Chinatown welcomes outdoor dining

By Wing Kuang

As COVID-19 restrictions ease, the desire of restaurants in Chinatown to reopen and bring back crowds like the old days is stronger than ever. 

The precinct’s many restaurant owners welcome the City of Melbourne’s outdoor dining plans as a means of reviving Chinatown but remain concerned about the economic and cultural realities of outdoor dining.

Chinatown restaurants may host outdoor dining on Russell St and Bourke St East, two of the four key dining areas identified by the City of Melbourne in October. If Victoria continues the remaining low number of COVID-19 cases, this might come along with the reopening of indoor dining with limited seats in November. 

Jackie Wong, a board member of Crystal Jade Cantonese Restaurant, welcomed the outdoor dining plan and hoped it would attract foot traffic. But she said she was still looking forward to easing the indoor dining restrictions. 

“People will only come [to a restaurant] if indoor dining is allowed. Now no one leaves home [and comes to Chinatown],” she said.
Ms Wong expected it would cost her business around $1000 to set up for outdoor dining. She worried that Cantonese cuisine might not suit outdoor dining, and it might still be difficult for the business to cover its costs with outdoor dining implemented. 

Mr Cheng, an employee of a Cantonese restaurant that wished to remain anonymous, was also concerned Cantonese cuisine wouldn’t fit with such a dining style.  

“We can do Yum Cha outdoors, but it’s weird to do Cantonese fine dining outdoors, in particular with a big group of family,” he said. But still, he supported the plan, “it’s still better than nothing.” 

President of Chinatown Precinct Association (CPA) Danny Doon said outdoor dining was “simply a new thing” for Chinatown, whose restaurants and cuisines mostly catered indoors. “In Chinatown, at the moment, there’s not much outdoor dining.”

But he was optimistic that businesses in Chinatown could cope with the new challenge. 

“Most of them are experienced operators, they have been in businesses for a long, long time,” Mr Doon said.  

Vice president of CPA Eng Lim said the unforeseeable weather in Melbourne could be a challenge for the restaurants, and CPA was working closely with the City of Melbourne regarding the implementation of outdoor dining in Chinatown and nearby areas. 

She also said CPA was organising events in November and December to encourage visitors to come back to Chinatown. This included a post mid-autumn festival event on December 19.

A mini lantern parade, a dragon dance and a lucky draw with a prize of a motor scooter would also be hosted at that time. 

“People can really physically zoom into Chinatown, not a virtual one,” Ms Lim said.

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