Chinatown. The word has an exotic ring to it. Just off Little Bourke St you can spend an hour in Melbourne’s Chinese Museum and come out believing in dragons; these ones anyway, which include the biggest processional dragon in the world. Other ravishing creatures with golden scales and silken drapes guard the ground floor. Drums, banners, festive robes and mythical mutants, lanterns, animals, weapons: this is the stuff of celebration.
That’s just the most dramatic bit of this museum, which documents Chinese migration to Australia, and perhaps specially to Melbourne, since there are many photographs and fascinating objects about early Chinatown shop fronts, including a huge original laundry sign, a relic that belongs in spirit to some gold-rush saloon.
For other origins, it’s best to go first to the basement, which has a spookily convincing reconstruction of a mine and living quarters to show how the first Chinese here (almost all men) dug their way into the goldfields in the 1850s. At that time they were 25% of the mining population. Now the percentage of people with Chinese heritage in Australia is about 3.5%.
When the gold rush petered out, things got tough for those who stayed, and tougher still in 1901, when the White Australia Policy excluded most Asian migration, imposing the dictation test that prospective migrants were meant to fail.
The museum follows the diverse occupations and cultural links that the Chinese developed here. We see the start of a thriving restaurant scene, the specialist furniture workshops, the first boarding houses that began in 1855.
As you’d expect from a country with such a rich artistic and inventive history, there are some intriguing objects: a dulcimer that looks as if you play it like a zither, a replica of a old seismograph perhaps made before Europeans got serious about measuring earthquakes, and the most sumptuous ceremonial clothes.
And if you were wondering about that really inscrutable-looking machine, it turns out to be a Chinese typewriter.
Not the least pleasant experience is an upstairs display of large decorative works on paper, apparently made by students, that seems to embody the spirit of the museum in the most direct way possible.
This place has one level devoted to the personal stories of Chinese-speaking migrants from other countries: (Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc). A guide was taking a group of students from a variety of backgrounds through the exhibitions, a nice example of the cultural diversity that this institution helps foster.
There’s a shop, a changing program of temporary shows, a magnificent Chinese bed that looks like some strange combination of a four-poster and a very large confessional, and various voice-over anecdotes and multi-media excursions into Chinese history, scenery and music.
Children are well catered for by the Millennium dragon’s audio-visual story. He only comes out to play twice a year, once for the Chinese New Year and once for Moomba.
The Chinese Museum, 22 Cohen Pl, Melbourne
Open: 10am – 4pm (Except: Good Friday, Christmas and New Year).