businesses.
Site of the Roma café
When a southern Italian couple opened a coffee shop in Haymarket in 1961, Sydneysiders who hankered for good espresso finally had somewhere to go. Five years earlier, Czechoslovakian immigrant Cyril Vincenc had established his eponymous delicatessen on the next block. Both European businesses thrived for many decades.
Here in Sydney’s Chinatown in the 1950s and 60s, it was possible to detect the early stirrings of the multicultural food movement which later transformed Australian food culture.
Walk through the covered plaza on the northern side of Hay Street into Campbell Street. On your right is the Capitol Theatre (17).
This building was designed by George McRae and completed in 1893 as a fruit and vegetable market. It was located next door to older markets that had been on the site since the 1860s. Originally a single-storey building, the Belmore Markets was rebuilt with an extra floor in the early 20th century, and used as a circus venue, a cinema and a theatre. If you look up, you will see that the terracotta pediment is decorated with fruits and surprisingly, choko vines – a humble vegetable which has now all but disappeared from the menu.
By the 1980s the building had become very rundown. It was restored by Ipoh Garden for the City Council in the early 1990s. The exuberant 1920s interior, imported from the United States, is intended to evoke a romantic courtyard with a ceiling lit to imitate a star-studded night sky.
Head past the theatre along Campbell Street, and turn left into Pitt Street.
In the 21st century, also known as the Asian century, the mix of people and businesses in Sydney’s Chinatown has become much more diverse. A century ago, the language you would be most likely to hear in Chinatown was Cantonese, reflecting the southern Chinese origin of the goldrush wave of Chinese immigrants and their descendants. Today, the dominant language of Chinatown is Mandarin, the language spoken by many people from Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, as well as mainland China. Other Asian languages can be heard too, including Korean, Thai and Japanese. Meanwhile, the boundaries of Chinatown shift and become porous.
Today along Campbell and Pitt Streets an enclave of Thai grocery stores, massage parlours and restaurants is known colloquially as Thaitown. Similarly, an emergent Koreatown centred around Pitt and Liverpool streets offers an array of K-pop, eccentric fashion, BBQ and kimchi. Chinatown is no longer a Chinese communal enclave, but a richly multicultural, Asian-accented metropolitan space within a global city.
Turn right at Goulburn Street then left into Elizabeth Street. From here it is a short walk to Hyde Park. On the way you pass the Australian Hall (17) at No.150 and the Mark Foys Emporium (18).
This little sandstone and brick building, built in 1912-13, has been home to diverse organisations. It has housed a German Social Club, a Roman Catholic lay organisation, a couple of theatres and the Cyprus Hellene Club. But its greatest importance is to Sydney’s Aboriginal people.
Here on 26 January 1938, during official celebrations of 150 years of European settlement, Aboriginal leaders called for a Day of Mourning and drew up a list of political demands for full citizenship. It is widely recognised as the first Aboriginal civil rights movement.
The building is listed on state and national heritage registers because of its high cultural and social significance.
Mark Foy’s Emporium (former)
This was one of the largest and grandest department stores in the city. The original 1909 three-storey building designed by McCredie and Anderson grew to six storeys over the years.
Notice the distinctive white glazed bricks and deep yellow terracotta trim announcing Hosiery, Shoes, Corsets and other items for sale.
When trains were the most popular method of going to town, the store thrived because of its proximity to the underground railway station. However, the extension of the trains further north left Mark Foy’s down the unfashionable end of town and the store was closed in 1983.
It now houses legal courts and is officially called the Downing Centre, after a former Attorney General of NSW.
Cross over into Hyde Park. At this southern end of the park is the ANZAC Memorial (19) and YININMADYEMI Thou Didst Let Fall (20).
This is one of Sydney’s most interesting art deco buildings.
Designed by Bruce Dellit and opened in 1934, it contains sculptures by an English-born migrant, Rayner Hoff. His beautiful interior statue called Sacrifice depicts a group of three women supporting a dead soldier. They represent the givers of life, weighed down by death. This piece is often interpreted as a powerful peace symbol, and at the time of construction, the ANZAC Memorial generated a lot of debate.
It contains no names, but 120,000 stars in the ceiling dome represent those from NSW who served.
YININMADYEMI Thou didst let fall
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a long history of defending country and nation, both inside Australia and overseas.
Frontier warriors take their place alongside diggers and peacekeeping personnel who have served in every international conflict, from the Boer War to Afghanistan.
The activist movement to acknowledge the service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander military personnel began in the 1960s and grows year by year in the Coloured Diggers march on Anzac Day.
This memorial artwork by Girramay artist Tony Albert was commissioned by the City of Sydney and unveiled in the ANZAC centenary year.