Lincoln Tan

Lincoln Tan is the New Zealand Herald’s diversity, ethnic affairs and immigration senior reporter.

The changing face of Dominion Rd

Go Go Music Cafe. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Go Go Music Cafe. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Artist Mina Melsom goes out often for drinks late into the night with friends - but it's not at a bar or pub, but at a bubble-tea cafe on Auckland's Dominion Rd.

J's Tea, a Taiwanese-style bubble-tea cafe, is one of an increasing number of food and beverages outlets that operate on the street until the small hours.

The cafe provides customers with blankets and board games along with a wide-ranging menu of hot and cold Asian beverages and snack meals.

"It's really cosy, and it's a decent place where we can talk, unlike in the city bars where you have to shout over the blasting music," said Miss Melsom, 27, originally from Wellington.

Shelby Thomas, 25, a self-professed "late night party freak", said she started becoming a regular at Dominion Rd cafes after her partner got assaulted at a pub on K Rd two months ago.

"Here it's definitely safer, and the beer's cheaper too," Miss Thomas said.

Late night revellers are turning from drinking in the city to dining at the central Auckland ethnic enclave, where some outlets operate until 5am.

They offer everything from Chinese noodles and dumplings, barbecue skewers and burgers to beverages such as bubble tea.

The face of Dominion Rd has changed dramatically over the years, and even since the Mutton Birds sang about it in 1993:

Dominion Road is bending

Under its own weight

Shining like a strip

Cut from a sheet metal plate

'Cos its just been raining

Sociologist Paul Spoonley said Dominion Rd had been turned into a food precinct that offered a unique dining experience.

Professor Spoonley led a Massey University study on Dominion Rd last year, and had recommended to Auckland Council that the precinct should be turned into Auckland's Chinatown.

"The people who go to Dominion Rd comprise of the Asian community, who know about it already and who go there for their food, but what we're seeing is a growing non-Asian clientele who are just starting to discover the delights of Dominion Rd," he said.

"It offers an enormous variety of good Asian food, it's cheap and it's available 24/7. There's really a kind of energy and vibe at this precinct that you don't get anywhere else in the country."

Professor Spoonley said nearly 80 per cent of businesses there were Asian-owned, and many business owners were replicating the dining experiences offered in their home countries.

"This is a new diversity that you see in food experience, that you also find in the night markets and festivals," he said.

It was a pity that it wasn't being marketed by the Auckland Council to tourists or to Aucklanders, which could result in "huge economic benefits" for the city, Professor Spoonley said. "Surely, there are experiences that people get at Dominion Rd [that] international tourists and other Aucklanders would like to share as well."

University of Auckland Professor of Asian Studies Manying Ip said having supper, or "ye xiao", was popular among the Chinese. Food and dining out were also an integral part of most Asian cultures.

"For most Asians, we don't invite people to our homes, but invite them to have dinner at restaurants," she said.

"Food is also central to discussing business deals, socialising and celebrations."

A big pull for Chinese business student Joey Wang, 21, who was with his girlfriend Xiao Lin at the Go Go Music Cafe at 12.30 last Sunday morning, was "price" and "atmosphere".

Chinese-style skewers are priced from 50c each at the upstairs cafe, where a band also plays Chinese sentimental and pop songs on weekend nights.

"When we eat here we also feel like we are back in China, and it makes us less homesick," Mr Wang said.

Daniel Wang, 32, who has owned and operated the cafe since 2004, said he was happy that more food outlets there were opening past midnight as it attracted customers.

"There used to be only two or three, but customers like to have a choice and many more are coming now because more restaurants are choosing to open late."

A new kid on the block is My Kitchen cafe, serving Taiwanese speciality meals, which opened about half a year ago.

Its manager, who didn't want to be named, said the owner - who had another restaurant in east Auckland - decided to start an outlet in Dominion Rd because it wanted to be part of "where foodies go".

"Asians especially, when they think of finding good and cheap food, they think of Dominion Rd," she said.

Restaurants stretching from Balmoral Rd to the Mt Albert Rd end of Dominion Rd include South Asian, Chinese, Malaysian, Taiwanese and Thai - but those that open late are predominantly Chinese.

WHAT'S ON THE LATE-NIGHT MENU

Go Go Music Cafe: Chinese barbecue skewers, lamb, chicken parts, ox tongue, seafood from 50c each
Flavour House: Dumplings, chilli intestines, spicy beef maw, fish head braised tofu, from $10
My Kitchen: Sichuan chicken, Mongolian beef, garlic squid, ginger fish and tofu, from $8.50
J's Tea: Bubble tea, Asian beverages and Taiwanese snack dishes, from $4.50
Wuhan Cafe: Stewed duck head and neck, braised crayfish, tofu pot with salted egg, from $3.

- NZ Herald

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