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Life

Inside Sydney's 'Little Bangkok'

Australia's Thais transform demographics and make headlines amid crisis

Sydney’s officially designated Thai Town is only the second in the world after the one in Los Angeles. (Courtesy of the Thai Town Business and Community Association)

SYDNEY -- Clare Ng, the Sydney-born daughter of a Thai mother and Singaporean father, vividly recalls an otherwise routine bus ride to school 23 years ago. "Suddenly it dawned on me that some people sitting behind me were speaking Thai," she says. "I was 16 and it was the first time I had ever heard my mum's language spoken on the bus or in the street."

How times change. In a country that operated a "whites-only" immigration policy until the mid-20th century, Australia's largest city now not only boasts an officially designated and signposted "Thai Town" (the world's second after Los Angeles), but there are now more Thai-born people living in Sydney's central business district than any other grouping by country of origin -- including native-born Australians, census statistics show.

Grocery store shelves, such as those of the Ng family's Mae Cheng shop, in central Sydney, creak under the weight of Thai produce, both imported and Australian-grown. And a city that in 1976 had just one Thai restaurant, now boasts 1,000, according to the Sydney-based Thai Restaurant Association. Perhaps the most famous is the Chat Thai chain, founded by Bangkok-born Amy Chanta, who arrived in Sydney in 1987 as a single mother with 200 Australian dollars in savings and now runs 10 restaurants across the city with her daughter Palisa Anderson -- including two in Thai Town.

Apart from Chat Thai's distinctive yellow logos, its restaurants are recognizable by their queues for tables. "Some regulars eat with us six days a week," says Anderson, 38, who also runs Boon Cafe, another Thai Town eatery, Jarern Chai, a bustling grocery store, and a 43-hectare organic farm that supplies the group's restaurants. "You see people eating breakfast at Boon at 8 a.m., then coming to Chat Thai for lunch," she says.

Between mealtimes, customers also flock to Thai Town. "When I arrived in Australia 28 years ago, there was still nothing around here," says Pacharin Jantrakool, 57, an acclaimed Thai chef who owns the restaurant Chon Thai in the suburb of Balmain. "Now, it's just like Bangkok," Pacharin said as she shopped for organic eggplants at Jarern Chai.

Chat Thai founder Amy Chanta, left, at work with daughter Palisa Anderson, arrived in Sydney with 200 Australian dollars. (Courtesy of Chat Thai)

Neil Perry, founder of the Rockpool group of restaurants and for 23 years the man in charge of menus for Qantas, is a regular shopper there. So too is David Thompson, an Australian-born Michelin-starred chef, cookery author and self-taught Thai food expert.

The Chat Thai branch in Thai Town.  (Courtesy of Chat Thai)

Perry says he patronizes all three of the most famous Thai Town groceries, Jarern Chai, Pontip and Mae Cheng, with a preference for Jarern Chai because he knows much of the produce that is not imported from Thailand is grown on the owners' farm in the lush hinterland behind the hip resort of Byron Bay. "The rice is really fresh and they grow the best organic produce," Perry told the Nikkei Asian Review. "I love the water spinach (morning glory, or pak boon in Thai) -- awesome stir-fried. They also sell my favorite fish sauce brand, Megachef."

Across Australia the Thai community is not particularly large, even among other Asian immigrant groups. Thais account for 100,000 people in a population of 25.5 million -- less than 0.4%. But in the Sydney CBD -- the country's most important commercial hub -- all that changes. At the last census in 2016, 24,605 Sydneysiders lived between Circular Quay and Central Station in the suburbs of Sydney and Haymarket. Of those, 3,815 were Thai-born, outnumbering the 3,538 native Australians and 3,412 born in mainland China.

Acclaimed chef Pacharin Jantrakool, youngest of 13 children of a Thai farmer, now owns Chon Thai, a restaurant in the fashionable Sydney suburb of Balmain. (Courtesy of Pacharin Jantrakool)

A census due next year is likely to show the Thai cohort even more established if recent trends continue. Since 2006, the number of Thais living in central Sydney has tripled, far exceeding the overall rate of population growth, according to Sydney City Council. Buddhism, the religion practiced by most Thais, now has many more adherents among CBD residents than the main Christian denominations.

