Paddy’s market is a Sydney institution - don’t let them ruin it

<span>Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

When I read that Doltone House was going to lease a quarter of the original Paddy’s Markets in Sydney’s CBD, I was shocked. For those unfamiliar with the harbour city’s high-end conference venue and low-end souvenir-peddling scenes, let me explain – Doltone House setting up in Paddy’s is a bit like a high tea venue slinging scones in the corner of Aldi. And while I’m a fan of both cucumber sandwiches and discount retail, I can’t figure out how this can happen without ruining something intangibly great about my favourite part of Sydney.

This is a hyper-local story about a particular block in Sydney’s Chinatown but it’s also about cities everywhere, and how we need to protect the historic parts that we love.

Paddy’s Markets offers a proper wet market that’s noisy, occasionally smelly (well, there’s a seafood section) and truly vibrant, a quality so often advertised by real estate agents but so rarely found in reality. The floor’s well-used cement, the stalls are extremely ad-hoc and, on a hot day, the only respite is a few giant overhead fans.

It’s still located in a heritage building a stone’s throw from where the market first began in 1842. My father-in-law goes there weekly when visiting from India, and feels nobody should pay more for worse fruit and veg at a supermarket. But suffice to say it’s not the kind of place you would gather stakeholders to generate buzz for your new financial services offering.

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By contrast, Doltone House operates impeccably-renovated venues in heritage spaces. If you want to hold a corporate shindig at a finger wharf with a rich industrial history that has been thoroughly extinguished – guaranteeing that your guests won’t have to endure the noise or diesel fumes of actual maritime industry – call Doltone.

But Paddy’s is the real thing, not a creative reuse that has seen old infrastructure cleverly repurposed so the operators can charge top dollar for a chic wedding venue. In other words, I fear they’re going to ruin it.

Jin Wu Koon dance troupe performs a roving lion dance at Paddy’s Markets during Lunar New Year celebrations, 21 January, 2023.
Jin Wu Koon dance troupe performs a roving lion dance at Paddy’s Markets during Lunar New Year celebrations, 21 January, 2023. Photograph: Steven Saphore/AAP

Let’s be honest – much of Paddy’s Markets is genuinely tacky. There’s cheap luggage, clothing, every conceivable item festooned with flashing LED lights, and just about anything that can be cheaply imported and flogged to preschoolers and tourists. It’s like a $2 shop on steroids.

So when I read about the aim of transforming Paddy’s into an upscale food market like Queen Victoria market in Melbourne, sure, it sounded attractive. But then I got thinking – what’s wrong with a market being a bit tatty? Proper markets, like Bangkok’s wonderful Chatuchak, always are.

If they need to fill more space, why not install tables, and rent to small stallholders for a high-quality, late-opening hawker market like Singapore’s must-visit Lau Pa Sat? That’s nothing like the corporate-friendly prettification that’s Doltone’s signature.

Chinatown is the best part of Sydney’s CBD and was, for decades, arguably the only good part, unless you were a fan of generic office towers or food courts offering dreary sushi. Until recently, it was the only place you could reliably get a meal after 9pm.

People shop for fruit and vegetable produce at Paddy’s Markets.
People shop for fruit and vegetable produce at Paddy’s Markets. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

In recent years, things elsewhere have improved, while Covid hit Chinatown hard. We’ve lost beloved restaurants like Golden Century, where I ate for at least 10 birthdays over the years (and have weird photos embedded in keyrings to prove it), BBQ King, Marigold and now Zilver. New ideas are needed.

While it’s not clear quite what Doltone plans to do with the space, unless it’s vastly different from all their other operations this feels like the first step towards making Chinatown blander and tamer. The neighbourhood is still full of low-rise heritage buildings and much-loved businesses that have operated for decades, with the kind of character that can’t be created by town planners or tasteful renovation. Doltone’s chic aesthetic would make Chinatown feel less like Chinatown.

By contrast, creating enjoyable public spaces and offering great deals to the right small tenants will bring back the crowds – something that Lend Lease has done surprisingly well in its Darling Square development a block away. I bet the operators of high-quality local venues like Ho Jiak and Nakano Darling would love the chance to set up a food stall in the iconic Paddy’s. A combination of gourmet hawker centre, quality produce market and some Tramsheds-style eateries would be a compelling drawcard for the thousands of apartment dwellers, office workers and international students who live nearby – and returning tourists.

Crucially, the tacky bits must stay. Without them, it wouldn’t be Paddy’s, and young children and visitors would enjoy visiting an awful lot less.

Other cities wouldn’t dream of making major changes to institutions like Paddy’s Markets – and once they’re gone, there’s no way to bring them back. Let’s hope the operators realise what they’ve got, because unlike the souvenirs on sale, the cultural icon that is Paddy’s is of very great value indeed.