Wednesday, October 13, 2010

China in Three Parts

While by no means the largest or even most impressive Chinatown I’ve ever visited, Sydney’s Chinatown is a definite must see for visitors to the area. Of course, to get the full experience it will take more than one visit, a pair of comfortable walking shoes, a sense of fun, and a hearty appetite.

After our disappointing visit to Paddy’s Market, BBS and I headed across the street for what would be my initial tour of Chinatown. The touristy pedestrian mall area of the Asian quarter is two blocks long although the neighbourhood proper is much larger. From the ubiquitous pink cat store to the myriad of hole in the wall eateries, one could be forgiven for wondering if there was a do it yourself ChinaTown™ kit that cities purchased and erected to lure tourists.

Despite the tasty steamed buns at The Emperor’s Garden Cakes and Bakery, I must admit that I was initially disappointed by my first visit to the rather generic Chinatown. Luckily for me, I was dragged back twice more.

My return visit found me in Darling Harbour at the Chinese Garden of Friendship with my then roommate, a girl from Ottawa, and two guys from our hostel. The Gardens are located a short walk across the pedestrian bridge at the foot of Liverpool Street in Chinatown. After some debate we each paid the $6.00 entrance fee and quickly decided it was the best money any of us had spent in Sydney.

Built in 1988 to commemorate Sydney’s bicentennial, the Chinese Gardens are fashioned after a typical Ming Dynasty private garden. The Gardens were designed by Chinese architects and landscape designers in the city of Guangzhou in China, Sydney’s sister city, to demonstrate the perfect balance of the four elements of water, plants, stone, and architecture.

It seems almost trite to call Chinese gardens Zen, relaxing, or calming but that’s what they are. I don’t know if they sell season’s passes to this 10,000 square meter space but if they did I would snap one up in a minute.

Although the price is not as well advertised as I might like, the most entertaining part of the Chinese Gardens appeals to the child in everyone. For $10 anyone can don traditional Ming and Ching dynasty garb and wander the Gardens at will. Men are dressed as Samurai Warriors complete with swords and the ladies are transformed into fan waving princesses. For those shy folks out there, it should be noted that most of the people I saw in costume that day were adults rather than children.

Natural granite formations, waterfalls, koi ponds, hidden nooks and crannies, a miniature bamboo forest, stairs to hidden spots perfect for lover’s trysts, bridges, and creative landscaping are just a few of the wonderful features of the Gardens. If you can avoid looking up, it would be easy to forget for a few hours that you were in the middle of a huge city.

I find it difficult to explain my fascination with the Gardens except to say that I felt at peace there. With hidden niches perfect for stolen kisses, Ottawa Girl and I both remarked that it would be the perfect place for a first date. Of course, for that same reason, it would make a horrible destination for a high school field trip. Yet, I found myself sitting on its stone benches more than once during my time in Sydney: it was peace in the middle of a bustling and noisy city.

My final visit to China Town was under cover of dark on a clear Friday evening. The Chinatown Night Market occurs every Friday night regardless of holidays or weather. This excursion found me with another roommate, Opera, as we wandered the stalls of discounted jewelry and other various wares from IPad accessories to adorable slippers.

I naturally bargained for everything I purchased, much to Opera’s horror, and paid only $15 for my $25 slippers. Opera insisted that nobody bargains at the Night Markets whilst I countered that anyone who has a stand has to expect a little give and take. Simply being in an outdoor market brought back all my happy Maasai Market memories and stood strong by my prices and walked away when necessary.

To top off our night we even got tattoos! Or, as close as I’m ever going to get to breaking down and finally getting inked. In honour of the Year of the Rabbit (due to start in February) I had a small bunny air painted on the base of my thumb. More daring, Opera opted for one at the base of her spine. That night when we returned to the hostel we told everyone they were real. Unfortunately, no one believed us for very long.

The best part of the Chinatown Night Markets is definitely the food, so be sure to bring your appetite. The scents from the freshly cooked food assaulted us the moment we arrived at the markets and tantalized us until we finally gave in and tasted what was on offer. From “meat rugs” and steamed buns, to black rice and dumplings I don’t think there was a single food vendor that disappointed. On our way out, Opera tried some Dragon Beard Candy that she declared scrumptious.

Three visits on three separate days allowed me to see different sides of Sydney’s Chinatown and each was unique in its own way. From the excitement of the Night Markets to the tranquility of the Gardens, there is far more to see than first meets the eye and none of Chinatown’s many facets should be missed on a trip to Sydney.


Anonymous said...

China Town certainly sounds wonderful in all its aspects. Love the idea of the Friendship Gardens and the idea of dressing -up!
BArgaining again! Bet that was the most fun.

Steel Magnolia said...

Ni hau! Sadly I missed this gem when I was Down Under a few years back. You made it come to life. it is now on my short list. Cheers!

Unknown said...

Oooo I wanna go... if I ever get to Oz.. sigh. Hope you are doing well.. sounds like you are having a blast!