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The Chinese in Bendigo

Anne-Marie Conde, National Museum of Australia, 9 June 2010

SHARON CASEY: Good afternoon and welcome everyone, especially on this cold day. I am going to introduce Anne-Marie Conde who has been a curator at the National Museum of Australia since 2008. She was previously an historian at the Australian War Memorial. Anne-Marie is curating the gold module of the Landmarks: People and places across Australia gallery development. She is going to speak to us today about gold, the Chinese and Bendigo. Thank you very much.

ANNE-MARIE CONDE: Thanks for that and thanks for coming, everyone, on such a cold day. I am sure it has become colder in the course of today. It seemed to be warmer at 8 o’clock this morning when I got to work compared with now. I know you have had a series of talks presented to you by Landmarks curators – you are probably getting a bit here and a bit there and a bit of this and a bit of that. I am going to introduce my talk today with a quick overview of Landmarks again just so that you get some idea of where this Bendigo Chinese storyline fits in with the larger exhibition.

As you probably know, the exhibition will present a broad history of Australia, examining ten themes, or modules, in the country’s past through stories of people and their places, and one of the ten modules will be on gold. It explores the ways in which the gold rushes changed Australian society but it does so by focusing on just two places: Bendigo and the Lachlan River region of New South Wales around Forbes, Grenfell and Young, that kind of area, and last year I gave a talk related to that part of the module. Today I am going to talk about Bendigo. The reason for this specific focus is that Landmarks doesn’t seek to tell an abstracted or generalised national history; it explores how people’s experiences across the continent are both shared and differentiated through their engagement with their own places. As has often been said about this exhibition, it’s a place-based, object-centred exhibition. Bendigo and the Lachlan River have been chosen as the two first places for the gold module. But over the ten-year life of the exhibition, we anticipate that new exhibits focusing on other places, such as the goldfields in Western Australia and Queensland, will be developed. That is by way of introduction – on to Bendigo.

Gold was discovered at Bendigo Creek, on a sheep run named Ravenswood, about 150 kilometres north of Melbourne in November 1851. Like many goldfields, wealth initially came from alluvial or surface mining. Later, as alluvial gold ran out in Bendigo, the town prospered as miners extracted gold from deep quartz veins beneath the town. Also there was a lot of wealth to be gained by merchants and other people selling goods and services to the miners who came to Bendigo. Our exhibit will include a small group of objects - tools and other things - related to alluvial mining. For instance, we have this very useful bucket from the Bendigo area used in relation to a windlass - a windlass being one of those windy things. This goes down the hole and the guy down the hole tips in stuff that they want to take up to the surface. That is known as a kibble bucket. It’s on loan to us from the Bendigo Historical Society. We also have this even more useful wheelbarrow, which as you can see has done a lot of miles. We don’t know a great deal about this object but it did end up in Bendigo and was used on the Bendigo goldfields, but we believe it was also used on other goldfields in Victoria before that. We just have to hope that the guy who owned that actually made some money out of his endeavours. That object has arrived at the National Museum. We will be seeing in the course of the next few days to mount assess, as we say, to see exactly how we are going to put it on display.

There will also be a small display on the miners’ uprising at Eureka in Ballarat, which is not Bendigo, but this offers in part a link to how people in Bendigo asserted their rights and sought greater control over their town’s affairs. But we hope what makes this exhibit distinctive is that it will not just be about scratching gold out of the ground through alluvial mining and not just about violent protest by miners seeking democratic rights, because lots of other exhibitions and lots of other websites and lots of other books have covered those themes in enormous depth. What we hope to do in our exhibit is to explore and make links to other aspects of the social, political and economic life of the town of Bendigo. For instance, we are interested not just in wealth from gold but in wealth that flowed in a secondary sense. A storyline has been developed on William Guthrie’s successful pottery business, Bendigo Pottery, which draws on the National Museum’s own quite large collection from Bendigo Pottery. In future years we will develop other storylines like this, perhaps, for instance, on the development of wine growing in the area. These are some of the lesser-known aspects of experience and economic life in Bendigo. And, of course, we have developed a storyline on the Chinese in Bendigo, and that is the subject of my talk today.

