Illegible and semi-legible engravings and inscriptions as abstract art

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 (, 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.


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? 

Announcement 1

Given the heartening way in which my paper, “Life-world of exclusion: Racial hermeneutics of the Quarters for Asiatics, North Head Quarantine Station” was received at the very recent quarantine project conference held in the former First Class Precinct at North Head Quarantine Station, this blog will now expand its scope to cover all quarantine stations, in the West as well as in the East. Conference delegates from Japanese universities commented to me personally that my paper had opened the door for comparative quarantine studies linking Australia to its Asian neighbours. 

As of today – the fifth anniversary of my near-death experience which on one level had to do with the North Head Quarantine Station – I am changing the tagline of my blog from Interpretations of North Head Quarantine Station to Interpretations of North Head and other quarantine stations, in Australia and overseas. This is going to be a long-term project which hopefully will result in a book. 

Stanley Herbert Young in quarantine

Stanley Herbert Young, born in Glen Innes in 1905 in a Chinese family, was in quarantine at North Head when he returned from China some time in 1911, when he was a six-year-old boy: he had just spent two years in Guangdong province. Young did not elaborate more on his experience in quarantine in his two-page autobiographical description of himself, written in 1989, which is accessible at University of New England Professor Janis Wilton’s Golden Threads website at Nor was it mentioned which steam ship he travelled on. In any case, it would be unlikely that Young was an unaccompanied minor upon his return to Australia.  

Examination of contemporary newspaper articles points to the possibility that the Young (Kwan) family travelled on SS Eastern, which was quarantined at North Head on 12 October 1911 due to a case of smallpox on board. 

Operation Babylift 1975

The Australian arm of Operation Babylift, which involved an audacious international rescue of Vietnamese orphans right before Saigon fell to the advancing communists on 30 April 1975, saw its use of North Head Quarantine Station as a place of temporary respite for these “Asiatics”. By that time, however, the public opinion and mood regarding immigration of non-Europeans had changed dramatically from the core tenet of the racially exclusive Federation, and the Whitlam government used the opportunity of Operation Babylift to practically dismantle the White Australia Policy, which had become a historical burden on Australia when it came to a closer engagement with its Asia-Pacific neighbours, which included the Vietnam War.

Quarantine as white power

Enacted by an act of parliament, quarantine required the use of extraordinary powers: the sick and those who had been in contact with the sick were forced to be removed from their familiar surroundings and to stay instead in an utterly unfamiliar, institutionalised setting in a remote place for what could be a rather long period of time. Unlike a vacation, which also involves being away, internees in quarantine were isolated and segregated and placed under constant surveillance: they lost the basic freedom to do as they pleased, as one would in normal life. Quarantine was a situation in which one’s sense of place became seriously disrupted; there was a sudden rupture in the everyday human comportment to spatiality. The temporality of time, too, became abnormal, for the length of one’s quarantine was never a question of one’s choice. The democratic notion of consultation with the “impacted” with the view to seeking their feedback and input was never part of the equation when it came to quarantine. In quarantine, life was suspended – apparently for one’s own good, and for the good of society. And in the case of a dangerous disease such as plague or smallpox, one could die in quarantine, never to go back home and to one’s loved ones.