Sydney's growing Thai flavor is all the more remarkable given the community's tiny geographical hub. The Thai Town Business and Community Association comprises 55 enterprises ranging from restaurants and massage shops to accountancy practices and immigration specialists -- all squeezed into four blocks in a formerly run-down neighborhood bounded by George, Goulburn, Castlereagh and Campbell streets. Officially recognized with street signs by the city council in 2013, Thai Town sits on the opposite side of George Street, a main thoroughfare, from the much larger and longer-established Chinatown.

Thai Town's magnetism has become an invaluable promotional tool for Sydney's Thai Consulate General, the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the Thailand Board of Investment, the Thai Trade Centre and Thai Airways International, which together form Sydney's "Team Thailand."

Top: Jarern Chai is one of the Thai Town grocery stores where Australian celebrity chef Neil Perry shops for ingredients. (Courtesy of Chat Thai) Bottom: Thai Consul General Chakkrid Krachaiwong, left, and Malaysian-born Sydney City Councilor Robert Kok celebrate Lunar New Year in Thai Town. (Courtesy of the Thai Consulate General)

Australia is big business for Southeast Asia's second-largest economy -- one of the top 10 sources of tourists and investment. Two-way trade between the countries totals around $18 billion, Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade figures show, with the flow sharply in Thailand's favor.

Most in demand in Australia, which has no domestic automobile industry, are Thai-manufactured cars and trucks. Last year, Thailand shipped $5 billion worth of vehicles Down Under, making it the second-biggest supplier after Japan. In 2019, 760,000 Australians visited Thailand, according to the Thai tourism authority, which regularly runs promotions in conjunction with Thai Town businesses. Meanwhile 20,000 Thai students traveled in the other direction to gain qualifications at Australian universities and vocational colleges.

Yet statistics tell only part of the story of the Thai-Australia connection. During two major crises in the past year -- deadly bushfires and COVID-19 -- Thais provided two other services to the broader Australian community: practical assistance and empathy. Chakkrid Krachaiwong, Thailand's consul general in Sydney, says he noticed their contribution during the bushfires when he filled the consulate van with rice and drove off towards the smoke to offer assistance to blaze-ravaged rural communities.

Top: A volunteer collects rice from the Thai consulate to distribute in Newcastle, 160 km north of Sydney, during the COVID-19 lockdown. Bottom: Consul General Chakkrid delivers aid to bushfire victims in Nelligen, 330 km south of Sydney. (Courtesy of the Thai Consulate General)

If Australian bushmen were surprised to see a Thai diplomat -- identifiable by a small Thai flag on the sleeve of his casual shirt -- Chakkrid was equally surprised to discover that locally based Thais in small country towns were already at the center of the action supplying food to homeless families and rescue workers alike.

In Lismore, a town of 28,000 some 700 km north of Sydney, Meaw Nuananong, a mother of two who owns the Unique Thai Cafe, joined with friends to cook and distribute 500 Thai meals for emergency workers. At Bundanoon, 200 km south of Sydney, Thai Buddhist monks from the Sunnataram Forest Monastery made headlines by giving free massages to weary firefighters who had defended their temple from the flames.

But it was the Thai response to the COVID-19 crisis in Sydney that went viral. Sydney hosts 178,000 international students, many of whom support themselves by working part-time in jobs that disappeared during the lockdown. Thai restaurants in Thai Town and other neighborhoods close to universities and colleges responded by handing out free lunch boxes to students of all nationalities, even as their own income was reduced by social distancing trading restrictions.

Top: Thai monks from the Sunnataram Forest Monastery, south of Sydney, gave free massages to weary firefighters during the bushfire emergency. (Courtesy of the Thai Consulate General) Bottom: A TV interview with restaurateur Jack Pornladawong, center, explaining why he gave away free food during the lockdown was viewed 2.8 million times on social media. (Courtesy of Jack Pornladawong)

Alerted by long lines of hungry students queuing outside Thai restaurants and groceries, producers of the Australian Broadcasting Corp.'s current affairs program Q+A interviewed Anuwat "Jack" Pornladawong, 47, owner of an eatery named Jumbo Thai, who spoke passionately about his reasons for organizing free food distribution -- which he later extended to front-line workers at two local hospitals. Video of Anuwat's appearance has been viewed more than 2.8 million times on social media, inspiring emotional tweets of gratitude from Australians of all ethnic backgrounds.

The Thai contribution has not escaped the notice of Sydney's longtime lord mayor, Clover Moore. "It's been wonderful to see that community support," Moore says.

For Chakkrid, it is a sign that the role of the Thai-Australian community has changed. "They no longer just do things for each other," the consul general says. "They have moved to the heart of Australian society."

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