Golden Century: A delicious, sad ode to a Chinatown icon
Words by Christopher Kevin Au
Last week, a grey cloud sifted over Sydney’s Chinatown as news arrived that its most iconic restaurant, Golden Century shut its doors. The word spread like wildfire through social media; some called it the end of an era, while others said that Sussex Street would never be the same. Media outlets stressed that while Golden Century did go into administration, it could still be resurrected. But in what form, and in what capacity? The sadness hit our hearts and our stomachs in equal measure, because for Sydneysiders, the closure of Golden Century represents much more than just a restaurant. It’s indicative of Sydney’s rapid erosion into a smear of grey apartment blocks, ‘For Lease’ signs, bin chickens and high-rises that stand like eyesores on the horizon.
Hong Kong immigrants Eric and Linda Wong opened Golden Century in 1989, moving to its longstanding location at 393 Sussex Street soon after in 1990. That was the same year that I was born, which is why I have fond memories of the restaurant etched into my brain since I was a small Asian baby with a bowl cut. For me, Golden Century became synonymous with celebration; a place where my family would dine on birthdays, anniversaries and Lunar New Year, where we’d be given red packets by relatives, both close and distant. For anyone who’s been to Golden Century, their taste buds will testify that the food was top notch, with my childhood favourite being the hot & sour soup and of course, their trademark XO pippies sprawled on a bed of crunchy vermicelli.
Golden Century’s extensive opening hours meant that on weekends, it became a smorgasbord of Sydney personalities and late-night lurkers. On any Saturday evening it was common to see local rappers, hospitality workers, heavy cunts carrying Louis Vuitton bum-bags, Mahjong enthusiasts, women in glitzy bandage dresses, Chinese regulars, DJs and clubbers at Golden Century, all eating in noisy harmony. It was one of the few places where I could bump into my extended family on one table, and Fortay At Large on another. The buzz was unique and unmistakable. Hell, even Rihanna and bloody Rod Stewart ate here. This restaurant became a cult classic that permeated pop culture, drawing an army of eclectic customers united by their hunger for Cantonese cuisine. In many ways, Golden Century was the ultimate immigrant success story.
In my adult years, my friendship circle spent many weekends at the karaoke bars on Dixon Street, where we’d belt out ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams before taking the short stroll over to Golden Century. We’d order a kilogram of XO pippies or some sort of crustacean from the tanks that stretched along the front wall. Then, I’d use my elementary grasp of the Cantonese language to order a plate of fried rice for my white friend, and beers for everyone on the table. If we were hungry at 1:30am and didn’t feel like being verbally harassed by someone at Maccas while queuing for a Fillet-O-Fish, Golden Century was the go-to. And let me tell you, nothing slapped quite like an early morning Tsing Tao under the warm lights of GC.
There were special occasions too. When we toured with Indonesia-gone-global rapper Rich Brian in 2019, he was celebrating his 20th birthday. We took him to dinner at Golden Century for his first taste of roast pigeon and cold jellyfish, while the waitresses asked him to autograph the restaurant napkins. And when homegrown king Nerve signed his first record deal, we brought the young lad from suburban Brisbane to Sydney’s Chinatown for a rite of passage: Ordering his first lobster from Golden Century, braised with ginger and shallots. The restaurant felt festive, in every sense of the word.
Other Golden Century memories are small, but significant: The oversized hardcover menus. The crab statue that scared the living shit out of kids as you went up the escalators. The photographer lady who’d take a picture of your table and print it on a keyring. How you felt like a fucking rockstar when the waiter led you into a private room. The mesmerising swirl of the lazy susan and its accompanying merry-go-round of aromas. And last but not least, the plate of sliced oranges and fortune cookies that’d be served at the end of your meal.
We’d all take turns reading out our fortunes on those small strips of paper, and they promised pure happiness for many of us. And at that exact moment, sitting at that exact table, the fortune cookies were right. We were happy. After all, those delicious cookies could never lie to us. But when we snap back to reality from cookie-induced ecstasy, the closure of Golden Century represents an immense loss for Sydney. It continues the depressingly predictable pattern of a city crippled by years of lockout laws and now, months of lockdown measures. We’ve seen a seemingly never-ending string of businesses and cultural hubs close down: Golden Century, GoodGod Small Club, The World Bar, BBQ King and Spectrum, just to name a few.
There have been hundreds, and Sydney’s trademark vibrancy, excitement and diversity has dissolved along with them. Kings Cross, once Sydney’s most buzzing party district, has been reduced to a soft murmur. That district where global talents like Flume and Alison Wonderland cut their teeth, it’s all gone. Empty spaces are dotted along Oxford Street, while the remainder of the CBD tries to retain what energy is left in a city obsessed with commercial over-development, in the midst of a complicated global pandemic.
I’m 31 years old, so I’m very aware that I sound like an old man yelling at a cloud, yearning for the glory days of Sydney nightlife. Nowadays, a big night for me consists of watching Wrestlemania re-runs while drinking a glass of warm water. But if an 18-year-old wants to go clubbing and listen to obnoxiously loud house music until 2:00am, the option should be there. And if that same 18-year-old wants to extend his night and indulge in some quality Cantonese eats at 2:30am, the option should be there. Options are what makes life fun.
There’s no doubt that Sydney is a shell of its former self, and not a delicious shell like you’d find on a garlic butter snow crab from Golden Century. No, no, no. It’s a fragile shell that may continue to fracture in the coming years, and it’s definitely not smothered in any sort of lavish sauce. The shell of Sydney feels dry, bland and sticks to the roof of your mouth, but I don’t want to be too pessimistic. Chinatown will surge on, because Asian immigrants have worked too damn hard for their cultures to disappear. Lockout laws have been lifted, giving some hope that pulsating dancefloors could come back post-COVID. And let’s pray that Golden Century is able to return in some form, but until then, we’ll steam some barramundi in its honour.
Words by Christopher Kevin Au