The first Chinese market gardens appeared in Northcote in 1887. The Chinese had arrived in Victoria in large numbers during the 1850s gold rushes and many stayed after the rushes ended. German settlers had been operating market gardens in Northcote since at least the early 1860s but in 1887 they sold their holdings to the new Chinese arrivals. The first Chinese market garden was at 126 Separation Street, Northcote. This block was substantially larger than it is today, stretching from Separation Street back to Mitchell Street. The first occupier was Ah Lan, although early maps show W. Tong as the owner.
Three years later a new market garden was established in Oakover Street, near Scotia Street, by Ah Kit. Over the next fifteen years a number of occupiers were listed in the directories, including Ah Wah, Gee La Wah, Yow Yang and Ah Foy. Both the Separation Street and Oakover Street market gardens vanished around 1906/7.
However, the Chinese gardeners had not left the area. Some moved to the Merri Creek whilst others held land on the Darebin Creek just below the Darebin Bridge Hotel. Their relationships with the Council and local residents were not always easy.
In the early 1900s the market gardens on the Merri Creek were inspected by Council and declared unsanitary due to the poor state of the pump they used to draw water from the creek. Furthermore the creek itself was heavily polluted due to runoff from the Preston abattoirs. The Northcote Council was asked to support legislation forcing Chinese market gardens from metropolitan Melbourne. The Council refused.
Market gardens continued to operate through the 1920s and 30s but creeping suburbia and periodic flooding from the Merri and Darebin Creeks presented a number of hurdles to the gardeners. Another factor was age. Local residents of the time describe the gardeners as virtually all elderly Chinese men, mainly left over from the previous century’s gold rushes. Time was thinning their ranks.
Despite this they worked hard and their produce was highly sought after in the Melbourne markets. Each market day the gardeners would collect their produce in wheelbarrows and push it to Victoria Market for sale, returning home late in the day.
In due course the ageing Chinese either passed on or relocated, their gardens taken over by the newer post-war migrants - the Italians. Market gardens continued to exist in the Darebin area well into the 1950s and later. Eventually supermarkets and stricter council regulations ceased their operations.