Bendigo, as you may know if you have been there or if you haven’t, has a very long and rich history of Chinese experience. Is anyone familiar with Bendigo particularly? Lots. It’s a fascinating place. I was lucky enough to go last year. I had never been before and I had a lovely time. I visited all of these lenders and spent a bit of time at the Golden Dragon Museum in Bendigo. Has anyone been there? It’s a wonderful place. You might be hearing things that you have picked up already on some of your trips.

I would have put some pictures in today of Chinese alluvial gold miners because the State Library of Victoria has some interesting ones that show Chinese mining methods, sluicing and things like that. However, the State Library of Victoria’s image website seemed to be down yesterday and today so I couldn’t put any in. It goes to show how much we rely on these things, doesn’t it?

Chinese people began arriving in Sandhurst, as Bendigo was known, after 1853. Most came from Canton, now known as Guangdong province, especially an area around the Pearl River Delta. News of the gold discoveries in Victoria reached Canton via the offices of shipping companies. Poverty and political strife in the area was forcing migration not just to Australia but to the West Indies and California. The Bendigo strike was one of six in Victoria that attracted Chinese immigrants. It was known as Dai Gum San, the big golden mountain. Dai Gum San is a term that you do hear used quite a bit in relation to Bendigo mining.

In 1857, 40 per cent of the male population in Sandhurst was Chinese, but that declined sharply over the next couple of decades. For several reasons, the Chinese in Bendigo were usually alluvial miners, not quartz miners. So as alluvial gold ran out, many Chinese miners moved on or went home. But there was always a significant minority of the Chinese population in Bendigo. Many of those that stayed lived in settled communities – camps or protectorates they were known as. Although stigmatised as unsanitary and immoral sometimes by Europeans, they were actually relatively clean for the conditions of the time and they allowed the Chinese to enjoy together social life and religious and cultural practices.

The most notable of the camps was known as Ironbark. Photographs of the Chinese little ‘village’ protectorate things are relatively rare. This one has been lent to us by Dennis O’Hoy, a Chinese Australian historian in Bendigo who is lending us some of his collection. We are grateful to have it. This is Ironbark [image shown]. When a reporter for the Bendigo Mercury visited Ironbark in 1859 he was pleasantly surprised, apparently, by its cleanliness and good order. He was received politely and was impressed by the many businesses and services in the camp, including entertainment being provided by a visiting Chinese theatre troupe - more about that later. Sometimes other curious Europeans visited the camps to watch the music, mime, dance, sword play and acrobatics that were part of Chinese festivities. It must have been a pretty grim existence for just about everybody in Bendigo unless you were doing really well – and some people obviously were – so any form of entertainment would have been welcome and Chinese forms of entertainment, theatre and dance, would have been particularly fascinating, I suspect. It is very interesting to think of European people entering some of those Chinese enclaves and just looking at the travelling Chinese theatre groups that used to do the rounds of the goldfields in those days. People worked long hours and were deprived of lots of things, so it would have been pretty interesting, I think.

However, Ironbark was largely destroyed by fire in 1887 - fire being a big hazard on the goldfields. It sort of survived and later in the century became a home for destitute Chinese. After that fire, an area near the town centre around Bridge Street, where land was cheap because it was close to the cemetery and the funeral parlours, became the new hub of Chinese commercial activity. I am going to quote now from a lovely new publication put out by the Golden Dragon Museum that has only just been published about their costume and regalia collection. It has lovely historical sections in it:

[Bridge Street] was a thriving area with all sorts of businesses and a colourful reputation. There were grocers, general stores, importers of tea, herbalists and more. Some of the more colourful aspects of the area include reports from 1882 of three opium dealers and then later on, illegal gambling rooms.

Apparently the area was not exclusively Chinese, there were European businesses trading next to the Chinese. Research has shown that, with the decline in alluvial mining, many Chinese took up not just commercial enterprises but various other trades and professions as well. Market gardening was important, both as a means for the Chinese to earn a living and as a source of fresh food for the town. The Chinese were often skilled in intensive farming techniques and they were praised for the quality of the vegetables they grew, even from plots of clay-ey, pebbly soil cultivated in between gold workings or on abandoned alluvial fields. Some Chinese occupied and improved their plots for long periods and eventually bought them. This is somewhat contrary to the idea of the sojourning, rootless Chinese miner who drifts around - plenty did that but plenty stayed as well.

