Rattray St: from nightlife hub to deep decline

Tai Ping owner Henry Chin outside his fire-damaged restaurant yesterday. Photos by Peter McIntosh.
Tai Ping owner Henry Chin outside his fire-damaged restaurant yesterday. Photos by Peter McIntosh.
Lunchtime pedestrians walk around the taped-off building yesterday.
Lunchtime pedestrians walk around the taped-off building yesterday.
Drake Leather Ltd director Bill Drake.
Drake Leather Ltd director Bill Drake.
The Dragon Cafe has been condemned and fenced off for more than two years.
The Dragon Cafe has been condemned and fenced off for more than two years.

It was once the hub of Dunedin nightlife, where the Rolling Stones went to party. Today, lower Rattray St is a crumbling collection of buildings and memories. Nigel Benson visits a street which lost desire.

It was already looking broken and ragged. Now, it looks burned out, too.

Lower Rattray St was an important part of Dunedin's historic precinct for more than a century but, after years of neglect, it is being compared with earthquake-hit Christchurch.

Tai Ping Restaurant owner Henry Chin was still in shock yesterday after his business was extensively damaged by fire on Monday night.

The 9.24pm fire was so fierce it set off smoke alarms in six neighbouring buildings.

''We couldn't do anything. It was a fire in the fat fryer and the flames were just leaping up. We used the fire extinguisher but it had no effect,'' Mr Chin said yesterday.

''My wife is pretty devastated. We've had this building 40-odd years. We bought the shop in about 1970. We had the Hong Kong Cafe upstairs and then we relocated downstairs and called it the Tai Ping,'' Mr Chin (59) said.

''It is sad. I pretty much grew up here. We almost lost everything in the '90s, with some bad investments, and we bounced back from that. And now this.

''We'll see what the insurance company says and whether ... to restore it or bowl it over for car parks. We might even reopen [in an empty building] across the road.''

The Chin family owns three buildings on the northern side of the street. Brothers Sam and Jones Chin operate the Crown Hotel, 50m down the road.

Mr Chin and his wife, Eileen, raised their family next door to the Tai Ping for many years.

The Chins have a long association with Rattray St. Mr Chin's grandfather, Chin Fooi, opened a laundry at 162A Rattray St in the 1950s.

The street was the night centre of Dunedin in the 1960s and 1970s, when nightclub owner Eddie Chin held sway at his Sunset Strip and Tai Pei cabarets.

The Rolling Stones were just one of the international acts to visit the Sunset Strip in the 1960s.

Eddie Chin had always hoped the street would become Dunedin's Chinatown, his son said.

''It used to be very busy here on Friday and Saturday nights. We still have a lot of loyal customers from the old days. A couple came in the other day who said they met at the old Tai Pei,'' Mr Chin said.

''Rattray St's heyday was probably in the '60s and '70s, when the old Exchange was still alive. The last couple of years have been quiet here, because everything's relocated to the Octagon.''

The slower economic environment in the area had made it difficult for owners to maintain the buildings, he said.

Lower Rattray St was a shadow of its former self yesterday. New Zealand Fire Service tape cordoned off numbers 158 to 164 Rattray St and the smell of smoke hung in the air.

Across the road, the N. and E. S. Paterson and Barron's buildings, which housed the Dragon Cafe, have been slowly crumbling behind safety fencing since they were condemned in 2011.

The Scenic Circle Hotel Group, which owns the N. and E. S. Paterson building, plans to demolish it and use the space for car parking, while Barron's building owner Lincoln Darling has indicated he hopes to rebuild on the site.

Longtime Dragon Cafe waitress Lyn Kennedy said the loss of the Tai Ping this week was the death knell for Rattray St.

''It's the end of an era. It is very sad,'' she said yesterday.

Just two small businesses now remain in the centre of the block - the massage parlour the Lucky 7 at 164 Rattray St and Drake Leather Ltd at 170 Rattray St.

''People think we look like we're part of Christchurch. Rattray St just looks awful,'' Drake Leather director Bill Drake said yesterday.

''I can't see what the future is for this street. Out of six businesses that were here six years ago, when we moved in, there's only one left. And that's us,'' he said.

''The buildings here are pretty rotten. A lot of them need maintenance and earthquake-proofing. We've even had infestations of mice and pigeons.''

In 2007, an historic bluestone wall down an alleyway in the street collapsed, after heavy rain.

''When the wall came down, there were diggers here for seven weeks removing stuff. That affected business,'' Mr Drake said.

He also pointed to three car parks in the street, which have been out of use since safety fencing was installed in front of the condemned N. and E. S. Paterson and Barron's buildings more than two years ago.

''That must have cost the DCC $20,000, by my estimation,'' Mr Drake said.

''It's also hurt businesses in the street, because Dunedin people won't come into your shop if they can't park right outside.''

Dunedin City Council heritage policy planner Dr Glen Hazelton said the deterioration of Rattray St was ''sad''.

''It's about people's attitudes. If people choose not to maintain their buildings, we're relatively restricted in what we can do,'' he said yesterday.

''The council is always prepared to help and there are plenty of grants and incentives for people to maintain their buildings, and people like Lawrie Forbes and the MacKnight family have done some great work restoring buildings in the old warehouse precinct,'' he said.

However, the DCC had no policy to proactively inspect the integrity of old buildings and could only act to ensure a building was safe when it was made aware of a danger, such as the deterioration of unreinforced masonry.

''If people choose not to maintain a building to the stage that it's demolition by neglect, then we will act. Typically, in a case like that, we'd get a complaint and have a look at the building and make the owner remove any danger.''


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