Eastwood: Then and Now

The Sydney suburb of Eastwood is a microcosm of multicultural change in Australia, but how did our nation evolve to this point? 

The Sydney suburb of Eastwood is home to a thriving Asian community made up largely of Chinese, Korean, Indian, and Sri Lankan immigrants, expats, and descendants, today more than half of Eastwood’s population was born overseas.

Yet this wasn’t always the case, looking at Eastwood’s rich multicultural community, nowadays it’s astonishing to think that just twenty years ago, the same old streets that hold Chinese restaurants, Asian supermarkets, fruit markets, and more once stood numerous hardware shops, building supplies and material warehouses.


Eastwood in 2013

This was Eastwood in the 1970s-80s, and North Western Sydney was seen as predominantly a hard blue-collar working class area populated by a very traditional white Anglo-Celtic monoculture.

The area had stayed that way due to the notorious White Australia Policy of 1901 that effectively restricted all “non-white” immigration to Australia, in favour of white British migrants instead.

The ethnic demographics of Eastwood, and likewise Sydney, did not radically change as a whole under this policy until the Second World War.

So how did Sydney, a city of white Anglo-Celtics change to the rich multicultural city it is today?

“Migration patterns, essentially,” says Dr Tanveer Ahmed, a member of the Australian Multicultural Council and resident of Sydney’s northwest.

“The Government made a choice that they wanted a wider variety of migrants, that they wanted skilled migrants because that’s what the post-war economy needed. And that essentially led to the influx of migrants.”

After the Second World War, Australian Government policy slowly began to shift in support of immigration due to the numerous wartime alliances and sympathy for the war refugees.

As seen immediately after the war was over, Prime Minister Ben Chifley established the Federal Department of Immigration and relaxed many of the strict regulations of the White Australia Policy allowing for a large-scale immigration programme to take place, popularly known at the time as “populate or perish”.

Post war immigrants and refugees from Eastern and Southern Europe were allowed entry under these new amendments.

Decades passed and these changes were extended to allow for Asian and non-European immigration.

The Colombo Plan in 1950 allowed Asian students to study in Australian universities and the Revised Migration Act of 1958 abolished the old dictation test and allowed for a simpler immigration system to be introduced.

However, the greatest influx of Asian migration to Australia commenced immediately after the abolishment of the White Australia Policy in 1973.

Many Asian students decided to stay, gain permanent residency, and eventual citizenship.

These changes in Government policy also had a flow-on effect on the Australian psyche.

Through political change came social change as Dr Ahmed explains, “There’s a policy element to Multiculturalism, it’s how we treat people from different backgrounds. It’s about how we should encourage people to celebrate their diversity, and we may even fund part of that.”

People in Australian society were becoming more accepting of other races all due to the fact that the Australian Government adopted multiculturalism as a political ideology.

The ethnic demographics of Eastwood, much like the rest of Sydney, gradually changed after The Second World War.

During the 1960s, Sydney began to demographically change with the influx of Southern European, Italian, and Greek post-war immigrants.

From the late 1980’s to the late 1990’s, Eastwood underwent rapid ethic demographic change, this time brought on by Asian migration from China, Hong Kong, and South Korea.

Major world events such as the Vietnam War, Transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong, The Tiananmen Square massacre, and the 1997 Asian financial crisis, all triggered mass emigration from Asia to Australia during this time period.

In Hong Kong alone, mass emigration was fuelled by speculation of a communist takeover of Hong Kong after the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong to China during the 1980s.

An estimated 21,000 residents emigrated permanently every year from 1980 to 1986, this numbered peaked in 1990 with the number estimated at 62,000 or about 1% of the overall population.

The Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 also triggered another wave of Chinese migrants, sparking mass migration out of China and further fuelling migration out of Hong Kong.

In reaction to the atrocity, Prime Minister Bob Hawke granted all 20,000 Chinese students then residing in Australia permanent residency in an emotional speech.

In the late-1990’s, economic migrants from the four Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan) flocked in their thousands to Australia after the Asian financial crisis, as the country had largely been unaffected.