Some Chinese set up as herbalists, importing herbs and equipment from China through the many Chinese stores in Bendigo. James Lamsey was one of these. He was born in Canton in 1831 and trained as a physician. I have seen two versions of his birth date, 1821 and 1831 – I need to go back and check that. He came to Australia in 1853 and practised as a herbalist in a number of Victorian towns before finally settling in Bendigo in the 1870s. He became a leading and influential businessman in the town. We are borrowing from a private collector some of James Lamsey’s equipment, and that person being Dennis O’Hoy. Dennis O’Hoy is descended from a family of storekeepers who supplied herbalists with what they needed, so the herbs and the equipment. Dennis has inherited some of the Lamsey equipment after Lamsey’s business finished. Dennis is very kindly lending us some of those things, in fact, quite a lot of his collection. These are some steaming jars. The lovely picture is taken by our photographers down at Mitchell - much better than the ones I was able to take.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: What do you do with a steaming jar?

ANNE-MARIE CONDE: I asked Dennis about this, and my understanding is that you put the herbs in the jar with some water. There is a central lid, which didn’t photograph but is there [indicated]. You put that on top and then you put that on top and then you put that into another pot of water and steamed it that way and heated it up. Then I think - somebody might correct me if I am wrong, and I am conscious this is going out on the web so we may get somebody from wherever else in the world who might correct me - you then drain off the herbs and drink the liquid from the jar. The central lid was just to stop water splooshing out over the side of the jar while it was being heated.

[audio edited due to inaudible discussion]

ANNE-MARIE CONDE: Thank you for that. [inaudible] There are also these stoneware jars [image shown]. I wrote herb jars but I was in a hurry this morning. I think they are all-purpose jars for just about anything, food or medicine or whatever needs to be stored and kept. These are some herb scales [image shown]. That is Dennis there [image shown]. I got him to show me how they work. You put the stuff to be weighed - it can be used for gold too - in the little pan and slide the weight along until you get a balance. Does that sound right? Dennis said they are extremely accurate and as you can see very easy to travel with. We are very lucky to be borrowing those – I think there are two sets coming – because you can see how fragile they are. It is wonderful.

The portrait of Lamsey hung in the Bendigo Chinese Masonic Society premises for a while. Lamsey was the grandmaster in the 1890s. He was not just a prominent Chinese person, he was a prominent Victorian person too and became quite wealthy and influential. After his death his business was inherited by his nephew Alf Lam Sun, who continued to do well practising as a herbalist. Evidence is that Europeans as well as Chinese patronised the business. We have some letters, which I haven’t got pictures of - we are borrowing some letters from Dennis which are testimonials written to Alf Lam Sun testifying to his skill and how beneficial people found his medicines. That was well after the turn of the twentieth century.

After 1901, as you might know, there were severe restrictions on immigration to Australia. But even with dwindling numbers, the Chinese had become an integral part of the community. Right from the beginning the Chinese had performed associations, often based around camps, and out of these emerged later in the nineteenth century the Bendigo Chinese Association about which I will talk more in a minute. Association was important to the Chinese because of the various forms of discrimination they suffered, both in Bendigo and more widely in Victoria. In 1855, famously, a ten pound tax was imposed by the Victorian government on each Chinese person arriving in Victoria, and this is why many ships carrying Chinese immigrants landed in South Australia and the Chinese walked overland from South Australia to Victoria.

When they got to Victoria there were also various forms of residence tax. Late in the 1850s the Chinese were levied one pound per year and issued with protection tickets. This money was put into a fund to assist and protect the Chinese in their camps which were administered by European authorities. On display we are borrowing from the Victoria Police Museum this rather mysterious looking object [image shown]. It is a ‘stub book’, you might say. What you see is the leftover bit of a larger ticket which is torn off at that perforation and handed to the Chinese person. Then later at some point – I don’t think originally – the stubs were bound into that book. It doesn’t come with a lot of provenance so we are not entirely sure what it is, but I think it is the record that the European administrators kept of who had paid their fee. The system wasn’t particularly efficient and it was abolished soon after 1859, which was when these tickets were issued. These taxes were in addition to the standard fees that everybody had to pay on the goldfields, such as miners’ licences and rights, licence fees for occupying land, and rates. There were other legal barriers applying to work that disadvantaged the Chinese. Probably because of this and the general suspicion and mistrust with which the Chinese tended to be regarded, the Chinese were always anxious to contribute to the welfare of the Bendigo community.

