Aestheticisation as obfuscation

When a historic site is turned into a “ecotourist” site of leisure and pleasure, what is missed? Especially in the context of Australian history, which is scarred by layers and layers of oppression related to race, gender and class (but foremost race), what is being erased from community memory and from public discourse through the marketing of leisure and pleasure in the form of ecotourism, which is being driven by a positioning of branding aimed solely at profit? Pain and suffering, historically real and often unresolved to the present day, are covered over phenomenologically in order to avoid any dent on the marketability of a commercially controlled historic site.

Indeed what is sacrificed through a commercially operated aestheticisation of a historic site of pain and suffering is moral courage. Not only history in its authenticity, but human decency based on conscience, stand at crossroads when a historic site is no longer remembered in its totality. Its visage of trauma awaits discovery and discussion.


A statement of purpose: on the Australian legacy of racism

Since its inception in October 2013 this blog has mostly covered the subject matter of racism against non-Europeans, particularly East Asians, in the history of quarantine stations in Australia. The main reason for this is that in both academic and popular discourses, racism in quarantine is not discussed enough. In fact there has been no space or forum for an Australian scholar whose non-European heritage would be pathologised during the heydays of quarantine stations under their racist schema. Hence the reason for this blog as an expression of intellectual resistance; and may many more written materials by non-European Australians follow.

Given the dispossession of Indigenous Australians, who are yet to be formally recognised as first Australians in our 114-year-old Constitution, Australia is a country fraught with problems caused by a legacy of racism: the very foundation of the Federation in 1901 was established upon the exclusion of non-Europeans. Even to this day, in our so-called multicultural democracy, many immigrants, particularly those of non-European background, are challenged by conservatives – let alone outright racists – when they lay claim to Australian identity.

Australia today is undergoing a major demographic shift: precisely the kind that was feared and loathed by the quarantine administrators of the past. For those who cling to the old dream of restoring Anglo-Celtic supremacy against the steady streams of multicultural immigration that began in 1975, quarantine stations, as sites of Australian heritage, can be places of nostalgia for a past glory. However, given the historical reality of large groups of Asians and Pacific Islanders having gone through the Australian quarantine system as Australia managed to find a profitable position in the economy of the Asia-Pacific region – then largely aided by the transnational hegemony of British colonialism -, quarantine stations, as sites of heritage, are also contested grounds where European and non-European identities continue to play out against one another. The fundamental question to ask is always: Whose heritage? Or can we appreciate – but not necessarily morally approve – all heritage aspects of quarantine stations under the one heading of “Australian identity”? This can only happen if the history of racist oppression of non-Europeans at Australian quarantine stations can be truly integrated into a national discourse and be not limited to anything less than that, out of a concern not to offend European sensibilities. Generally speaking, when it comes to the legacy of racism in this country, Australians fall short of the intellectual courage of Germans in their educational ability to confront the horrors and the aftermaths of National Socialism.

Elkington’s friend Cilento: Peel Island Lazaret and systematic racial oppression in public health

Sir Raphael Cilento, Chief Quarantine Officer of Brisbane, was a good friend of Dr John Simeon Colebrook Elkington and succeeded his position in 1928 (Parsons, 2010, p. 88). The two medical men shared the ideology of racial segregation and hierarchisation at quarantine stations and used their authority utmost to institutionalise it. Cilento’s racist ideas about public health were given administrative, architectural and medical expressions on the Peel Island Lazaret near Brisbane, where the sexes and the races were strictly segregated; and where the physical distance between the accommodation for “whites” and the accommodation for “coloureds” was deliberately significant in order to impose a social regime of racial hierarchy based on white supremacy. By doing this, the distance between Europeans and non-Europeans took on a double meaning operating on two levels: spatial as well as social, with the former reinforcing the latter. European Australians had greater socio-cultural value than “coloured” Australians such as Aboriginals, Chinese and Pacific Islanders, and this differentiation in worth impacted on the experience of being in quarantine and in treatment at a lazaret such as Peel Island. In fact until it was made a lazaret in 1907, Peel Island had been used as a quarantine station since 1873. Despite the site’s rich Aboriginal history, once it became a quarantine ground, the Quandamooka people of Moreton Bay was denied their traditional access. Queensland law at the time took away the fundamental rights of Indigenous Australians to move and to settle as they pleased (Juckes et al, 2013, pp. 531-532).

Chief Quarantine Officer Cilento can be considered extraordinarily racist for his enthusiastic leadership in pre-dawn police raids on Aboriginal camps suspected of harbouring sufferers and contacts of leprosy (Hansen’s disease), putting most energy into this “public health” campaign during 1931 (Parsons, 2010, pp. 88-89). The interwar period was a time of consolidation for racialisation of medicine and public health, which aligned them more with ideology rather than science. Such was the colonial legacy of medicine in Australia.


Juckes, Emily, Kelly Greenop and Zbigniew Jarzab, Isolation and segregation: an intercultural analysis of the Peel Island Lazaret. In Alexandra Brown and Andrew Leach (Ed), Proceedings of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand, Volume 2 (Gold Coast, Queensland: SAHANZ, 2013), pp. 529-542.

Parsons, Meg, Defining disease, segregating race: Sir Ralph Cilento, Aboriginal health and leprosy management in twentieth century Queensland. Aboriginal History, 34, 2010, pp. 85-114.

