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Sydney's Chinatown comprises some of the most prized real estate in the heart of the City. TONY SARNO reports.
IT'S LIKE a goldmine here,"
says Alan Seeto. "Even if you have money, you can't buy into it." He owns three buildings in Chinatown, is retired, plays golf four times a week, gambles.
X Chinatown, is retired, plays golf
four times a week, gambles.
socially almost every night and drives an $82,000 Mercedes 380 SEL. "I think most Chinese would like to own a piece of dirt here .. . it's the prestige."
The predicted rise in tourism resulting from the re-development of the adjacent Darling Harbour area and increased interest from Hong Kong investors wanting to escape China's takeover in 1997, makes Sydney's Chinatown valuable real estate. Its choicest parts — around Dixon, Sussex, Thomas and Goulburn streets — are largely owned by a small band of wealthy and influential figures who stand to benefit enormously from its rosy future. They like to keep a low profile. In Chinese tradition, it's a poor show to flaunt one's wealth. Ask the locals about them and the inevitable answer is that they are hard working and very charitable.
In March 1972, a Hong Kong arrival, Wong Ka-Chuen published the first issue of Chinese Echo, a newspaper in which he wrote "the restaurant owners and cooks certainly represent strong
Chinese traits (pettiness, greed, etc.)." It
was his first and last edition.
Today, the lords of Chinatown include Bernard Chan, who made his fortune in coconut plantations in Papua New Guinea and shipped out a large part of it before the country became independents Sally Aw Sian, the heiress of the Tiger Balm ointment fortune and Hong Kong newspaper magnate who is shifting her vast financial base to Australia; members and in-laws of the late Stanley Wong's family and Dennis Wolanski, a property developer who also owns a good slice of
Alan Seeto, formerly the Papua New Guinea agent for Rothmans, came to Australia in 1973 and has since seen the value of the properties he bought multiply by seven to 10 times. That, according to the local real estate agents, is an accurate reflection of the rise in property values in the area. Seeto owns a two-storey building housing the May Sun restaurant at 71 Dixon Street; another building with three restaurants on the corner of Hay and Harbour streets; and a two-storey building housing, the Barbeque House restaurant in Sussex Street. Seeto says his estate agent regularly gets calls from interested buyers — some from Hong Kong. But he
will not sell because he does not think he could find properties elsewhere which would return similarly high rents.
Few non-Chinese ventured into Dixon Street before the mid-1950s. But when cookery writers such as Margaret Fulton began serving up Chinese recipes to Menzies's Australia, the street's few eating houses were seen as a welcome alternative to the spartan cuisine of the times. Its popularity grew and in 1979 it was turned into a pedestrian mall by Sydney City Council.
But visitors, particularly the Chinese, were also lured by Chinatown's gambling dens, where they could play mah-jong (like a card game played with domino-like tiles marked in suits) fan-tan (block cards are divided repeatedly and bets are made on what the remainder will be) and Chinese dominoes. Even now, while few property owners or businessmen in the area are willing to be quoted praising gambling, some privately agree that it is good for business. Eight large illegal gambling clubs mentioned in the report of an Inquiry into Gaming tabled in the NSW Parliament last year appear to have closed recently as a result of a recent tightening of the Gaming and Betting Act. These, according to figures
Top: Dixon Street, Sydney; centre, Alan Seeto and,
above, Dennis Wolanski
provided by the report, catered for up to 750 gamblers a night.
One property owner told the Good Weekend that the restaurants' trade had dropped significantly after midnight as a result of the closures. But it is widely acknowledged that much ' illegal gambling has simply been forced underground.
Mah-jong, according to a member of the gaming squad is now played legally in two clubs: the Tung Luck Club at 70 Dixon Street and premises at 47 Dixoh Street, as well as in many of the many restaurants in Chinatown during the afternoon break. It is legal if there are no more than eight players and the house does not take a share of the cut. But a$ a gaming squad spokesman concedes, whether 'the rules are followed in some cases is another thing.
- When * 73-year-old Bernard Chan recently paid $2.1 million for. a-two storey warehouse at 76-86 Harbour Street, a prime spot which faces. the Sydney Entertainment Centre/, he became the largest locally-based owner in Chinatown with five properties. He still owns a few plantations. in Papua New;, Guinea, (the main one is 640 hectares of coconut and cocoa trees) but began moving his money to
Australia in the 1960s as Papua New Guinea moved inevitably towards self government on December 1, i973. He
chose Chinatown "because I knew there was the prospect of increasing values." In 1968 he bought the building which until recently housed the Chinatown Cinema at 427-429 Sussex Street. It runs through to Dixon Street and, with the warehouse next door which ; he s also owns, Chan is turning it into an arcade containing about 18 shops.
Across the road, the Haymarket Hotel building,: which extends. to George Street, was bought in 1983 for $1.8 million. He also owns the three-storey building at 63-69 Dixon. Street which houses the Shanghai Village restaurant and ah emporium.
But despite his optimism for the future of landowners in Chinatown, he does not plan to invest in more properties there.; "There is a limit. It's not good to put all the eggs in one basket." He recently sold adjoining office blocks in Pitt Street and Castlereagh Street for an amount believed to be around $5 million, and owns three shopping centres in Brisbane. He lives in a penthouse on top of an eight-storey residential block he owns in Neutral Bay.
