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.
Written by Sandi Robb