The present Grafton Street between Spence and Shields Street, Cairns, began as a very interesting and multicultural community known as “Chinatown” from the early 1880s. The precinct had very humble beginnings and was not a homogenous community. Over four dialect districts were represented and confined into one street block which formed a Chinese ethnic enclave. Chinatown was filled with many women who lived and raised families there and the place offered goods, services, produce, recreational activities and an early form of “oriental tourism” sought by both Chinese and Caucasian visitors alike.
Cairns “Chinatown”, through the strength of the enormous contribution Chinese settlers, entrepreneurs and laborers made to large scale agricultural industry in and around Cairns, was able to develop and sustain its unique place in North Queensland’s history. It remains the largest and longest running Chinatown outside Brisbane and continued on with a strong Chinese presence until the mid-1940s. The last temple, one of two temples, the Lit Sung Goong, was present to the mid-1960s and the street today retains a Chinese business presence and special atmosphere unlike any other street in Cairns.
Current families in the Chinese community of Cairns retain strong ancestral ties to early settler families, and many of their grandfathers and great grandfathers (and grandmothers) were key merchants, businesspeople, farmers and agriculturalists who contributed substantially to the economic development and stability of the region. The relationship between the Chinese community and broader community in Cairns and district has always been cordial. In fact, Cairns was pilloried by southern states for its relaxed and multi-cultural attitude at a time when the mood against Chinese settlers was antagonistic.
With only a few remaining buildings associated with the former Chinatown streetscape still standing, much of the significant value of the Chinatown precinct lies beneath the surface – in its archaeology. But yet the history and social history of the place lives on and remains as an under exposed tourist resource waiting to be drawn out and told as part of the broader Cairns story. The recent upgrade and installation of the Chinatown heritage trail by the Council is a step in the right direction.
For all the reasons set out above, the former Chinatown precinct in Cairns is a very rare and special place which retains an ambiance of its own and an opportunity to be embraced and acknowledged as a cultural heritage asset unique to Cairns worth promoting and protecting.
Sandi Robb, 2013
View of Cairns Chinatown (Sachs St) circ 1895, from the
Hides Hotel in Lake St. The Crown Hotel is visible on the
corner of Sachs and Shields Streets.
Source: Cairns Historical Society P03743
Parading of temple deities in Sachs St, Cairns, circa 1901 Source:Chinese Community of Cairns , Souvenir Brochure, p.4
Japanese girl inSachs St , 1902
Photo: Cairns Historical Society