So when in 1869 an Easter fair and procession got going in aid of the local hospital, the Bendigo Benevolent Society Hospital, the Chinese quickly became involved. This is where we get to the fun part, I suppose, of today’s talk. My colleague from registration has just left because his mobile phone rang. I do want to acknowledge our colleagues in registration for bringing in these costume pieces for you to have a look at later. Registration are run off their feet at the moment doing many things, including mount assessment for Landmarks. That is where all the objects of the exhibition are assembled and it is decided how exactly they are going to be supported in the showcases and on the plinths in the exhibition. So every object has to be gone through and discussed. It was very nice of Registration to bring these in today. Those objects will be mount assessed tomorrow, so we will be taking them straight back out to Mitchell after this. I will tell you a little bit more about them when I get to it. I wanted to draw your attention to these lovely things now.

The Chinese are known to have participated in the fair from 1871. Here are some children from the 1895 Easter fair. Again, I would have put more pictures in except the State Library of Victoria’s image website was down so I couldn’t put in any pictures of early processions other than this one we already had in another document. I am sorry it’s a bit indistinct [image shown]. After 1871 the fair became an annual event. The Chinese provided music, theatre and acrobatic displays for the fair and similar sorts of entertainments, the sort of thing that had been provided on the goldfields, in Chinese camps and at European benefit performances for charity from way back in the 1850s.

In the early 1870s, the Chinese participated in the Easter Monday procession in a relatively small way. But from 1879 the Chinese contributed a 1.6km Oriental pageant, consisting of about 1,000 robed and made-up Chinese men and children. This was their first really major contribution to the event and it would have been based on costumes and bits and pieces that were already on the goldfields for various reasons.

However, in 1882 the Chinese announced that they had arranged the purchase from China of a large amount of new regalia and costumes for the procession. One hundred boxes of costumes and other items were brought out from Canton. To pay for it, a levy had been imposed on all the Chinese in the district and over 750 pounds raised. When you think that the Chinese were already subject to more taxes than Europeans and were already among the poorest in the community, this was a spectacular gesture of friendship and goodwill. Some 30,000 visitors saw the parade that year, which is amazing. They must have come from all over the place for it. In 1892, many more items were added at further expense to the Chinese, and in the twentieth century items that had been used by the dwindling Beechworth Chinese community from the 1870s were donated to Bendigo. Bendigo was not the only gold town that had Chinese theatricals performed at it, but Bendigo seemed to be the strongest by the sound of it.

The Golden Dragon Museum in Bendigo is very generously allowing the National Museum to borrow some items from their very large collection of historic costumes. It would be nice to show you a better picture but the costume hasn’t been in the museum very long and. It has been photographed but I wasn’t able to get any more recent photographs. So this is one that was taken at the museum in Bendigo before it travelled [image shown]. We will be displaying this robe which was used as a costume for a young girl as a princess of the procession. This costume dates to around 1880 and as far as we know would have been worn each year until the late twentieth century by a Chinese girl chosen for the role. She rode a horse and wore pantaloons, a hat and shoes, and probably some other accoutrements as well according to the pictures in a book that is doing the rounds. So the robe, the hat, the shoes and the cotton white pantaloons are all being lent to the NMA for Landmarks. The robe shows evidence of a great deal of wear - not surprisingly. You can see up around the collar there – never washed. And the girl had to ride a horse. Over here we have a pair of shoes and a hat.

I understand from the curators at the Golden Dragon Museum that there was no particular association between shoes, hat and the robe or the jacket – the jacket was the princess costume, although in a book doing the rounds I also see there is a picture of the princess wearing something else so maybe it wasn’t absolutely worn every year as the princess costume. It’s a bit hard to know. That is a specific costume for a character. Then on the day as I understand it, she would select from an array of costume items whatever shoes and hat were available. You will see from that book there were lots and lots of choices, because there were lots and lots of characters in the procession.

The gold thread which you get a bit of a look at there [indicated] all of that gold is created by couching gold thread, so sewing gold thread directly onto the silk. We believe that it is gold thread and the technique was to - there were very thin sheets of paper to which were attached gold leaf by some kind of glue or starchy stuff. Then they were cut into tiny little strips, and the strips were then spiralled around a piece of silk or cotton thread and then that was sewn onto the surface of the silk with little tiny stitches round and round in order to generate that sort of pattern. When you see the robe, which you will, it is absolutely covered in that kind of work. That is only one costume out of what sounds like dozens of that sort. So they were constructed in China and brought to Australia. I believe the princess of the parade now doesn’t wear this robe. She got a new one in the 1980s perhaps - I am scratching around in my memory of a conversation I had at the Golden Dragon Museum. So that costume was used therefore for about 100 years. All of the regalia that is now regarded as their historic collection had that sort of use. It really is extraordinary.

