Name Calling: Celestial Ave

Arrival of Chinese immigrants to Little Bourke Street

Following the dragon up Little Bourke Street from Swanston Street we come to Celestial Avenue, which runs off Little Bourke Street on the left. The word ‘celestial’ is believed to have derived from the Chinese name for China — ‘Heavenly Dynasty’ — but later in the 19th century came to have derogatory connotations. In 1857, two years before this laneway was even named, the first Chinese lodging houses were here in this small street — probably named after its newly arrived residents. Unlike the other small streets and laneways off Little Bourke Street, this street was rather grandly named an ‘avenue’.

It was also around this time that Melbourne newspapers started referring to this part of the Little Bourke Street area as Melbourne’s ‘Chinese Quarter’. The term ‘Chinatown’, does not appear to have been applied to the area until around the 1880s and was then used when making comparisons between the area and the much larger Chinatowns in San Francisco and Manhattan.

On the other hand, Chinese Australians in Melbourne have long called the area Tong Yun Gai (in Cantonese) which translates to ‘Street of the people of the Tang Dynasty’. This is because most of Melbourne’s Chinese immigration prior to World War II came from southern China and many southern Chinese refer to themselves as ‘people of the Tang Dynasty’, after the large migration of northern Han Chinese to the southern China during the Tang dynasty (618–907). The Tang dynasty is also considered one of the highs in China’s economic, political, military and cultural history.

The original plan for Melbourne did not include any lanes or ‘Little’ streets such as ‘Little Bourke Street’ within its familiar grid plan. These ‘Little’ Streets were added by Sir Richard Bourke in 1837, to service the larger streets, in other words, as rather large lanes. As the original government allotments in the grid were purchased and subdivided, however, substantial buildings were constructed on the ‘Little’ streets, and numerous small lanes emerged to service the buildings on the ‘Little’ streets. By 1895 there were 158 lanes, most of which ran off the ‘Little’ streets. Most of these lanes disappeared as the 20th century progressed when larger buildings were constructed and small laneways were built in.

Customers queueing at the Supper Inn, Celestial Avenue

Many, however, have survived. To explore Melbourne’s Chinatown is to venture down its many laneways and investigate the layers of buildings, warehouses and developments that have shaped them over time. Many of the names of the streets contain stories. Brown’s Lane was renamed Cohen Place when the Cohen brothers, who built the warehouse the Chinese Museum occupies, suggested the lane needed a new name as it was now much more substantial than just a lane.

A group of Chinese and non-Chinese landowners and residents in 1909 were unsuccessful, however, in persuading the Council to rename Heffernan Lane. They wished to call it Reid’s Place after a Mr Reid who had ‘bought and erected a factory on the land where the last brothels in the street were’. The Council disagreed as they did not want to dishonour the memory of Rody Heffernan, an early settler to Victoria, after whom the lane was named.

This text is from Stories from the Heart of Melbourne, a book commissioned by the City of Melbourne and written by authors Dr Arnold Zable and Dr Sophie Couchman. The stories are based on research, and information provided by interviewees. The book is available for borrowing from City of Melbourne libraries