Tucked into an alleyway in the heart of Melbourne’s Chinatown lies a simple red-brick building, two fierce Chinese lions standing guard at its door. The gates are open and two banners proclaim the name of one of Melbourne’s best kept secrets: the Chinese Museum. Quintessentially capturing the lives and cultures of one of Australia’s most populous ethnic groups, this intriguing little museum is a must-see for any Australian adventurer.
The Chinese Museum, known formally as The Museum of Chinese Australian History, was established in 1985 as a community-run, not-for-profit national institution dedicated to documenting, preserving, collecting, and researching the history and culture of Chinese Australians and their descendants. Stepping inside felt like stepping back in time as I immersed myself in a rich and diverse culture I, embarrassingly, knew so little about.
The presence of Chinese migrants, and their descendants, seemed to me so intrinsically entwined in Australian history that I had never really given it a second thought. The Chinese Museum changed this completely for me, providing an unforgettable experience to learn about an amazing culture that I could see being practiced everywhere around me.
In the museum I found myself face to face with an absolutely gorgeous collection of brightly-painted animal sculptures, used in the iconic Chinese Dragon Parades. Urns twice my height, colour paper lanterns, traditional clothing, and a myriad of dragons are only the beginning of the museum’s extensive collection of artefacts.
In the neighbouring Dragon Gallery sits the famous Dai Loong millennium dragon, the largest Chinese Dragon in the world, winding its way around and around a spiral staircase as I headed deeper into the lower levels of the museum. I thought it would never end! One of the staff members was happy to chat about how the dragon was crafted by a specialised dragon maker in China, one of a sadly dying art, and was brought to Melbourne as a symbol of Australian-Chinese harmony.
The basement housed a collection of artefacts describing the shocking and sometimes grisly life of Chinese workers in Australian goldmines in the mid-19th century. Here there were glass cases containing letters from migrant Chinese workers detailing the terrible conditions, re-creations of tents with mahjong boards, and even a recreated theatre tent as an example of where lively Cantonese theatre was performed for the workers after a hard day’s work. This section was an education in itself, providing a mostly-silenced perspective on a hushed period in Australian history that I had only learned about from my parents.
Taking another set of spiral staircases led me to the Bridge of Memories Exhibition, which tells the amazing stories of contemporary Chinese Australians, as well as many Asian-Australians from other parts of Asia. The exhibition also dealt with Asian-Australian identity as it chronicled the lives of many prominent figures in the community.
As I stepped from the embracing warmth of the Chinese Museum into a chilly Melbourne day I felt completely educated and with a passionate desire to learn more about Chinese culture that lent itself to quite a few hours of googling. Not only does the museum serve as an educational portal, for both tourists and locals, it also serves as an important connection to traditional culture and roots for the local Asian-Australian community, hosting festivals and seminars in a wide array of subjects.
Engaging, beautiful and educational, the Chinese Museum should be at the top of any sight-list for any traveller making the journey down-under, or any Aussie wanting to learn more about the fascinating Chinese culture. I promise you will not regret it!
– Shannon xx
For more information about the Chinese Museum, and to see their list of upcoming events, click here!
Have you been to the Chinese Museum? Interested in Chinese culture? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, I love your opinions!