18. Glebe Temple, Sydney

Chinese Temple, Glebe, Sydney

In the Sydney suburb of Glebe, where once were market gardens and are now some of the cities most expensive homes, is a small but elaborate Chinese temple on a large and therefore very valuable plot of land. Erected in 1898 with major additions in 1904 by the peoples of the Sze Yap districts (see Back to China) it was one of the last such temples established in Australia after two generations of such structures before the long sterility of the White Australia policy began. 

While the people of the Sze Yap 四邑 (aka, Siyi, aka, See Yup) or the Four Districts were a majority of the Chinese Australian community of Melbourne and Victoria (as they were in San Francisco and California), they were a minority in Sydney. The building of this temple at the turn of the 20th century is a good illustration of the variations between these Pearl River Delta districts which, although often only 50 to 100 kms apart, spoke widely varying dialects and even languages. Thus when the Sze Yap people built their temple they found themselves being criticised by some members of the largely Zhongshan district Chinese elite of Sydney.

While many of the majority Zhongshan district originating Chinese Australians were also market gardeners, others had also established successful businesses, including Chinese language newspapers (see No.86) as they increasingly involved themselves in the politics of China. This was a China that only a few years after the temple opened overthrew its imperial government to establish a republic. The Sze Yap people were criticised therefore for wasting resources on what the modernising elite considered old culture. They by contrast were converting to Christianity and were often keen to convert others. (See No.2)

Richly decorated

Undeterred the expanded Glebe Temple was celebrated in 1904 with among other things performances of Chinese Opera – something not uncommon in the Sydney of that time, though largely forgotten now (see No.16). The Glebe temple is a fairly typical mix of Buddhist and Taoist features while the architecture also is a not unusual mix of Chinese and European styling. This and the Retreat Street, Alexandria temple of the people of the Gao Yao districts were for many years the only surviving such temples in Sydney. Though others preceded them and many more are to be found scattered around Sydney today.

Opening celebrations 1904

See also:

Sze Yup Temple – Heritage of NSW