1892 was the first year that Loong, the dragon, made an appearance. This isn’t the original dragon [image shown]. In the end I didn’t have time to look for a picture of Loong. This is Sun Loong, the new dragon. But Loong firstly: from 1892 until now a dragon is the star feature of the procession. The first dragon Loong was made in Fat Shun, which is a city on the Pearl River near Canton. He was 46 metres long, 46 men carried his body and six carried his head. He appeared every year, as far as is known, from 1892 until 1970. In 1970 a new dragon, Sun Loong, was brought from China to replace him. He was made in Hong Kong by a workshop of people who had trained in Canton for this sort of work. Again the Bendigo Chinese community, which is really the Bendigo Chinese Association that I mentioned before, raised the money for this. So that year, 1970, the old and the young dragon appeared together in the procession. The lovely publication doing the rounds describes Sun Loong as a spry young dragon - I love that. It must have been wonderful to see the two dragons together. Loong, the old dragon, last appeared in public in Melbourne to celebrate the Centenary of Federation in 2001. He is the oldest imperial dragon in the world. Sun Loong which you see here [image shown] is over 100 metres long, requires 115 people to carry him and he is now the longest dragon in the world. So he is the dragon they use now.

Both dragons are kept permanently in the Golden Dragon Museum in Bendigo, which was built in 1990 next to the nineteenth-century building that houses the Bendigo Chinese Association. The museum houses both dragons and all the costumes, banners and regalia that have been used these many years in the procession. The central, rotunda-like exhibition space was designed, amongst other things, to allow Sun Loong to be removed from the museum every year for the procession. As I remember it and perhaps you will correct me, there are two exhibition spaces: one is this large rotunda-like space and then there’s a more conventionally shaped space adjacent to that which has the more historic material, including at least the old dragon’s head. I am not sure how much of the body is on display. The round part has a circular raised platform all the way around the perimeter of the building and the dragon is displayed all the way around there. So when you walk in, you are surrounded literally by this enormous dragon. I understand there is a skylight in the ceiling which was deliberate. It’s letting all the light in on the material but it is essential for Sun Loong to be able to see the sun and the moon. I believe his head faces the door so that, if any evil spirits get in through the door, he can ward them off. Every Easter, Sun Loong, the new dragon - although he is getting on a bit now, 40 years old now - is removed from the museum for the parade. There is a waking up ceremony, because the dragon has to be woken up. On the day of the parade he is removed from the museum, appears in the parade and then is replaced back in the museum so the museum can open to the public. They do it with all the banners and other regalia, costumes, people and horses, I guess. They can get the dragon in and out in some phenomenal amount of time. It would be wonderful to observe how it is done.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: We lived in Bendigo in the 1950s. We went to school there. The waking of the dragon was done with a lot of firecrackers and a lot of noise.

ANNE-MARIE CONDE: Yes, because he needs noise to wake him up. Did you go along?

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Oh yes. It was the most exciting thing to happen in Bendigo.

ANNE-MARIE CONDE: I didn’t say that. That gets back to my point that way back in the 1850s - you were there in the 1950s - I imagine this sort of spectacle would have been marvellous. Did you go to the parade as well - the procession?

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: We always went to the parade. As I said, there wasn’t much doing in Bendigo in the 1950s, and going to the Easter parade and waking up the dragon was a good excuse to buy firecrackers and be part of it.

ANNE-MARIE CONDE: What else did the procession have in it, do you recall much?

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: It would have had decorated vans and marching girls. It had the European stuff, but the tail end was always the waking of the dragon and then the dragon.

ANNE-MARIE CONDE: So the Chinese bit was always the last bit of the procession?

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Yes.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: It’s part of the Easter fair.

ANNE-MARIE CONDE: Because there is a fair and a procession, a separate event.

[audio edited due to inaudible discussion]

SHARON CASEY: I think we will wrap it up. Thank you very much, Anne-Marie. It was a fantastic talk. [applause]

Date published: 2 August 2010