Layers of history

There is a striking streetscape photograph in the City of Sydney Archives showing the intersection of George and Hay Streets in Haymarket. At the centre is the MOCA building as it was in 1900, when it was home to the southern branch of the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney. It’s a fitting image to share for History Week 2021, which takes the theme ‘From the ground up’ to explore histories of people and place – from local and public, to urban and architectural, to stories from the street.

The photograph evokes the layers of history at this busy Haymarket intersection and its connections to Sydney’s commercial and cultural heritage. In 1873 the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney commissioned the prolific Mansfield Brothers architects to design a three-storey sandstone building at 744 George Street. Over the last 150 years, this building has been used as a bank (1875–1925), commercial and retail premises (1926–1989) and public library (1992–2019). Today the building is surrounded by shops, restaurants, banks and public transport interchanges in the heart of Sydney’s Chinatown.

Intersection of George Street and Hay Street, Haymarket, 1900. Reproduced courtesy City of Sydney Archives.

In the 1900 photograph, JW Johnston & Co sewing machine manufacturers can be seen next door to the Commercial bank, at 746 George Street. The company advertised itself as an importer of the ‘New Home’, selling home sewing machines, accessories and combined mangles and wringers (Sydney Morning Herald, 20 December 1900, p 3). Across the road is the Palace Hotel, first licensed in 1877 and still operating today, while in the background are George Austen seed and plant merchants and Anthony Hordern & Sons.

In 1825 Anthony Hordern and Ann Woodhead emigrated from England and started successful businesses in Sydney. Their descendants founded the Anthony Hordern & Sons department store, which was the largest retail emporium in the southern hemisphere by 1905. Anthony Hordern & Sons was also the inspiration for several overseas department stores established by Chinese Australian merchants in the early 20th century.

Ma Ying Piu (1868–1944) left Zhongshan county in Guangdong province to dig for gold in Australia, but eventually became a market gardener in Sydney. In 1890 he was a founding partner of Wing Sang in Haymarket, a wholesale merchant specialising in the import and export of bananas. Wing Sang had banana plantations in Queensland and Fiji and distributed the fruit to country towns. It also exported Australian products, such as Arnott’s biscuits and IXL jams, to China. In 1900 the firm established the Sincere department store in Hong Kong. This was followed by a Canton branch in 1912 and then the iconic five-storey Sincere store on Shanghai’s Nanjing Road in 1917.

Zhao Weimin, Nanjing Road, Shanghai, after 1937. Wing On (left) and Sincere (right) department stores. Reproduced courtesy Shanghai History Museum.

Brothers Gock Lock (1872–1956) and Gock Chin (1876–1966), also from Zhongshan, started the Wing On greengrocers in Haymarket in 1897. Wing On expanded into a vast commercial empire comprising banks, department stores, hotels, insurance offices and textile mills stretching from Sydney to Hong Kong, Macau and Shanghai. The Gocks opened the Wing On department store in Hong Kong in 1907, which was followed in 1918 by a flagship six-storey store in Shanghai, located opposite Sincere.

Sincere and Wing On were icons of modernity and Art Deco styling in cosmopolitan Shanghai. The stores were modelled on the architecture and business practices of Anthony Hordern & Sons in Sydney, with uniformed staff, glamorous window displays and fixed prices with no bargaining. A fascinating example of how intersecting local histories of global migration helped to transform, from the ground up, the urban and architectural environments of Sydney and Shanghai.

– Kim Tao, Senior Curator