It’s not very prepossessing from the street, but the interior of the Toi Shan in Bendigo, Victoria, has many of the features you’ll find in similar establishments all over Australia. There’s the elaborate arched doorway linking the takeaway and sit-down areas, the preponderance of red and gold, the soy sauce bottles on the unclothed tables. What makes this restaurant special is its history. As I write this (in 2024), the Toi Shan is believed to be the oldest Chinese restaurant in Australia.
There is a long Chinese history in Bendigo, dating back to the 1850s gold rush. At one point, up to 25 per cent of the town’s population was Chinese. The city’s Golden Dragon Museum continues to celebrate that heritage and there are still more than a dozen Chinese restaurants.
The Toi Shan hasn’t always gone by that name. The restaurant traces its origins back more than 100 years, some say to 1892 while others say to “early in the 20th century”, and began life as a Chinese cook-shop. Originally known as the On Loong, it was first located in Bendigo’s Bridge Street. In the early years, it was run by George Gong and Peter Louey Mow. Mow eventually became sole proprietor and ran the restaurant until 1948, moving the business to new premises in Mitchell Street in 1942. The restaurant catered to both Chinese and non-Chinese diners.
In 1948, new owners took over. Allan Yee Chan had moved to Australia during World War II, first working in mines and later as a restaurant cook in Melbourne. He bought the Bendigo restaurant, married one of the waitresses and renamed his business the Toi Shan Café after his hometown in China. In the 1940s and ’50s, the restaurant provided one of the few alternatives to pub meals and introduced many to a new way of eating, even if many of the dishes were modified to suit Australian tastes.
Allan later sold the restaurant to his brother Victor and it continued in family hands until 2003. The current owners, Sue Wong and her husband Kok Hem Chee, have introduced some Thai dishes to supplement the dim sims, lemon chicken and Mongolian beef. These days, judging by the very mixed reviews, the Toi Shan might be on shaky ground. We can only hope that its claim to fame as Australia’s oldest Chinese restaurant will be enough to keep the punters coming well into the future.