Bendigo is a town saturated in a Chinese culture that dates as far back as the Gold Rush in the 1850’s. It is hard to imagine that there was once approximately 4,000 Chinese in the Bendigo gold fields, since there is only a trace of this history left, in some of the old diggings sites, kilns, brickwork and faded shop signs. But hidden in the back areas of the old cemeteries around Bendigo are foot stones inscribed with Chinese characters, naming the Dynasty and clan name of those who once came to Dai Gum San (Big Gold Mountain) in search of a brighter future.
I arrived in Bendigo funded by Punctum’s ‘Seedpod” grant, with the aim to research and develop a project based around the Chinese history in the area, with particular focus on the Chinese market gardens. As it was my first time in Bendigo, I knew nothing of the local Chinese history; in fact most of the Australian history I did learn at school has been both one sided and unreliable, It is only now through rediscovering and further investigating, we are able to change our once skewed perception of Australian history and shed light onto some truths that have been long buried.
Over a period of two weeks I visited many of the town’s attractions including; the Debrah Mine, Bendigo Tram, Bendigo Joss House and Peppergreen Farm and the Golden Dragon Museum. As well as researching the local history, I collected sounds that were to be used in the project. Submerged in the community I had the wonderful opportunity to meet people with a deep knowledge of the local Chinese history in the area; this included local Chinese elders Dennis O’Hoy and Russell Jack, and Archeologist David Bannear. A days volunteer work at Peppergreen Farm, which was originally a Chinese market garden site. With the help of local sound artist Jaques Soddell I was able to capture sounds of Peppergreen Farm and Bendigo Creek .
The Chinese in Bendigo came from the rural areas of southern China, primarily Guangdong Province. Most of these people were from poor areas and were farmers or artisans. They brought with them their own cultural customs and beliefs, which is evident in Bendigo today, if you visit the many historical sites like the Bendigo Joss House and Bendigo Cemetery. The Golden Dragon Museum also houses the oldest Imperial Dragon in the world, safely in Australia, it survived being destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
It is hard to imagine today that almost 4,000 Chinese were on the fields during the gold rush. Mostly all of the Chinese that came to Bendigo came as sojourners with the intention of going back to their homeland, however some were burdened with debt because of the heavy taxes imposed on them and were unable to afford the trip back home. For those who decided to stay, they were able to make a new home and life in Bendigo, which offered many opportunities and possibilities that may not have been attainable back home. Most of the Chinese that came to Bendigo were men seeking a better future for their families by working on the gold fields. This resulted in interracial marriages and relationships with European women, primarily Scottish and Irish women, who along with the Chinese were treated as inferiors and traitors.
The Chinese have played an important role in Bendigo, raising money for the local hospital through their Easter procession of Loong the imperial dragon and also providing affordable fresh produce to the community of Bendigo and Melbourne at a time when fresh fruit and vegetables were hard to come by. Food is of great importance to the Chinese, who believe that eating good food can bring harmony and closeness to the family and relationships and as the title of the work suggests, it is also important for ones health.
Preview of my sound installation at the Comma hotel for the Castlemaine Fringe Festival 2013