For years, the former Auckland City Council adopted a sensible approach to the development of a Chinatown. It insisted that it would not try to create ethnic precincts, but recognised they might develop on their own. That, however, was never likely to be good enough for those who glanced enviously at the likes of Sydney and Vancouver, which boast Chinatowns that are major tourist drawcards. Their view gained some traction when the creation of a Chinatown in downtown Auckland was included in a 20-year city master-plan released in March by the Auckland Council's future vision committee. Now, a more activist approach is also being proposed by Massey University researchers, who want the council to explore turning part of Dominion Rd into Chinatown.
The researchers found that in the area from Balmoral Rd to Kensington Ave, as many as 78 per cent of Dominion Rd's businesses were Asian-owned - 51 per cent Chinese - and only 14 per cent were owned by European New Zealanders. The area between King Edward St and Valley Rd also has a preponderance of Asian-owned businesses.
It would be interesting, said the researchers, to explore with the business owners the possibility of "a themed or branded precinct that might be labelled a Chinatown or, more likely, something more modest such as decorations or signage which reflects the Asian/Chinese character of sections of Dominion Rd".
In effect, this is a call for the Auckland Council to get involved in a development that, so far, has happened of its own volition not only on Dominion Rd but in several other pockets of the city, such as Northcote and Botany. These hubs have developed naturally, with people choosing to concentrate there because of affordability, an existing Chinese population, and services. In Dominion Rd, the cluster of Chinese food stores, restaurants, small businesses, beauty parlours and suchlike has been complemented by banks, real estate companies and finance firms in the area employing a large number of China specialists.
City planners have played no part in this process. To involve them now would only undermine Dominion Rd's authenticity. The outcome would, more likely than not, be an embarrassingly fake, theme park-style development. The capital city's Wellywood initiative would have a rival. If a Chinatown is to be established, the push must come from the community. That would involve the Chinese business owners of Dominion Rd abandoning a customary reticence and taking the initiative.
The Auckland Council ethnic panel chairwoman, Camille Nakhid, has other grounds for worrying about the Massey researchers' recommendations. She says they "could segregate a segment of the community". That concern is not warranted. Auckland has moved far past this. There may, however, be some danger that city planners pushing a Chinatown could pressure members of the Chinese community into believing that this is where they should be. Many may, indeed, want to be in such a precinct but they should not feel they have to be.
A Chinatown on Dominion Rd would be welcomed by those who have long lamented that Auckland is rare, as a tourist destination without such a feature. But this shortcoming is surely overstated. The fact that all major cities have Chinatowns means little prestige would be attached to another. Certainly, there would be no cachet for a development engineered by a city trying too hard to fit into what some see, misguidedly, as a world-class ideal. If there is to be Chinatown, let it develop of its own accord.