Lap Ban Chan, a 67-year-old Indonesian who immigrated to Australia from Hong Kong and lived in Eastwood from 1986 to 2001, says the reasons behind her choice were largely to seek a better life out of the city for retirement, “Eastwood was just the right neighbourhood, and price was reasonable for us”.

Ms Chan states Eastwood’s housing prices were relatively cheap for the working-middle class area and that proved to be desirable for many migrants.

During this time, Eastwood experienced ‘white flight’ with the departure of numerous aged residents who moved out of the area into retirement villages, the Central Coast, or to other suburbs.

This saturated the local housing market with an abundance of affordable medium sized houses, perfect for incoming immigrant families.

“A big pattern in that area was older white families and couples selling up and moving to the Central Coast, and new Asian families moving in. They were often people who had been in Australia for longer and had a bit more money, and they had moved up from Western Sydney to Eastwood, often with a view that their kids might go to school there,” recalls Dr Ahmed.

During this period, older houses were demolished in favour of building apartment blocks and granny flats.

A number of Eastwood’s north western streets adjacent to the train line are lined by large apartment blocks.

Another sign of the times is the current redevelopment of the old Eastwood Brickworks site which once provided many jobs for the area until its operations stopped in 2003 and became a housing estate.

“Where migrants choose to live is often down to economics, where they can afford to live. Another reason is often their relatives or communities that already exist there,” says Dr Ahmed.

Ethnic clustering is a social phenomenon that commonly occurs amongst migrant populations around the world.

Migrants may do this to maintain ties with the mother country and to keep their sense of cultural identity.

“It’s partly a historical accident, you get a core mass because their relatives live there or they choose to live there because of their ethnicity,” he says.

Sharing the same language and cultural interaction in religion, sport and music, migrants feel more secure and understood within a foreign country.

It also allows them to communicate comfortably, making the integration and transition into a new country easier if English was not their first language.

This is especially true in the case of Eastwood, where religion has help ethnic groups grow.

Christianity accounts for almost 60% of Eastwood residents many of them Korean born, as Christianity is South Korea’s largest religion which accounting for almost half of all South Korean religious adherents.

As such many Korean born residents have been able to maintain their cultural ties through Korean language based church services.

The Eastwood Baptist Church and Eastwood Zion Korean Church in particular, provides its services in both Korean and English.

Living in a community with people from their own culture and society makes migrants feel more secure and understood within the foreign country.

An environment develops over time where they can communicate and acculturate with the new society that they find themselves in, from this the migrant multiplier effect transpires.

Having friends and family to help a person assimilate and acculturate is an important factor when choosing a migration destination.

Eastwood isn’t the only suburb that has undergone ethnic demographic change through ethnic clustering.

Many suburbs in Sydney and around Australia, have been shaped by ethnic groups to create communities with a strong ethnic identity.

Assyrians have done the same with City of Fairfield, Croatians with Fairfield, Burwood, and Hurstville, Irish with Bondi, Jews with Rose Bay and St Ives, and Italians with Leichhardt.

Sydney’s Chinatown and Haymarket established out of ethnic clustering of the Chinese in the 19th Century.

Chinese merchants and their families were pressured to move into the slum area as there was nowhere left to go.

This area was transformed over the decades and is now today a vibrant landmark of Sydney’s multicultural society, renowned for its Chinese cuisine.

Underpinning all these changes in the Eastwood community is the overall lifestyle change that Australians have experienced over the decades.

Australia is not the same country as it was forty years ago.

Social and cultural values have changed, as modernisation, westernisation, and industrialisation have shaped the country.

Families of this era no longer follow the nuclear family template, women are marrying later in life, and the majority of Australian society has decentralised the close nature of a community.

However despite these changes, some traditional aspects of Eastwood have continued.

While Eastwood’s Asian community is undoubtedly predominate in the community, there still remaining the other 27 per cent of Eastwood residents who come from an Australian and British background who live in Eastwood’s larger residential area.

Ethnic communities like Eastwood help promote multiculturalism in forming a new national identity for 21st century Australia.