“Why is there a Greek meander pattern along the path, so far away from Medallion? Isn’t this Chinatown?” my friend asked. The answer, of course, is that by an accident of history, the ‘meander’ is something that both Chinese and Greek traditions have in common, along with immense antiquity, and an awe-inspiring philosophical, scientific and artistic legacy. In addition, both cultures have deep roots within the Australian social fabric and both have exercised a marked influence upon the evolution of modern Australian culture.
We were standing outside the Museum of Chinese Australian History, arguably one of Melbourne’s hidden gems, unobtrusively tucked away in Cohen Place, just off Bourke Street, behind a bronze statue of the father of modern China, Dr Sun Yat-Sen. Established in 1985 with a charter to present the history of Australians of Chinese ancestry, I knew it as the home of the Millenium Dragon, the largest Chinese dragon in the world. Now, I was visiting for another reason: to see exactly how Chinese Australians see themselves and wish to be seen by others.
Over a rickety and atmospheric three floors, a grand narrative unfolds, one that has its point of reference in a period of time contemporaneous to that of the Hellenistic period, that defines the identity of the Chinese: the Han dynasty. The ancient artefacts on display are few but powerful in their symbolism. In one terracotta ensemble, a boy sits on a horse, in what could be a counterpart to the Hellenistic sculpture of the ‘Jockey of Artemision.’ Whereas the Greek sculpture captures the vibrancy and ebullience of Hellenistic civilization, appearing as it does, to capture the precise moment prior to it galloping off into the distance, the Han sculpture is static and stolid; a powerful metaphor for the solidity and enduring qualities of Chinese civilisation. In a dark, tomb-like annexe, a priceless jade ceremonial burial suit lies in state. The expression on its face, one of serene majesty and power, is eerily similar to that of the Mycenaean death mask attributed to Agamemnon. Similarly, the terracotta Han statuettes of houses and people going about their daily business are surprisingly reminiscent of the fourth century BC Tanagra figurines of Boeotia. To explore the Han culture through the Chinese Museum, therefore, is to marvel at the similarities both in focus and scope of two great civilisations that emerged and evolved in isolation from each other.
Yet that which brings both Greek and Chinese Australians together, is perhaps what makes the Chinese Museum unique: While it provides the visitor with a small impression of traditional Chinese culture and history, it only does so by way of context and in no way is shoving the glories of ancient China down one’s throat its main focus. Instead, this merely forms the backstory behind the museum’s true mission, which is to showcase and provide a narrative framework via which the complex, multilayered and fascinating history of the presence and experience of the Chinese people in Australia, can be comprehended.
Thus at a time when the Greek Australian community is only just tentatively seeking to graft itself upon the ANZAC mythology by exploring the Greek people’s involvement in this seminal moment in Australian identity formation, the first floor of the Chinese Museum is currently dedicated to tracing the experiences of those Chinese who enlisted and fought for Australia in the First World War, while also providing an insight into their lives and integration within a war-scarred broader community at war’s end.
A cavernous basement, painstakingly adorned with dioramas and reconstructions of Chinese homes and temples evokes memories of another seminal moment in Victorian identity mythology: the Gold Rush. On the top floor, a carefully curated selection of ephemera, including copies of old Chinese Australian newspapers, Chinese local football jumpers, old function tickets and concert programmes, or invitations to debutante balls, increasingly in English, attest to a community in transition, enthusiastically adopting and absorbing pastimes and attitudes of their host culture, without this necessarily signifying a diminution of their own. A host of traditional Chinese instruments forms an exhibit outlining one of the manners in which the Chinese Australian community entertained itself. Yet one of those instruments invariably makes me gasp, for it forms part of my own personal history. It is a yangqing, the exact equivalent of the Greek santouri, and it was used in the resplendently opulent Chung On Chinese nightclub in Moonee Ponds, the area in which I was raised, right up until its recent closure. As I look at it, I muse whether in years to come, a violin played by Hector Cosmas, a guitar strummed by Kostas Tsikaderis or the clarinet sounded by Haralambos Fakos will also become equivalent museum pieces, a dusty footnote in the history of our own revels, with a special space devoted to heart-strings snapped at Kinisi, owing to over-tuning.
