I grew up in rural Victoria – up in the Mallee – a long way in those days from Melbourne. In a small country town the school was bland and vanilla compared to multicultural Australia as we now know it. Our only awareness of other cultures came on visits to Bendigo – to the local Chinese restaurant – my first exposure to non-Anglo people, unless you count the fish and chip shop operators from Greece, who we never thought of as different. Hard to believe isn’t it!
These days when I go back to Charlton, they are teaching Chinese subjects and even have Chinese students; there was a Chinese restaurant in the local pub for a while – but the dishes dated to another era in our history: beef and black bean sauce, lemon chicken, and something resembling Aussie dim sims! It didn’t last.
Twenty years ago, Charles Qin and I thought we should go to the Bendigo Easter Fair, a stalwart Easter parade dating back to 1870. He volunteered to help carry the dragon, at which point the organiser said, “No way mate, your face is too authentic to be hidden under the dragon – you can carry the flag!” So a very young looking Charles Qin, was the flag bearer at the head of the parade, the highlight of which is and was always the dragon Sun Loong.
These days the Parade, renamed Festival, continues the tradition and the locals stick their chairs out the night before to ‘bag’ a good spot or to share in the waking of the dragon on Parade eve. The crowd runs five or six deep in places. Charles and I were back in town this year and thought it might be time to check out the “Parade” again. What a transformation!
It was our lucky day! The new dragon Dai Gum Loong (big golden dragon) fresh off the boat was having its first outing at a cost of $750,000 – all 125 metres and 7000 scales of him – the longest in the world; old Sun Loong was having its last walk after half a century and time to retire. There were two other smaller dragons, one of them powered by women only – it was like an episode of Game of Thrones! Dragons everywhere and a rare photo opportunity to see them all.
The other big change, to me, anyway, was the number of Chinese faces in the parade, carrying dragons, lion dancers, drummers and bands – more Chinese than white faces this time – hundreds of performers. They came from as far away as Darwin to participate and they were highly trained – a cacophony of Chinese sounds and Mandarin and Cantonese Languages. Great to hear.
I came away reflecting on the wonderful opportunity this brings to a regional centre like Bendigo: locals from all cultures have the chance to join together, to train and be part of something enduring and meaningful – who knows there might be a young kid out there who decides to follow their passion and study Chinese, or go and live in China and become an important link in our relationship with China.
To find out more, visit the Golden Dragon Museum, the Yi Yuan Chinese Garden, Chinese Joss House and the Dai Gum Sam precinct. The restaurant options these days come from every corner of the world.
Next year, 2020, will celebrate 150 years of Easter festivals (10-13 April 2020)