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In search of Chinese roots down by the Yarra

Xinhua | Updated: 2022-09-17 15:05
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Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated in Melbourne's Chinese community on Sept 10. [Photo/Xinhua]

The Museum of Chinese Australian History in the heart of Melbourne's Chinatown is not only a landmark but also a place where Chinese from near and far can get a glimpse of their heritage and perhaps even their ancestry.

The museum, a kilometer or so north of the Yarra River that flows through the city, has a collection of more than 8,000 exhibits reflecting Chinese Australian heritage, including an English phrase book dating back to 1857.

The phrase book, translated into Mandarin and Cantonese, shows how to communicate in a range of situations across the language divide, helping immigrants find their way in Australia, says Mark Wang, chief executive officer of the museum.

Wang, one of those who attended the museum's inauguration in 1985, is a descendant of Chinese gold rush prospectors who came to Australia seeking their fortune between 1851 and the late 1860s.

"The core value of the museum is to build a harmonious society for all the people who have Chinese ancestry in their lineage or anyone hoping to be a part of the society," Wang says.

Many of the museum's visitors take part in regular conferences or workshops, trying to find out something about their ancestors and of their own place in society, he says.

"It's social. It's linking all of the pieces of the jigsaw, about how they (ancestors) lived, how they connected and where they lived."

Wang, who grew up with stories of his great-great-grandfather, says that the Chinese who arrived in Australia in the second half of the 19th century did so for many reasons. As a result of labor shortages, some were engaged in growing vegetables even as others came to take part in the gold rush. "That's why we stored stories. The Chinese Australians now want to know."

Wang says he is keen to present the Chinese spirit in a contemporary way, but that should not mean the serious side of carrying out that task should be subsumed to technological gimmickry.

The Arts Collective, opened by the museum in March, involves a group of artists and young people who wish to demonstrate the Chinese Australian experience through contemporary art.

"There's history in the heritage, but the heritage is what is within you," Wang says. "We told the artists taking part that they are actually painting and expressing the heritage within themselves."

To celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival recently, the museum arranged a series of traditional activities, including mooncake making and riddle guessing.

One visitor said: "I'm Vietnamese Australian but have a Chinese lineage from my grandfather's side. I've never been to China, so whenever a traditional festival comes, I look at the museum website and join in those traditional practices. It makes me feel closer to my grandfather."

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