I'm a Victorian freelance writer & photographer living in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
Published July 4th 2016
Chinese Goldfields History
In the early 1850s, literally thousands of Chinese eager to seek their fortune flocked to the Victorian goldfields and visitors to Bendigo's Golden Dragon Museum can get a fabulous insight into their culture and life on the goldfields.
In one year alone, 1853, 54 ships arrived in Melbourne from the Chinese province of Canton. Many of these mostly young men left behind severe hardships and a violent feudal system of local government. But there was so much opposition to the Chinese from the European diggers who the Government here imposed severe restrictions on them, mostly in the form of taxes.
Bendigo's Golden Dragon Museum is home to an amazing collection of Chinese Dragons including the oldest and longest Imperial Dragons in the world. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
In 1855 a 'head tax' of £10 was placed on each Chinese passenger landed in Victoria, this on top of a law limiting the number of Chinese passengers or crew on any vessel arriving here to one per 10 tons of cargo carried. To avoid these taxes many were landed in South Australia and then walked overland to the Victorian diggings.
Other taxes imposed included the Gold License or Miners Right, initially £10.10 Shillings per month, a £4 residence tax and, on the Bendigo fields, a £12 'puddling tax' for each sluice box used, at the time the only method of mining the Chinese were permitted to use.
Despite the opposition and the taxes they continued to arrive in large numbers, making their way to almost all of the Australian goldfields, but drawn in particular to Bendigo, 'Dai Gum San", The Big Gold Mountain.
The Dragon Chariot of Ten Thousand Sages defies description and no photograph can do it justice. It simply has to be seen to be believed. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
Just over 40,000 Chinese arrived in Australia during the gold rush years making up 3.3 per cent of the nations population by 1861. The vast majority though returned to China and in the period 1852 to 1889 the arrival of the 40,000 was almost matched by more than 36,000 departures.
On the gold fields the Chinese kept very much to themselves. They were viewed with suspicion and disdain by the majority of the European diggers and were frequently subjected to serious physical abuse. Not allowed to stake and develop new claims the Chinese reworked the fields and mullock-heaps left behind when the Europeans deemed the area worked-out and moved on to try their luck elsewhere.
The Museum includes many displays depicting Chinese life on the goldfields. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
In fact the ability of the Chinese to glean pay dirt from abandoned diggings appears to be one of the major reasons they were so unpopular with the rest of the diggers.
The renowned Australian author Ion Idriess wrote several books on prospecting and made the observation that "No man ever yet found gold after Chinamen have worked a creek".
With the decline of alluvial gold mining those Chinese that didn't return home turned their hand to other forms of work.
Yi Yuan, The Garden of Joy, replicates elements of Beijing's Imperial Palace. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
In Bendigo a veritable 'China Town' developed around Bridge Street complete with shops, community services and even gambling houses and opium dens. Street hawkers ventured further afield selling their goods to the European population.
The Chinese became prominent in activities that didn't compete with or pose a threat to the Europeans, becoming merchants, labourers, tailors and domestic servants. Many ran market gardens supplying much of the town's fruit and vegetables.
From those small beginnings a community developed and grew with Bendigo. Today the Chinese are prominent in almost every aspect of life in the city.
The best way to get a truly fascinating insight into Bendigo's Chinese history is with a visit to the Golden Dragon Museum, fittingly located on Bridge Street and home to one of the world's great collections of Chinese ceremonial dragons.
Opened in 1991 the museum aims to 'document, interpret and preserve the Chinese heritage in Australia' and is widely recognised as the 'Chinese Cultural Centre of Australia'.
A covered gateway leads to the Guan Yin Miao Buddhist temple. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
The museum has numerous displays depicting Chinese culture, life on the goldfields, arts & crafts and the most amazing and intricately hand-carved jade chariot imaginable, The Dragon Chariot Of Ten Thousand Sages.
It almost defies the imagination to think that humans could carve such a magnificent artwork depicting a ceremonial chariot used to celebrate the grand birthdays of Emperors, Empresses and Empress Dowagers in the Qing Dynasty.
The Qing Dynasty, also known as the Empire of the Great Qing or the Manchu Dynasty ruled from 1644 until 1912, the last Imperial Dynasty of China.
Included in the chariots ornate carvings are 188 dragons, 18 phoenixes and 36 bats, all significant symbols in Chinese culture thought to bring good luck and good fortune.
But the museum is best known for it's collection of eight dragons and in particular LOONG, the oldest Imperial, or five-clawed, dragon in the world.
Made in Fatt Shan near Canton LOONG was 60 metres long and made his first appearance in the Bendigo Easter Procession in 1892. He appeared in the parade every year until reaching retirement in 1970. Briefly taken out of retirement LOONG's last appearance was in 2001 when, after much refurbishment and being reduced in length to a mere 29 metres, he was a prominent feature in the State's Centenary of Federation parade.
LOONG's replacement, SUN LOONG came from Hong Kong in 1970 and at over 100 metres in length is the world's longest Imperial Dragon. Comprised of 6,000 scales, 90,000 mirrors and 40,000 beads SUN LOONG requires 57 carriers with another 52 on stand-by to step in and relieve as required.
The newest addition to the Bendigo collection CHOI LOONG, meaning the Competitive, prosperous colourful and lucky Dragon, arrived in 2006.
CHOI LOONG is unique among Bendigo's dragons in that it is androgynous, neither male nor female, and can be carried by mixed teams of men and women.
Right next door to the Dragon Museum you'll find the Yi Yuan (Garden of Joy), an authentic replica of part of Beijing's Imperial Palace, and the Buddhist Guan Yin Miao Temple, the temple of The Goddess of Mercy.
Offerings to Buddha in The Temple of the Goddess of Mercy. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
Bendigo's dragons parade for special occasions and cultural festivals. They are a key part of the city's annual Easter Festival and parade.
Take the time to visit the Golden Dragon Museum and I'm sure you too will be blown away by the culture and history of Bendigo's Chinese population. The Golden Dragon Museum and surrounds are far more than a tourist precinct. For me they were a sobering, peaceful and very reflective experience.
The Golden Dragon Museum is a highlight of any visit to the goldfields and Bendigo. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
Nice article Ian; I love the history. My husband and I have visited this museum and I was blown away by the workmanship in many of the exhibits. The carving in the screens on display has to be seen to be truly appreciated.