Sally Aw Sian's acquisitions over.'the.
past few years have already made her the ■ biggest property owner in Chinatown3 as
well as the publisher of the only Chinese :• language newspaper. The 52-year-old owner of Hong Kong's Sing Tao Newspapers and one of Asia's' richest women is thought to be moving her financial base to Australia to escape Hong Kong's new owners. Last. June, Sing Tao Newspapers was purchased by Cereus Australia Ltd, formerly a Sydney-listed shell company which she acquired as an investment vehicle for her Australian operations.. Cereus _ Australia also bought Dixon House in" Dixon Street, a five-storey building with basement food stalls and shops' and offices on the remaining floors, for $9.1 million. The building was' bought through the acquisition of Foline Pty Ltd, which had paid $2.55 million for it in 1982, before renovations. Foline was then owned by Sally Aw Sian. '
A. conservative estimate puts Aw Sian's - property fortune in Sydney at. around $20 million — including both private and company holdings.1 'At the
southern end of Chinatown, her O
companies own a six-storey office block ; at 191-201 Thomas Street, Ultimo, and the adjoining Central Markets — a
collection of three and four-storey . buildings. Behind them, "and facing George Street,; is a block of vacant land which had a $1 million development application for the construction of a car park approved last year. These
properties were valued at $4;4 million in». 1985. At the northern end of Chinatown,# her companies own the three-storey Fortuna Court restaurant building on the corner of George and Goulburn streets (valued at $1.75 million); a clump of three properties nearby which
Left, Sally Aw Sian and right, Linda Wong Luey
includes a car park in George Street, an adjoining factory site in Eagar Lane now used for parking and a four-storey office and showroom building at 22-26 Goulburn Street (valued together at $3.4 million); and the old Trades Hall hotel, now Sing Tao Newspapers' Sydney office (valued at $435,000).
The financial controller for Sing Tao Newspapers in Australia, Matthew Chan, says: "We may spend more, we don't know. With the Darling Harbour scheme so close, there are always things happening."
Linda Wong Luey believes Chinatown should expand southward, through - the
old markets area in Ultimo. That suits her, because she owns the site of the former fish market Number 5, a 2,137 square metre block encircled by Thomas Street, Quay: Street, and Thomas Lane. According to a development application, a three to four-storey commercial and retail centre will be built on it. Lifela Pty Ltd, a company of which she is a director with Michael Luey, her husband, bought the property from the city council for $4.2 million in October 1984.
Linda, 40, is the third daughter of the late Stanley Wong, the multi-millionaire and racehorse owner who was murdered in January 1985, and sister of Tina Wong, who died last, March soon after being cleared of charges relating to a $70 million heroin racket. A self-assured and forthcoming businesswoman, she owns the Covent Garden Hotel building on the corner of Dixon and Hay streets and runs the Old Tai Yuen restaurant in the
same building. She also owns the adjacent Burlington Centre building, on the corner.of Hay and Sussex streets. Her property development company, John A1 Pty Ltd, builds home units and townhouses in many parts of Sydney.
Linda's husband Michael Luey, whom she married in 1962,,made a name^for himself as the owner e of the Taiping restaurant (where her Old Tai Yuen restaurant now stands). They later started the Four. Seas restaurant in Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills: a haunt of ' Labor; politicians such as Neville Wran,
and trade union figures. The Four Seas building was sold to the Chinese government for its consulate in 1978.
Michael Luey is known to be
reclusive, intensely- disliking publicity, particularly about his business - affairs. His style clashes with Linda'smore typically western, open approach. In fact he seemed distinctly annoyed at seeing Linda talking to Good Weekend in her
Michael . Luey introduced 'himself, rather abruptly and asked her not to
mention his other interests.
Some of Michael Luey's interests in Chinatown, however, are on city council records. Through Tai Ping Trading Pty Ltd, he owns a 4,268 square metre site in Thomas Street, Ultimo, just behind Her Majesty's Theatre. On it stands Field House, a sandstone building , whose facades are classified by. the National Trust. A $4 million development application to build a parking station and restore Field House was approved in 1983. Luey's company paid $1.4 million for the property in 1982.
The Stanley Wong estate also owns the three-storey building at 399 Sussex Street which houses the Tai Yuen Palace, run by Linda's brother Ronald. Her sister Alice Wong Long"'runs the New Tai Yuen restaurant in Dixon Street, although it does not own the building, which belongs to Felix and Eleanore Pollard. v ,
One of the only two non-Asians with significant property un - the-' heart of Chinatown is Dennis ' (Zdenek) Wolanski. He owns the Sussex Hay Centre, a six-storey building which runs from Sussex Street, along Little Hay Street, to Dixon Street. It houses four restaurants and has five floors of offices and studios.
. Wolanski calls himself a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde — hardheaded businessman by day, artist by night. He donated $10,000 which helped set up the Dennis Wolanski Library and Archive's of the Performing Arts at the Opera House in 1973, and is presently1 working on a sculpture entitled Angled . Wheels of Progress, which the city council will erect in Kings Cross.
A refugee from the Warsaw ghetto,
Wolanski came to Australia via Paris in
1950 and invented the Lido clip-on tie, for which he still holds the patent. He got into property development when buying land for his tie-making factory. His companies own a 10-storey office block at 32-34 York Street; and, in Kent Street an eight-storey office block at 396-404; a four-storey , factory, showroom and office building next door; and a four-storey block at 410-412.
Wolanski; finds talkabout money, or other properties he owns, objectionable.
He wants to be remembered for his
sculptures, some of which contain anti nuclear messages.
"Some people have millions and die and never do anything.' When I "die," I want, to build one brick to make it a better jvorld," he said. □