Sometimes the travel gods are against you. Worse, sometimes you hit a bad streak, where your whole decision-making process is off, and one bad decision leads to another. I felt that way on a visit last summer to Bendigo, in the heart of Australia’s nineteenth-century goldmining region.
On my first evening I had dinner with some excellent new friends. We struggled over where to eat—imagine four Hamlets trying to make a decision—and finally went with Bendigo’s 40-year-old Mexican restaurant. Immediately it felt like the wrong decision. Why? Was it paying $23 for a burrito? Was it the burrito’s mashed potato filling? Or the glow-in-the-dark pink slushie I purchased on a whim? (see how bad decisions lead to bad decisions). Actually no, none of the above. It was because I had forgotten it was Chinese New Year. I wasn’t celebrating Chinese New Year in a Mexican restaurant.
It was worse, since my main reason for visiting Bendigo was to learn about Chinese migrants who came here in the 1850s to sluice for gold. Think how picturesque it would have been to describe the dancing lions that were (unbeknownst to us) entertaining restaurant-goers just down the street.
Little missteps kept occurring throughout the weekend. The Art Gallery was closed; the weather was stinking hot; my motel perfectly captured 1977. But sometimes you just have to keep dancing. Stay positive, keep moving forward, and the travel gods reward you. And frankly, the burrito wasn’t half bad.
Earlier that day I had visited Bendigo’s Golden Dragon Museum. It was a twenty-minute walk from my motel on one of the hottest weekends of the summer. I knew it was coming, but I still wasn’t prepared. In China I admired the resourcefulness of the locals, who had never forgotten that a wide umbrella and a pocket fan were cheaper, more stylish, and easier to procure than gobs of sunblock and an air conditioning unit. My sunblock was almost out, and my aging hipster straw hat just wasn’t doing the job. So I followed the shady spots across Rosalind Park then trailed a trickle of creek water to the museum.
The 1851 discovery of gold brought migrants to Victoria from all over the world: Britain most of all, but also Germany, California (where the 1848 gold rush was losing steam), and China.1 Most of the Chinese who travelled to Bendigo were used to a warm climate; they came from seven small towns in the Cantonese Pearl River delta. It was a period of drought, famine, and unrest in southern China, and many younger sons (the eldest stayed home to care for family property) elected to journey to Dai Gum San, or Big Gold Mountain, the local dialect name for Bendigo. It must have been a challenging decision. These young men crossed the ocean to aid their families, and most no doubt planned to return to China after they made their fortune. Coming from the same villages offered the comfort of shared languages and customs. But, given the importance of ancestor remembrance, it must have been difficult knowing that their remains might be lost at sea, or buried in an unfamiliar land, where descendants could not visit. And how did they feel about travelling to a land without Chinese women? Should one dare fall in love with a woman who did not speak one’s language, understand one’s culture?
But just getting to Bendigo was a challenge in the 1850s—especially if you were Chinese. In order to dissuade Chinese migrants from reaching the goldfields, Victoria’s colonial government introduced a ten-pound “landing tax” on each Chinese migrant. As a result, many ships left their Chinese travellers at the port of Robe, across the colonial border in South Australia. Chinese migrants then walked nearly 500 kilometres to Bendigo. Once in the goldfields, the Chinese were limited to sluicing for gold—other methods were only allowed to Europeans and white Australians.
The museum gives a good overview of these early years, but where it really excels is after the gold rush. Some migrants returned to China, but many stayed in Bendigo and prospered. Their history is documented in everyday objects and family mementos, most of them donated by the descendents of those nineteenth-century sluicers—families still living in or near Bendigo.
I was struck by the way some Chinese family names were Australianised: Jack, Lamsey, O’Hoy. These names are quite familiar in Victoria, I’ve been told; but they were unfamiliar to me. In some cases, I could guess what happened: after all, a white Australian would probably feel more comfortable visiting a Dr. Lamsey than a Dr. Lam See. But how and why did Mr. Oh Hoy adopt a pseudo-Irish contraction?
Assimilating a name was just one step in a journey that white Australia never made easy. The colonial government instituted various laws that limited the rights of Chinese. All furniture made by Chinese workers had to be stamped “Chinese Labour.” If you hired one Chinese worker, your business was declared a factory (it usually required four workers), and your business was taxed accordingly. As a result, Chinese citizens took over businesses that Europeans avoided: gardening, laundry, and restaurants for other Chinese (Chinese restaurants only went mainstream after 1945). Federation made matters worse. As I discussed previously, few Chinese were allowed to immigrate to Australia in the decades following Australian independence in 1901. As a result, many Chinese who were granted Australian citizenship were unable to sponsor their wives and children because they were not born in Australia.
But Australians of Chinese descent made meaningful contributions to their new homeland. Bendigo’s museum emphasises one contribution that continues today: participation in the Easter Fair and Procession. The fair was founded in 1871 as a fundraiser for the local hospital and home for the aged. Only a few years later, the Chinese community organised a procession from the Chinese settlements in the east of town to Rosalind Park, where the fair was held. Initially the procession showcased elaborate costumes brought from China, but in 1892 the Chinese community added a 30-metre imperial dragon (now one of the GDM’s treasures). Ever since, the dancing dragon has been a centrepiece of Bendigo’s Easter festivities.
This phenomenon has unexpected archival significance. Bendigo has one of the world’s best collections of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Chinese costumes, musical instruments, and (most famously) dancing dragons. In China, as elsewhere, such objects were long considered ephemeral and not worth preserving in museums; and any that survived were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. On reflection, it’s not surprising that such treasures would be found in a city that’s just a bit off the radar; such places are often important storehouses of cultural history.
But the event is even more interesting from a social perspective. It’s a remarkable act of generosity from a group that had been treated so capriciously in Australia. It’s also admirable that the white community were open to a celebration of Chinese culture—in particular to allowing a seemingly pagan image to become an integral part of a Christian celebration. It’s a fascinating example of how a minority group connects to a majority activity while retaining its own identity, and hence becoming a key ingredient in the local salad bowl. Or stir fry.
I may have missed the chance to celebrate Chinese New Year in an appropriate restaurant, but I didn’t miss out on all the festivities. The following afternoon the Golden Dragon Museum hosted a celebration of the Chinese New Year. I retraced my steps across Rosalind Park, this time trusty umbrella in hand. The celebration included those cheeky lions and various local Chinese dance groups. It culminated in the awakening of an immense new dragon, this one held aloft with helium balloons. To my eyes, most of the audience—and many of the participants—were white Australians. Later I learned that most of the performers were in fact of at least some Chinese ancestry—a good reminder of the ethnic assumptions we make.
Still, I wondered if a phenomenon that once helped an ostracised minority feel part of the larger community was now being appropriated by the majority. Like tea in British culture, will awakening the dragon become part of Australian culture? Like Halloween or Christmas, has Chinese New Year lost its site-specific meaning and become a global event? Or is it becoming another St. Patrick’s Day: a day of pride for people with some specific ancestry, but an opportunity for everyone to join in? And are such transformations of cultural history good or bad?
I don’t know the answer. But as the sun set on a sweltering Day One of the Horse Year 2014, it was heartening to see a cross section of Bendigonians dressed in Chinese costumes, sampling dim sum, and oohing and wahhing as the dancing dragon rose and dipped before us. I closed my umbrella, thanked the travel gods, and wished I had packed a pocket fan.
All photos are by the author.
1 My historical information comes from exhibits in the Golden Dragon Museum and Melbourne’s Chinese Museum. Many thanks to Anita Jack, General Manager at the GDM, who patiently answered my numerous questions. Wikipedia offers a good overview of the History of Chinese Australians.