Heavenly flowers

Tianhua (天花), literally meaning “heavenly flowers”, is the Chinese term for smallpox. This term is visible in one of the very faded Chinese inscriptions in the Wharf Precinct of the North Head Quarantine Station. That a disfiguring and often fatal disease like smallpox can be likened to a flower is no accident. It is based on the discontinued Chinese practice of variolation – as distinct from the Western practice of vaccination – where smallpox was planted as a seed (“miao“) in the human body, usually that of a child, to trigger the onset of a milder form of the disease, which would then render the variolated person immune to the deadly forms of smallpox. When the pox appeared on the skin as a result of the planting of the seed, it was as if the disease had flowered (Chang, 2013, pp. 157-158). Even the Qing royalty was not exempt from this practice. However, variolation sometimes resulted in full-blown smallpox developing instead, and death came knocking on the door.

Coming back to North Head: in the best known Chinese poem inscribed on a Wharf Precinct sandstone wall on site, written by Xie Pingde in 1917 (the year of Dingsi), the first character in the first (vertical) line is tian (天) with the character immediately following it having already weathered beyond visibility; the third character in the same line is yang (洋), which can mean either “ocean” or “Western”. Can the invisible character in between be hua (花), which would mean that smallpox is the first thing that Xie referred to in his existential inscription? The second line of the poem refers to his fear of catching an unnamed infectious disease.

No author has looked at the Xie poem this way before.


Chang, Chia-feng. Variolation, in Hinrichs, T J and Linda L Barnes (ed.), Chinese medicine and healing. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013, pp. 157-158.


Asiatics’ latrine, North Head Quarantine Station

On my pre-dawn walk through the Quarters for Asiatics during my present stay at the North Head Quarantine Station, I was suddenly guided, as if my invisible hands, to walk down a glassy slope off the road and to a shaded area below some trees. There in front of my eyes was a perfectly straight line of the remaining brick foundation of a previously demolished structure. The position of the foundation corresponds quite well to that of the latrine (P32) for non-Europeans, mostly Chinese, quarantined in the dormitories in the Quarters for Asiatics (P14-16).

Prior to this morning’s discovery I had been looking for the remnants of the Asiatics’ latrine since last year.

Two exhumations in Third Cemetery, North Head

Two exhumations were conducted, presumably on different days, in the Third Cemetery of the North Head Quarantine Station. Both deceased suffered from pneumonic influenza (Spanish influenza) and were passengers from RMS Makura, which was quarantined at North Head in early December 1918: the 28-year-old Alice Ethel Sime, who was buried on 20 December 1918 (grave no. 216) and the 32-year-old Mon Yick, who was buried on 22 January 1919 (grave no. 218). In Yick’s case, the cause of his death was tuberculosis supervening on the influenza. The Sydney Morning Herald of 23 January 1919 reports that Yick had been sick since November 1918, i.e., during the voyage of Makura and before its arrival in Sydney, although this is not specified in the article. Earlier, on 19 December 1918, the Argus reports that Yick was one of the “dangerously ill” patients at the North Head Quarantine Station, implying death was possibly near. “Dangerously ill” patients referred to “seriously ill” patients who got worse.

The entry on Sime in the “Record of Deaths at Quarantine Station” states that her “body” was “exhumed” and “taken to Melbourne” – yet the date on which this occurred was not specified.

The entry on Yick in the same record states that his “remains” were “exhumed” for “transportation to China” on 10 September 1929.

The two entries on the exhumations of Sime and Yick were written by different hands and in red ink.

My examination of the preserved correspondence on the Third Cemetery graves in National Archives file SP399/1 80/8 unfortunately did not result in the location of any documents on the two exhumations. The author read the file, which is not at all substantial, at the National Archives at Chester Hill on 17 September 2014. Presumably the records are incomplete.

The interesting question would be who asked Mon Yick’s remains to be exhumed and then repatriated to China, and what motivated that person. The other question to be asked was the reason for Yick’s arrival in Australia. With the White Australia Policy firmly in place in 1918, was he a returning resident with an exemption certificate? Or was Yick visiting the country for the first time? If that was the case, would he not have to be a crew member of RMS Makura, given that no person of Asian background was welcome to settle in Australia at that time? If Yick was a crew member, then he would have died as a foreigner at the North Head Quarantine Station, and more than a decade after his death, some Chinese person or persons saw it fit to have his bones returned to his place of origin in China, wherever that might be.

Yick is most probably the Cantonese pronunciation of Yi in Mandarin. It is a Chinese family name – not one of the most common ones – and is written as 易 in Chinese script. However, if Mon Yick was an early Chinese settler in Australia, there was also a chance that both words were his given name, and Yick was entered as his surname in the Quarantine Station records simply because it occupied the second place in the name, following Western convention.

Guinea pigs

Each time guinea pigs were delivered to the North Head Quarantine Station for experimental purposes, the activity warranted an entry in the official diaries kept by the Quarantine Officers, the surviving ones of which can be viewed at the National Archives today. 

Each time a guinea pig died, a Quarantine Officer would also dutifully make an entry to record such incident – seemingly minor in view of the actual deaths of humans that took place from time to time in the Hospital Precinct. 

Viewed hermeneutically, however, the lives and deaths of these guinea pigs, while not significant in themselves, nevertheless implied something that was: the possibility of dual use research taking place in Australian quarantine stations such as North Head, in the name of developing vaccines against deadly diseases?