Celebrating Chinese New Year in advance: the quarantine of Eastern’s Chinese crew (December 1923-January 1924)

On a pleasant afternoon stroll down to the Wharf Precinct of the former North Head Quarantine Station today, I looked at and mentally greeted the zhaocai jinbao inscription on a rock wall full of European inscriptions, as I often do when I go past there. This time I was delightfully surprised to find that the Chinese characters written horizontally with a brush just above the lid of the engraved Chinese-style clay urn are now completely visible. (They first became partly visible in January 2015, and I sent a photograph of my discovery to the Quarantine Project at the University of Sydney.) Many of the words in the eight vertical lines of the Tang-style seven-syllable poem (qiyan lüshi), inscribed in the upper half of the urn, have become visible, too, but only partly, which means that they are still blurred and remain illegible to the naked eye. Painted over with crude strokes of black ink by anti-Chinese people in an unidentified period in the history of the Quarantine Station, the re-emergence of these Chinese characters, as the offending overlay that once silenced them is gradually wearing off through exposure to the elements, is historically significant for the memorialisation of Chinese culture in Australia.

SS Eastern was quarantined on 23 December 1923, the same day it entered Sydney Harbour after travelling down the coast from Queensland. In the lunisolar calendar used by the Chinese, 23 December was the 16th day of the eleventh month of the guihai (癸亥) year, or Year of the Pig. In the zhaocai jinbao inscription, the date of its creation was given as the 15th of the last month of the guihai year, which, in the Gregorian calendar used in the West, fell on 20 January 1924. This was an indication that the quarantine of the Chinese crew had already exceeded the mandatory 18-day period stipulated by the Commonwealth’s Quarantine Service.

The first day of the Chinese New Year in the jiazi year, the Year of the Rat which immediately follows the Year of the Pig, fell on Tuesday 5 February 1924, which was 15 days after the zhaocai jinbao inscription was made. (In 2019, it will fall on the same day in February.) Were the Chinese crew, presumably detained at the Quarters for Asiatics, where P14, P15 and P16 were three adjoining dormitories crammed with bunk beds, still in quarantine then? Or had they already been released and were celebrating Chinese New Year aboard Eastern in its Hong Kong-bound voyage?

[work in progress]

23 December is the first day of my present sojourn at the former Quarantine Station. Unbeknownst to me until today, it was also the 95th anniversary of the 1923 quarantine of SS Eastern. After coming to stay here for nearly ten years, I am no stranger to the mysterious ways of North Head, a very sacred site of the Gai-mariagal people. May the primacy of their heritage at North Head never be forgotten.

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