A new era for Chinatown precinct

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Jack Hayes

A new City of Melbourne-backed precinct business association is set to shake up Chinatown in what looms as an historic changing of the guard moment for the precinct and its traders.

The now defunded Chinatown Precinct Association (CPA), led for more than two decades by former president Danny Doon, and vice-president Eng Lim, will make way for the newly formed Melbourne Chinatown Association (MCA).

Although still in its infancy, the new association has garnered strong support from both the council and local traders who are encouraged by a “modern touch to the precinct.”

CBD News understnds the council’s decision to withdraw funding from the CPA was based on survey feedback from traders explaining the Association no longer served the best interest of its members.

Spearheading the MCA as president is head of Asian services at commercial real estate giants CBRE Jing Jun (JJ) Heng, with investment manager at real estate financier IDA Trevor Du serving as vice-president.

In an exclusive tour of Chinatown, Mr Heng told CBD News, aside from the major cultural festivals and events the precinct had become globally renowned for, the new leadership’s response would circle around two foundational elements: “fostering business and promoting culture.”

“Our initial job is to meet with members and key stakeholders within the precinct to hear their feedback,” Mr Heng said.

“A lot of businesses in the precinct have voiced strong support to get involved with our modern touch to the precinct.”

“A lot of the hospitality, retail and professional services businesses have said they would love to see more out of Chinatown. Be it from an activity front, be it from a digital front, that is what we are doing at the moment.”

“We don’t want to come in and say, ‘this is what we think we can do’, we wanted to hear it [feedback] from the community first and design our approach from that.”

According to the MCA, the greatest challenge facing Chinatown traders are the long-lasting and multi-faceted pitfalls of COVID-19.

Not only are local businesses feeling the pinch from increased costs of supplies and labour, a lack of meaningful action from governments and employers alike to bring workers back to the CBD, is crippling a precinct that is heavily reliant on the city’s daytime economy.

“Traders want to see consistency with the cost of labour, cost of supplies and resourcing challenges,” Mr Heng said.

 

“Our job is to ask, ‘how do we help our members cover overheads during these off-peak hours? Can we run certain events during these periods? What feedback can we provide to the council from traders that will help them not only survive, but thrive?’”

 

“There are certain things we can’t control, but there are things we can. We can control how we ensure the city and precinct is more vibrant; we can make sure there is more foot traffic, more businesses open, more vertical space activated, more public infrastructure for lighting or public art, and to ensure people from outside the precinct would want to come here to visit and to run a business.”

As the longest continuous Chinese settlement in the Western World, Melbourne’s Chinatown is steeped in more than 170 years of history and tradition.

The gravity of such history is not lost on the MCA which promises to bring the precinct into a new age.

“With Chinese culture you must always respect your elders, and we do,” Mr Heng said. “As time changes, digital becomes the norm, millennials become a major demographic, how do business associations adapt to the change?”

“There have been countless individuals, institutions, associations and businesses who have contributed over the years to bring Chinatown to what it is today. It is a collective effort.”

“Respect the historical elements of Chinatown and embrace the new. We are seeing new retailers coming in from mainland China, Korea, Thailand, how do we embrace that and make it part of the precinct?”

A CBD resident himself, Mr Du said the association was hard at work finding a suitable committee that, not just served the precinct, but added value, particularly in its focus areas of marketing and social media.

“Working hand in hand with the City of Melbourne on the ground and engage with the precinct members not just to understand their needs, drivers and wants, and to funnel that through as feedback to the council, but also deliver our own initiatives to increase visitation, increase spend and activate the precinct throughout the day and night,” Mr Du said.

“To build on Melbourne’s brand as a culturally vibrant city and get us back to number one most liveable in the world.”

In what marks the council’s first major acknowledgement of the newly established association, Chinatown is set to receive more than $150,000 for new light installations to improve visibility and accessibility, while also ramping up street cleaning efforts.

The MCA is also set to receive $90,000 as part of Council’s Business Precinct Program.

The funds will be used to support a range of new events and activities to drive visitation and spend in the Chinatown precinct.

City of Melbourne councillor and local business owner Jason Chang told CBD News he had been excited by the response from international students and tourists coming back to the city.

“People have been stuck at home for the past two years and they are after that physical interaction with places and people that Zoom can’t provide; and restaurants and cafes are the heart of it. That’s where people come together and meet up” Cr Chang said.

“Our local traders have been through incredibly challenging times, but they are resilient, and we are on the other side.”

“The association is here to support them; Council is here to support them. This is one step, a fresh new approach from the Chinatown association is what is required and can really shake things up.”

Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the council’s ongoing investment in Chinatown would ensure it remained a “popular hot-spot”.

“Melbourne’s Chinatown is ranked among the world’s top 10 – so it comes as no surprise that after a tough two years, it’s back on its feet, full of life again,” Cr Capp said.

“We’re ramping up cleaning efforts and delivering the infrastructure local traders need to attract more visitors and boost business.”

If you would like to become a Melbourne Chinatown Association member or if you would like any information, email [email protected].

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