Highlands History | Chinese culture slowly embraced in Southern Highlands

From the 1880s Chinese market gardens flourished at Mittagong and Bowral.

Stories have been provided in previous articles of this series about the early local Chinese, mostly drawn from newspapers.

They had been part of a wider establishment of Chinese market gardens throughout regional NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

By the 1930s, the local market gardens were no longer owned by Chinese families. According to a NSW Heritage Office report on Chinese settlement, this change of ownership occurred throughout the state. Many Chinese left rural areas and moved to Sydney with its ‘Chinatown’ as the dominant centre.

Early Chinese settlers had also taken up in other occupations including as cooks, cabinet-makers, drapers and storekeepers. They would become a significant group in NSW, involved in merchandising, import trade, restaurants and the publishing of Chinese language newspapers.

Those Chinese who remained in the local district took up a variety of occupations and became an integral part of the community. Like all Australians they endured hardships and personal losses during World War II.

Following the war and despite ‘Yellow Peril’ propaganda, during the early 1950s, Australians generally began to develop a greater interest in all things Chinese, including its cuisine, customs, history, calligraphy and art. This Chinese interest was heartily embraced locally, as described in the Southern Mail of 28 August 1953:

“Ted Springett and Tom Cameron are starting to learn Chinese to enable them to converse in the language. They have chased half the population of Campbell Street and the Chinese Cafe proprietors in getting suitable decorations for the forthcoming Legacy Ball, ‘A Night in China’. Chinese food will be a feature of the ball, and with a genuine Chinese floorshow and authentic Chinese decorations this promises to be the best ball ever.”

A description of the event followed on September 18: “The Bowral Apex Club is noted for the unusual decorations at its annual ball, but excelled itself last Friday night when an invitation ball was held to assist the funds of Legacy Queen Candidate, Eileen Rowlands. The motto, ‘A Night in China’ was adopted and no effort was spared to make the decorative scheme an outstanding one.”

“Many hours of work were put into the fashioning of long Chinese lanterns, about 8 feet in length, which were suspended from the ceiling. Made of black paper, they bore Chinese writing in bright colours on their sides.”

“As the guests entered the hall they were greeted by the President, Mr Charlesworth, and two other members, who were attired in Chinese costumes, complete with pigtails. The musicians in Ted Springett's orchestra were similarly attired and provided a most enjoyable programme of music. An excellent supper was served in the basement, after the guests of the club had been provided with Chinese food at their respective tables.”

CHINESE NIGHT: Bill Charlesworth (left) and Joe Ford in costume at Bowral Apex Club’s Legacy Ball in 1953. Photo: BDH&FHS

CHINESE NIGHT: Bill Charlesworth (left) and Joe Ford in costume at Bowral Apex Club’s Legacy Ball in 1953. Photo: BDH&FHS

During the 1950s, Chinese restaurants such as the Peking Cafe in Pitt St, Sydney, which had long been popular, were joined by numerous small establishments throughout the suburbs and regional towns, opened up to serve 'Australian-Chinese' meals to eager palettes.

Today’s local residents may find it hard to envisage a time when there were no Chinese restaurants in the district’s towns.  

The first Chinese restaurant to open locally was at Mittagong. When exactly it opened has not been verified, but most likely in the 1960s, located near the intersection of Bowral Road and the (then) busy Hume Highway.

Bowral’s first Chinese restaurant was The Shanghai, which opened in the mid-1970s on Bong Bong Street opposite the Post Office. Initially it was located next to the Cosmopolitan Café then, after a few years, it moved into the premises vacated by the café and still operates there today. The House of Lowe restaurant opened next to the Imperial Hotel on Bong Bong Street, perhaps in the late 1970s.

The Hong Kong Restaurant in Moss Vale was established by the Chung On Chow family in 1976 near the Central Hotel. It has now relocated across the street. The Peking Restaurant opened in 1984 in its present location in the Moss Vale Mall.

These and other local Chinese restaurants have broadened our choice of cuisine and enriched the pleasure of eating.

  • Berrima District Historical & Family History Society – compiled by PD Morton. Part 6 of a 6-part series.