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Drowning the Dragon: Voices of Isolated Chinese Settlers Rise From Beneath the Sea

Donald Kerr
Energy Queensland

The discovery of a Chinese artefact at the regional port of Merimbula in southern NSW is evidence 19th century Taoist Chinese settlers tried to maintain cultural traditions in an isolated European community as they faced racism and pressure to assimilate. The ceramic boat, made as Chinese export ware, was intended for use as a ridge end in a temple or joss house or as a household ornament. It could have been lost overboard in rough seas between about 1850 and 1900 from a coastal steamer moored in Merimbula Bay discharging cargo and passengers. The broken artefact lay on the sea bed in the main shipping channel until discovered during archaeological research in 2003.

The artefact depicts a retelling of the traditional Taoist story of The Eight Immortals Crossing the Seas through a tableau of traditional imagery that shows the gods sailing aboard a timber boat formed from a tree trunk while playing a Chinese board game. They are surrounded by lush Chinese vegetation including vines, branches, fungi and fruits and flowers. A benevolent female dragon which forms the vessel’s bow overlooks the scene on the deck behind her. The view depicts a world maintained in harmony by observance of traditional Chinese values and beliefs: ancestor worship, religious observances and intragroup marriage.

Thousands of Chinese gold miners on their way to the gold fields at Kiandra in the Snowy Mountains travelled through the port of Eden in the great diaspora to the New Gold Mountain in the 1850s. Their descendants lived in the Bega Valley while working as market gardeners, labourers or traders, and shipped goods through the ports at Tathra, Merimbula and Eden. Some settlers married Europeans and adopted western titles and cultural practices. Others continued to follow traditional social practices, including religion, worshipping at temples and joss houses decorated with Chinese iconography.

 

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