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Easing tensions in Sydney's Little Shanghai

  • 29 May 2006

Ashfield is an unfashionable suburb in Sydney’s fashionable inner-west. Unlike neighbouring Summer Hill and Haberfield, it does not have a cluster of cafes and boutique restaurants, nor does it appear in glamorous real estate pages. Its attractions are more functional – a busy station with express and local trains taking around 20 minutes to Sydney's CBD, and numerous cheap-to-rent apartments alongside more solidly middle-class, traditional Federation houses and newer landscaped townhouse complexes. With a predominantly Anglo-Celtic population pre-World War II, Ashfield was both a green escape from the industrial grime of inner-city Sydney and a working-class suburb with plenty of jobs at the now closed biscuit and electronics factories. Added to this economic mix are Ashfield’s layers of migration, beginning in the 1950s and 1960s with the arrival of Italians, Greeks and Poles who were joined a decade later by Lebanese and Turkish people. Since the late 1980s the most rapid influx has been of Chinese, mainly students allowed to stay after the Tiananmen Square massacre, who then brought out their families via the family reunion program. The 2001 census shows that 42.6 % of Ashfield’s 40,000 residents, 76% of whom are Australian citizens, were born overseas, with 7.7% from China, 5.9% Italy and 3.1%, the UK. The arrival of the Chinese has been particularly contentious because their main occupation makes them so visible. No longer is Ashfield’s high street, Liverpool Road, a mix of shops; 85% are now Chinese small businesses, mainly restaurants and small supermarkets. Shanghainese dominate, Ashfield in fact being known as Little Shanghai among the Chinese community. I worked in Hong Kong in the 1980s and travelled widely in South- and North-East Asia. I live in Ashfield and enjoy its diversity and vibrant streets. I like the fact that it was home to 19th century Chinese businessman Quong Tart (and that through working with a Scottish store owner he picked up the accent and a love of Robbie Burns). And while I know some local residents initially resented the conversion of the dilapidated Freemasons Hall into a Chinese temple, unusually combining Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, it is now part of the landscape. However, I was not completely surprised to read in the local paper about a study that had found many local residents blamed Ashfield’s large Chinese population for what they saw as the town centre’s disrepair and unwelcoming atmosphere. The Contact Zones study by urban anthropologist