It’s no secret that tertiary education is big business in Melbourne. The city is home to the University of Melbourne, RMIT, and Monash and La Trobe universities, which all rank within the top 25 universities in Australia, and with the University of Melbourne’s top 60 world ranking, the city’s become a particularly attractive destination for international students. The latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that 398,563 international students were enrolled in higher education throughout Australia from 2017 to 2018 — a huge jump from the 200,000 enrolled just 10 years earlier — adding $32.4 billion Australian dollars (or $22.1 billion USD) to the economy.
Due to the relatively low tuition fees (the average yearly cost for an undergraduate degree for an international student is 30,000 Australian dollars [$20,000]) and proximity to China, Chinese students in particular have flocked to Melbourne. According to the Victorian Auditor-General, 2017 University Annual Reports, and the Department of Education’s international student data webpage, 28 percent of international students in Australia come from China. And they’re bringing with them an appetite for their regional cuisines.
Take a look around top-ranking universities and you’ll see a vast number of regional Chinese restaurants next to the popular Korean fried chicken spot Pelicana and Japanese Shujinko Ramen. A scan across Elizabeth and Swanston streets, near RMIT, Melbourne University, and numerous developments housing Chinese students, will uncover Dragon Hot Pot (Chengdu-style hot pot priced by weight), Secret Kitchen (yum cha, commonly known as dim sum in the U.S.), Rose Garden BBQ (Hong Kong barbecue and cha chaan teng dishes), Shanghai Street Dumpling (xiao long bao), and Hot Star (Taiwanese fried chicken), not to mention — deep breath — New Shanghai, Mr. Meng, Pick-A-Stick, Gong Cha, Lanzhou Beef Noodle Bar, David’s Hotpot, Nene Chicken, Dainty Sichuan Noodle Express, Tina’s Noodle Kitchen, Little Sichuan, China Bar, Pepper Lunch, and Din Tai Fung. Each one of these restaurants offers its specialty, and easily edges out the mostly Cantonese carbon copies established back in the ’80s in Chinatown.
Just 20 years ago, Cantonese cuisine dominated Australia’s understanding of Chinese food: Immigration from the Gold Rush brought people from Canton, as did migration patterns surrounding the impending handover of Hong Kong back to China in 1997. Today’s affordable eateries may specialize in food from different regions, ranging from Taiwanese to Sichuan, Shaanxi to Shanghainese.
Before the recent wave of Chinese students, the most exciting non-Cantonese offering came from Dainty Sichuan, cofounded in 2003 by Tina Li, who is also the head chef. Dainty is one of the most-recognized restaurant groups in Australia after appearing on No Reservations in 2009, where Anthony Bourdain claimed it served the best Sichuan meal he’d had in his life outside of China. The group now has 10 restaurant concepts in its portfolio and 21 branches located within Melbourne’s Central Business District, Glen Waverley, and Box Hill.
But while Li’s original aim was to bring traditional Sichuan food to Australian customers, according to Blair He, of Dainty Sichuan Group’s marketing team, it turned out that “Dainty Sichuan’s customer base is made up of 60 percent students, and 70 percent of our overall customers are Asian.” So it adapted.
Dainty Sichuan proper is located in South Yarra and offers a full menu, including hot pot, but Li soon realized that homesick international students were overordering and taking their leftovers away. To appeal to the solo diner, she opened up noodle bar and rice bar concepts starting in 2014. “We could see that international students were interested in our group, so our other restaurants have been designed to offer them comfort when they’re craving food from home or are generally homesick,” He says.
True to that mission, a meal is under 15 Australian dollars ($10) at Tina’s Noodle Kitchen, where Sichuan-style rice-stick noodles arrive with an array of toppings and broths cooked in a clay pot; Pick-A-Stick, where grilled proteins on a stick are tossed in a fiery chile sauce; Dainty Noodle Express, which features Chongqing-style noodles; Little Sichuan, a hot pot spot; Noodle Villa, a lamb and beef rice noodle shop; Easy Pot, which serves Sichuan rice bowls in hot pots; and the temporarily closed Lucky Skewers, another Sichuan hot pot restaurant, with menu items priced by the stick.
Lu Gan, the owner of Lanzhou Beef Noodle Bar, was inspired to start her business by her own time as an international commerce, marketing, and management student at the University of Melbourne. “I was in my last year of uni and I realized that school was kind of boring and it was about to finish,” she says. “It was like, oh my god, why don’t I use my free time to open a small business? I was a student at the time who was frustrated that there were no good noodles around campus. I saw that as an opportunity.”
