Every year at Easter, Bendigo comes to life celebrating the history of Chinese in the area. In the 1850s, thousands of intrepid Chinese left their families behind and travelled across dangerous seas and rugged countryside to reach the goldfields in the heart of Victoria and strike their fortunes. They called the area, ‘Da Jin Shan’ or in Cantonese ‘Dai Gum San’, Big Gold Mountain.
As a youngster living in north-west Victoria, Bendigo was my first introduction to Chinese culture. Bendigo had a few Chinese restaurants and a Joss House (temple) built in the 1860s, although Chinese faces were still a rarity. The Easter Fair brought Bendigo’s Chinese heritage to life and the tradition endures today.
In 1991 the Golden Dragon Museum opened and a Chinese precinct was reinvigorated in Bendigo. Tourists travel far and wide to see the museum. It has the most impressive collection of Chinese artefacts in Australia and the precinct also boasts a Chinese garden and temple, and the Joss House isn’t far away either.
During 20th anniversary celebrations in 2011, the Golden Dragon Museum announced grand plans for expansion. The design, using Feng Shui principles, includes new space for the museum and touring exhibitions, plus a restaurant, gift shop, function area and internal courtyard gardens; the outside shell depicts the Chinese wheel of life, wrapping itself around the existing museum, creating the Sun Loong (the new dragon) Gallery as the centrepiece.
In recent years the precinct has become even better connected with open space and gardens linking the museum to the Chinese Yi Yuan Garden and Kuan Yin Temple (Temple for the Goddess of Mercy). The area accommodates large audiences at festivals and is adorned with bamboos and modern sculptures: a chrysanthemum, garlic, and a lotus, representing Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.
Golden Dragon Museum General Manager Anita Jack said “Cultural tourism is a big part of the Bendigo economy, and we want to go from strength to strength.’’ The Golden Dragon Museum’s 1880s textile collection of international significance was exhibited in Hong Kong in 2013.
The Golden Dragon Museum portrays the success and value of multiculturalism. The museum also depicts the hardships and racism many Chinese faced because of the White Australia Policy at the beginning of the 20th century. It depicts the enduring resilience and industrious nature of the Chinese and follows a storyline with themes embracing what they left in China, their arrival and travel to the goldfields, trades and professions, mining methods, and family and community life. Everyday objects and dioramas bring the time back to life. I was struck by the story of Charles Powell Hodges (b. England 1831, d. Melbourne 1905). He learnt Chinese in Bendigo after arriving in 1853 and worked as an interpreter in the Bendigo Law Courts in the 1860s. He became disillusioned with the treatment of the Chinese and became an adviser to them. He was subsequently decorated with the Mandarin Order ‘The Order of the Crystal Button’ in about 1890.
Recently the Museum has benefited from a magnificent bequest from the St Alban Family. John St Alban, an antique collector from South Australia, scoured the world to find a suitable repository for his Chinese collection of over 100 pieces (mostly imperial furniture) and settled on the Golden Dragon Museum. Valued at several million dollars there are some magnificent Qing Dynasty carved items. Other exhibits include coloured embroidered costumes, ancient money, some artefacts dated to the Shang Dynasty (1500 BC), papier mache hats decorated with gold leaf, a bronze enamelled cloisonné lantern, intricately carved screens, and 1.5 metre high peacock themed wooden carved vases. Of course the two famous dragons (there are eight altogether) live upstairs: Loong, the oldest imperial dragon in the world, first appeared in Bendigo in 1892 and annually paraded in the Bendigo Easter Fair until he retired in 1970. In 1901 Loong travelled to Melbourne to celebrate Federation and in 2001 Loong made the journey back to Melbourne to march in the Centenary of Federation parade.
New dragon on the block, Sun Loong, is the longest imperial dragon in the world and is housed in the Museum also. Created in Hong Kong, he has 90,000 mirrors, 30,000 beads and his head weighs 29kg. He needs 57 fit helpers plus reserves to carry him. No wonder over 100,000 people turn up to watch him weave his way through Bendigo’s streets at Easter.
Former Minister for Tourism, Resources and Energy Martin Ferguson in 2011 described the Golden Dragon Museum as the best exhibit nationally of China’s historical significance to Australia.
The Yi Yuan (Garden of Joy) was a joint project between the Bendigo Chinese Association Incorporated; the City of Greater Bendigo; the Federal Government; the Victorian State Government; and the City of Baoding (Hebei Province, China).
Artisans travelled from Baoding and materials were imported to create the classical Chinese garden. The architecture and construction reminds me of the Summer Palace in Beijing. It is a walled scene of tranquillity in the hot Victorian summer.
The Bendigo Easter Festival is a weekend of activities comprising community groups, bands, and schools, when costumes and exhibits housed in the Golden Dragon Museum come out on display alongside the famous Sun Loong. Sun Loong only parades once a year. His awakening on the Saturday afternoon preceding the parade includes Chinese dances, dragon dancing, lion dancing, Chinese drummers and martial arts demonstrations and attracts a large audience. On Easter Sunday more activities and performances are followed by the return of Sun Loong to hibernation for another year
Make sure you combine your museum visit with the Yi Yuan Gardens and Kuan Yin Temple – all in the Dai Gum San precinct – a short 5 minute walk from the centre of town and entry is covered on one ticket. Group bookings are also available.