Along with reproductions of contemporary articles and cartoons bearing testament to the acute racial intolerance displayed by the mainstream culture towards Chinese Australians for much of the community’s history, and its political implications, such as engendering the White Australia Policy, the various Chinese Australian ephemera are tastefully displayed in order to subtly underline the fact that the Chinese-Australian community is inextricably woven within the fabric of Australian society. This is a powerful multicultural message and an example to other Australian ethnic groups, including our own.
The artful and understated manner in which the Chinese Museum articulates its community’s relationship to the broader national narrative should facilitate our own understanding that our history as Greek-Australians is not simply that of the Greece, though this undeniably forms our backstory and continues to influence the manner in which we express our identity. Instead, our history was shaped in this country and thus should not be glossed over, allowed to be effaced or over-ridden by a necessity to showcase the glories of the mother culture due to a cultural cringe, or buried in sundry “archives,” dotted around our city haphazardly. Instead, the entirety of our sojourn, which in longevity at least, and arguably in complexity as well, is comparable to that of the Chinese, ought to be interpreted, threaded into a narrative of our own and displayed for all to enjoy.
Granted, if one was to critique the Chinese Museum, it could be pertinent to observe that the voices of the more recently arrived migrants and the way they have changed or shaped the Chinese community largely remain unheard. Instead, what the visitor sees appears to be the Cantonese-dominated experience of acculturation that pre-dates the arrival of the, by now majority, Mandarin speakers. Perhaps it is felt that more time is needed to contextualise their experience, or being relatively recent arrivals, there are other priorities.
Compared with the Chinese, whose blanket ethnonym covers a fast array of diverse linguistic and cultural traditions, not all of which are mutually intelligible, thus rendering the faithful portrayal of the multiplicity of constituent groups difficult, Greeks in Australia are, in relative terms, culturally and linguistically homogenous. The task of highlighting for posterity our own unique cultural and social achievements (such as assisting in the worldwide revival of rebetika, instituting multiculturalism, being at forefront of the struggle for class and gender equality, and crafting a community that tends to its members welfare) should not prove difficult. Yet the more we shy away from public interpretations and exhibitions of that history, the less incentive is provided for the members of our community to preserve and cherish it. As a result, memories, ephemera, and artefacts attesting to our presence in this country are tragically lost on a daily basis, simply because their owners cannot find a use of them.
Already, despite the best efforts of Australian and community historians alike, there is generally no thread of continuity that links the generations of our community over the course of a century and beyond. The often extremely different experiences of those generations thus generally exist without the popular consciousness, creating an ahistorical conception of a community that struggles to identify its already deeply embedded cultural roots in this country and instead is psychologically and culturally dependent on a Greece whose modern culture and mores have diverged from those of the Antipodeans. If we cannot identify and articulate our own local traditions then the foundations of our community are shaky indeed.
Similarly, if we do not control the manner in which our narrative intertwines with that of the mainstream, there is less opportunity for that mainstream to appreciate our contribution to it, and consider it to be truly Australian. In this fashion, via lack of exhibition and willingness to communicate a coherent conception of that which our culture means, save in the form of street festivals, we condemn ourselves perennially to the margins of the national discourse and ultimately to oblivion. Surely, in this important task, the Chinese Museum can provide valuable parallels and insights that are sorely needed.
I shocked the lady in the rickety lift with the broad Australian accent, when I started to speak Chinese to her two daughters on the way up to the third floor of the Museum. Unlike her Chinese accent, which was permeated with the nasal sounds of Australia, her offspring’s accents sounded native. As she explained, her daughters, having been brought up as fluent Chinese speakers, an opportunity she herself did not have in a different time, felt the need to educate their mother about the history of their people. Stepping into the Chinese Museum however, her China-oriented daughters, entered into an almost unknown world of an Australian experience that, were it not for the existence of the Chinese Museum, would have been consigned to oblivion. Here then, was cross-generational Sinification, Australian acculturation and re-sinification, all taking place in a historical Melburnian warehouse, with dragons lurking in the basement.
“What language are you?” the attendant asked, as I took my leave.
“I’m Greek,” I responded, in Chinese.
Without batting an eyelid, he quoted a Chinese proverb: “Small as it is, the sparrow has all the vital organs.”
I affected to have absolutely no idea what he meant.