The first Lanzhou Beef Noodle Bars were established next to Monash University, the University of Melbourne, and RMIT: It was the space that Gan understood as a student, where she knew the product was in demand. Marketing was exclusively done on the WeChat messaging app, because her shops were small and she didn’t think she needed to target an audience outside university students. Opening the shop was not as easy as Gan expected. “Originally, I wanted to hire locally,” she says. “We went to a lot of tafes [technical education schools] and other training schools, but no one qualified for noodle-pulling. So we sponsored our most-qualified chefs from China, who have been noodle specialists for at least 10 years.”
Gan sponsored two chefs in those early days, and they have gone on to train all the head chefs of her six stores today — an expansion fueled by demand. “I saw that new migrants and second-generation Chinese actually like our food,” she says. “It wasn’t until we expanded to locations closer to the city that we realized white Australians really enjoyed it, too.” That realization led Gan to expand to areas like Chadstone Shopping Centre and South Yarra, to much success.
Kevin Chi also found early success targeting his restaurants specifically to students. When China Bar first opened on Chinatown’s Russell Street in 1996, the Malaysian-Chinese Chi had a mission to share Chinese food with a touch of Malaysian influence — Hokkien mee sits comfortably on the menu next to Hainanese chicken rice and har gow — and the response was overwhelming. The popularity of China Bar has grown the group to 17 locations across Australia, which offered it the ability to recruit and sponsor international, award-winning chefs to open up restaurants dedicated to Peking duck, wontons, and yum cha.
Chi’s decision to expand into areas like Box Hill and Doncaster was driven by the sheer number of Asian immigrants living there. Today, Wonton House and Secret Kitchen, a yum cha specialist, are the most sought-after tables.
For the China Bar Group, international students’ preference for casual dining doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to drop serious cash on food that reminds them of home. On one occasion, a celebrity chef was flown in from Hong Kong and bookings were sold in tables of 10, priced at $1,699 Australian dollars ($1,159) each. China Bar Group marketed this top-tier dinner through several Asian media platforms, including WeChat. The event sold out. “WeChat helped strengthen our brand,” says China Bar marketing and communications manager Karen Lee. “It was the sole reason why they were able to commit to hosting such a lavish experience in the first place.”
Dainty Sichuan, meanwhile, also saw the potential in convivial group dining, like at its hot pot, grill, and seafood stores, Dainty Fish and Grill Co, Rising Embers, and Dainty Hot Pot, where the Dainty Sichuan experience comes at a more accessible price.
It’s not just food groups cashing in on the international student dollar: Chinese property developers like ICD and Golden Age are, too. In a bid to keep students in its building — and spending from its selected vendors — ICD launched a pilot dining hall, HWKR (Hawker), inside a residential development in the Central Business District, EQ Tower, which houses hundreds of international and local Asian students. (The hall temporarily closed last month for retooling; its list of vendors rotates every three months.)
Golden Age has set its sights on a larger food platform: Box Hill, where 35.4 percent of the suburb’s population identify as Chinese and 38.1 percent report speaking Mandarin or Cantonese at home, according to the 2016 census. Currently, the developer is erecting three apartment towers in the established Chinese suburb and has announced plans to build a new $450 million Chinatown. The difference between this and the original Little Bourke Street neighborhood is that Golden Age will retain ownership of all of the buildings and lease out each store to its chosen vendor, with a basement hawker hall, Chinese medicine practices, and a bookshop and language school slated as part of the development. Yunnan and Shaanxi restaurants are already taking over the once Cantonese-heavy Station Street strip, with more changes to come by 2022 when the development is complete.
So what does the future of Melbourne’s dining look like? Thanks to the palates and spending power of international students, it is looking more delicious, dynamic, and Chinese by the day. And the international imprint on Melbourne could be going even further. “We want to expand interstate, sure, but also internationally,” says Gan. “We notice that we live in a global world. We, as people, are everywhere all the time. And we eat everywhere. If this concept is a success here, we can be a success anywhere. That’s what we are aiming for.”
Jess Ho is a food and drinks writer and personality from Melbourne, Australia. She has been in the hospitality industry for more than 15 years and has done everything from PR to bartending. She currently works as Time Out Melbourne’s food and drinks editor.
Jacinta Moore is a photographer and stylist based in Melbourne.
Fact checked by Lisa Wong Macabasco
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter