Intent on augmenting family and clan fortunes then returning home, Chinese first arrived in significant numbers during the 1850s gold rushes. They were predominantly Cantonese-speaking male villagers, most from Guangdong province's Toishan, Sunwui, Hoiping and Yanping districts (See Yup) with others from nearer Guangzhou (Sam Yap). By 1855 they had founded mutual aid organisations, of which the Kong Chew and See Yup Societies still exist, and had established in Little Bourke Street and Emerald Hill stores and lodgings which serviced goldfields immigrants. In 1861, Melbourne contained less than 3% of Victoria's Chinese, although the (Sam Yup) Nam Poon Shoong Building (1862) at 200-202 Little Bourke Street and the See Yup Temple (1866) in Emerald Hill symbolised community success on the diggings.
As alluvial goldmining declined, immigrants gradually drifted to Melbourne. In 1901, 38.30% lived there; by 1947 almost three-quarters. Urbanisation in the 70 years after 1880 coincided with the implementation of restrictive anti-Chinese immigration, nationality and employment policies which reflected profound Australian fears of difference and competition. These reinforced the male, sojourning tradition of Chinese emigration and shaped economic practice. Prevented from bringing kinsfolk to maintain and extend family businesses, immigrants chose low-risk, quick-return ventures and went home. Victoria's Chinese population shrank steadily from 12 128 (1881) through 6347 (1901) to 1704 (1947). However, from 1881 to 1901 Melbourne's more than doubled before falling to 1261 in 1947.
Many metropolitan workers became market gardeners in suburbs like Brighton, Camberwell, Coburg and Hawthorn. During 1901-21, when Chinese were Victoria's principal vegetable cultivators and distributors, Little Bourke Street merchants almost monopolised fruit and vegetable wholesaling, small stallholders retailed at the Eastern and Queen Victoria markets and hawkers sold in the suburbs.
Meanwhile, cabinet-makers living and working between the eastern ends of Little Bourke and Little Lonsdale streets captured the cheap furniture market and by 1895 laundry-men operated in every suburb. Despite discriminatory legislation of 1896 and attempts between 1904 and 1907 to further increase restrictions, all bitterly and successfully contested, furniture-making and laundry work flourished until World War I dampened demand. Then, like gardening and hawking, they declined as workers aged and competitors in furniture and vegetable production mechanised. By 1950 few Chinese remained in these occupations.
Wholesalers and stallholders traded beyond 1950. So did practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (herbalists), who consulted in the city and inner suburbs. Their numbers peaked in 1925 when they successfully appealed for public support against a Victorian bill which proposed to prevent them working. At least one family practice survived until immigrants of the 1980s reinvigorated this medical tradition. By the 1930s, bohemians patronised Chinese restaurants like the Pekin Café in Bourke Street, spearheading an interest in Chinese food which provided new business opportunities after 1950.
District societies (the See Yup, Kong Chew, Nam Poon Shoong, and Ling Ying), all with headquarters in Little Bourke Street, had large memberships. Offering welfare services and fellowship, they reinforced traditional values and links with home. Christianity and nationalism connected Chinese to the wider metropolitan society and to compatriots throughout China. In 1901, 28.5% of Chinese were Christians, mostly Protestants. Between 1872 and 1902 Chinese Methodists, Presbyterians and Anglicans erected churches in Little Bourke Street (at 196, 108-110, 119-125 respectively) and, during 1904-07, Protestant clergy worked to persuade the Legislative Council to reject discriminatory legislation. Racist measures of 1901-10, which targeted immigrants and their Australian children, convinced the community that only a strong, modern China could provide protection. The Chinese Nationalist Party Building (1921) at 107-109 Little Bourke Street represented the period 1901-22 when Melbourne was the birthplace of Chinese nationalism and republicanism in Australia and new organisations emerged to challenge restrictions and support China's republican governments.
Some Chinese always lived in the suburbs but most resided within the City of Melbourne. The concentrated settlement around Little Bourke Street east of Swanston Street was the community's commercial, manufacturing and organisational heart. Its residents found employment in food and furniture manufacture, restaurants, warehouses and shops. Society clubrooms offered companionship. Stores served specific clan and regional groups both as trading centres and meeting places. Gambling and opium rooms provided recreation and ephemeral pleasure to male immigrants. It was a refuge in an often unfriendly environment which sometimes turned violent, as in 1902-04, when the See Yup Temple required regular police protection.
From c. 1920, Little Bourke Street's Chinese presence contracted as immigrants went home and, after 1930, fruit merchants moved to Victoria Market. The passing of the sojourning era was just as evident at the See Yup Temple. Extended to accommodate worshippers in 1901, it was declining in the 1930s and by 1948 appeared deserted.
From the 1950s, as Australia's restrictive laws relaxed, sojourners reluctant to return to a communist China chose to settle and bring out their families, while male and female students from Asia expanded the tiny community. By 1966, Melbourne contained nine-tenths of Victoria's Chinese, of whom 80% lived throughout the northern, eastern and southern suburbs, working in professions, wholesaling, retailing, food manufacture and restaurants, which gradually became common in suburbia.
Little Bourke Street became a commercial area with well-patronised restaurants. Designated a tourist and heritage precinct by the Melbourne City Council and State governments (1975-76, 1984), it was redeveloped and named Chinatown. The Museum of Chinese Australian History (1985) and public celebration of festivals such as Chinese New Year gave it a cultural focus.
After 1975, with non-discriminatory immigration and nationality laws, immigrants of diverse Chinese backgrounds arrived. They included refugees, business and professional people and their families, from Timor, Indochina, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and China. In 2001, almost 3% of Melburnians spoke a Chinese tongue at home. They were most numerous in eastern and south-eastern suburbs, but every municipality contained people of varied Chinese descent working in a wide range of occupations, and community organisations were now often suburban based. Non-Chinese patronised concentrations of Chinese businesses in Little Bourke Street, Footscray, Richmond and Springvale. And by 2001, Melburnians of Chinese cultural backgrounds were elected to all levels of government.