Discover North Sydney’s Chinese-Australian history

Tracing the history of Chinese people in Australia is sometimes referred to as ‘tracking the dragon’. Largely ignored beyond the story of gold mining, Chinese-Australian history has been more thoroughly researched in the past 30 years. But there still are many gaps in our knowledge.

A modest postcard in the Stanton Library collection shows the only known photograph of a Chinese-run store in North Sydney before the mid-20th century. Unfranked and unmarked, we can only guess at its date, but the photograph was probably taken around 1905.

It shows Ah Sing’s Wholesale and Family Grocer at number five and/or number seven Willoughby Road, Crows Nest. The numbering seemed a little elastic in those days. Sing’s was a big store, built in the Italianate style of the late 19th century, with ornate urns on the parapet.

It may have been built for Sing himself as he occupied the site from 1890. The signwriting on the façade declares an establishment date of 1879. But it is likely that Ah Sing began his North Shore retail business further to the south on Lane Cove Road, what is now called the Pacific Highway.

In that big Crows Nest shop, Sing sold footwear and clothing, crockery, groceries and ironmongery – which meant metal items such as pots, pans, nails, door handles and tools.

On the side, and at some expense, someone had been commissioned to paint Aunt Mary’s Baking Powder. The cost may have been borne by Sing or the manufacturer. This was the archetypal general store. The photograph shows a shopkeeper – possibly Sing – in his shirt sleeves and long white apron leaning against a delivery cart. A small boy on the right may be Sing’s second son Arthur. He named his firstborn Willoughby, in honour of the ‘parish’ in which he had established himself.

Ah Sing’s was one of more than 40 stores run by Chinese men in North Sydney from 1879 to the 1930s, when Chinatown became the centre of Chinese retail in Sydney. The shops were spread along Lane Cove, Willoughby and Military Roads. There were some in Mount Street, Walker Street and Blues Point Road.

Lewis Kee ran the corner store at 220 West Street, Crows Nest for two years to 1911, when it was taken over by W Wong.

There wasn’t a North Sydney Chinatown so to speak, but there was a sizable community of Chinese retailers.

Before their market gardens were destroyed for suburban subdivisions, there were about 20 Chinese gardeners in the Cammeray area using the creek that once ran to Willoughby Falls to irrigate their fruit trees and vegetable beds. Together they helped build a municipality.

If you have information to share about the Chinese community of the North Sydney area, contact the Historical Services team at Stanton Library,

Historical Services, North Sydney Council.