As the time approaches midday, I was delighted to discover very faint carvings of Chinese characters on top of the six clear ones – which I already knew about before – on the slate drain cover outside P5 on Main Axial Street, one of the former first class passenger buildings at the North Head Quarantine Station which also includes a fine dining room with lead windows and a servery. In the strong sunlight I was able to make out one of the faint characters as cai, which means wealth, as in facai (getting rich). However, despite their faintness, I could tell from the outlines of the remaining illegible characters that in this instance cai was not used as part of the Chinese New Year saying zhaocai jinbao, a customary stylistic rendition of which can be found, well-rendered in black ink, on a rock face off the road to the Wharf Precinct of the same quarantine station.
A people currently under the colonial rule of Chinese such as Tibetans, who as a whole are deeply religious as Vajrayana Buddhists, are typically critical of the grass roots materialism of the Chinese. It can be said quite fairly that for those Chinese who still chose to come to Australia under the unfriendly circumstances of the White Australia Policy, materialism was their motivation. It was certainly not about becoming a member of the young Australian nation, which excluded non-Europeans as a matter of policy since its rebirth as a Federation, with an identity of its own as distinct from the British Empire, in 1901.
The Chinese engraving on the P5 drain cover appears unfinished, but the dating by its author, which consists of four characters, is clearly visible: Minguo 19, which is equivalent to 1930 in the Western Gregorian calendar. But given the strict racial demarcation instituted at the North Head Quarantine Station at the time, how did a Chinese person end up in the First Class Precinct? A similar question can be posed in regard to the well-executed “Talking to the Moon” poem on the twin drain covers that until recently were outside P13, the kitchen and the cook’s quarters in the Second Class Precinct at the northern end of Main Axial Street. Is it possible that these three drain covers were transferred from the Quarters for Asiatics for purely practical reasons?
Given the absence of any publications in English on the relationship between Australian quarantine history and East Asian public health and quarantine, Professor Kohei Wakimura’s recent article, “Quarantine, international relations and East Asia: The late 19th century and the inter-war period,” published in Taipei, Taiwan in 2011, importantly fills the gap in this aspect of quarantine studies and establishes the ground for a hermeneutic Annährung between Australia and, in this particular case, Japan. For example, given the frequency of Japanese steamship arrivals at the North Head Quarantine Station between the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, carrying mostly Chinese passengers and cargo from Hong Kong, the maritime connection between Australia and Japan from the perspective of quarantine is an unexplored area of research that invites investment and development.
Reports vary as to the exact number of passengers’ and crew members’ engravings and inscriptions at North Head: anything between one to two thousand, which means that no one really knows the exact number. This is because the great majority of them have faded, i.e. mercilessly eroded by the harsh elements of salt and rain in an exposed landscape such as North Head, which are massive cliffs standing as eternal sentinels at the entrance to Sydney Harbour, with one side of them facing the great Pacific Ocean. Time is the enemy when it comes to preservation of historical artefacts such as the North Head engravings and inscriptions at the former Quarantine Station and at a uniquely formed cliff edge called Old Man’s Hat, not far from the Station’s boundaries on the southeast.
To the researcher as well as the casual visitor, engravings and inscriptions which are half- or totally illegible can be frustrating to look at, simply because one cannot make any sense of them. We come up against a wall: it is as if the artefacts merge into the sandstone surfaces, on which they were inscribed, and disappear – not from the life-world of perception, but from the horizon of interpretation. They go back to where they come from.
What if these faded artefacts are perceived as abstract art instead? In experiencing abstract art, full understanding is not expected of the viewer, because it points to the interiority of experience itself, which varies from individual to individual and is characterised by the natural hues of ambiguity instead of the blinding clarity of rational explanations. We are, as discussed in a recent online article on the great abstract artist Cy Twombly in The Philosopher’s Mail (http://thephilosophersmail.com/perspective/the-great-artists-cy-twombly), only on the cusp of comprehending something, which may or may not be the thing that we think we comprehend. As Dasein, being-on-the-cusp has a temporality all of its own, which invites a nuanced understanding or conversation instead of all-too-confident statements and proclamations.