The Grundfrage

What is the Grundfrage that should be asked when studying the history of Australian quarantine stations? Was it not the case that the non-European race, especially the Chinese, and epidemics were irrationally conflated, to the extent that the non-white race itself was perceived as a dangerous disease to be kept out and stamped out? The administration of quarantine stations reflected a “white power” arrangement that ensured there was no ambiguity whatsoever about the pecking order of racial hierarchy in Australian society under the White Australia Policy. That the Quarters for Asiatics were once referred to as “Wexford Street” by quarantine staff indicated the continuous identification of being Asian with social filth that structured their prejudiced consciousness.

Dr Elkington on Chinese passengers; the use of Personal Detail Cards

In his work as the Chief Quarantine Officer of the North-eastern Division, Dr John S C Elkington wrote into quarantine procedures the 19th century Australian prejudice against the Chinese as the principal source of smallpox and hence as being guilty of causing epidemics of this dreaded infectious disease. It was a powerful prejudice that reached its most virulent public expressions in the 1888 social unrest against the arrival of Chinese crew and passengers in Sydney, as in the cases of SS Brisbane, Tsinan, etc., when the Asians were prevented from disembarking for fear of outright violence against them.

In Part IV of Maritime Quarantine Administration, “Management of Quarantine Stations”, published by the Quarantine Service in 1919, its author Dr Elkington makes it quite explicit that the Personal Detail Cards are administered not simply according to the principles of health, but for “enabling classes and families to be kept together” (Elkington, 1919, p. 179). The Cards were utilised to enforce social differentiations in status and power and hence in access to comfort and goods in the liminal situation of being in quarantine, when the boundary between life and death could become blurred in the ever present danger of potentially fatal infectious diseases.

Under the White Australia Policy, when it was paramount that Chinese crew members would under no circumstances be allowed to reside in Australia despite the ongoing necessity to trade with Asia, Dr Elkington singled out the Chinese as worthy of special attention when they were present in the landing party. In a section called “Disembarkation without Preliminary Disinfection”, his instruction is as follows:

“If Chinese passengers are to be landed, opportunity should be given for a Customs Officer to check the numbers going ashore. This can be done from a launch alongside, or, in the case of quarantine for small-pox, a properly-vaccinated Customs Officer may be allowed aboard for the purpose. He should wear overalls in the manner prescribed for boarding vessels in quarantine, and should undergo any prescribed precautionary disinfecting measures when his work is completed” (Elkington, 1919, pp. 179-180).

Under a system of race-based control, the number of the essentially undesirable Other, such as the Chinese, was a matter subject to extra vigilance and surveillance by the authorities, given that the quarantine policy of Australia at the time played the role of ensuring “racial hygiene”, i.e., the prevention of what racists call “miscegenation”.

A forced separation of mother and son: the case of Mun Kee

In 1916 Mun Kee aka Herbert Hooklin aka Victor Hooklin ( was denied re-entry to Australia because of the racial profiling of him conducted by Dr Charles W Reid, Chief Quarantine Officer-General of the Australian Quarantine Service in Sydney. (Dr Reid died during the Greycliffe ferry disaster in Sydney Harbour on 3 November 1927.) Mun Kee was a son of Theresa Hooklin from Tingha, on the Northern Tablelands in New South Wales. He was born out of wedlock with no birth certificate. Theresa’s other sons had Eurasian appearances whereas Mun Kee displayed none, which led to Dr Reid suspecting that his attempt at entry into Australia was fraudulent. Indeed an elaborate racial profiling system had been formulated by the Australian authorities under the aegis of the Emigration Act 1910 to ensure that when dealing with cases of inadequate or apparently confounding documentation, a person with no display of the slightest European features could be excluded from Australia under the White Australia Policy. In the case of Mun Kee, he left Australia for China as a five-year-old boy in 1890, way before the Immigration Restriction Act was introduced in 1901 (Couchman & Bagnall, 2015, pp. 224-226).

Theresa Hooklin and Mun Kee were forcibly denied reunion due to application of racial profiling. The involvement of the Quarantine Service in his case was probably based on the medical expertise of Dr Reid, when medicine was tied up with pseudo-science on race. Quarantine came under the control of the Department of Trade and Customs.

Mun Kee was sent back to China on board SS St Albans, arriving at its last port of call in Australia, Thursday Island, on 28 April 1916, where his permanent departure was recorded. For complete records on this incident, see digitised National Archives resource at


Bagnall, Kate and Tim Sherratt. Invisible Australians: living under the White Australia Policy.

Bagnall, Kate. Anglo-Chinese and the politics of overseas travel from New South Wales, 1898-1925. In Couchman, Sophie and Kate Bagnall (Ed.). Chinese Australians: politics, engagement and resistance. Leiden: Brill, 2015, pp. 203-239.

Former quarantine station as a site of isolation

Quarantine stations were built and administered as sites of infectious disease control and as a countermeasure against the spread of epidemics. This being the case, quarantine stations were essentially sites of isolation from the rest of society in order to ensure the health of a nation. Whether in recovery or in death, a sick internee in quarantine had the liminal experience of isolation from friends and family in the anxiety-causing temporality of uncertainty. He or she was placed under the care of strangers: doctors, nurses and quarantine staff. Familiarity was expunged from the quarantine experience.

Should this isolation be preserved as part of the heritage of a quarantine station such as North Head, which re-opened as a hotel and as a venue for conferences, weddings and birthday parties in April 2008? The six-volume Detailed Area Conservation Management Plan, published by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in 2001 and prepared for them by heritage architects Paul Davies Pty Ltd, states the following regarding the hermeneutics of isolation:

The Quarantine Station is currently under NPWS authority, which has permitted only controlled and limited public access. Historically there has never been open access to the place. Unrestricted access is not appropriate and will diminish the cultural value of the place.

The nature of access has also been controlled. Internees who were infected with disease were isolated either in hospital or isolation wards. They could not go beyond these boundaries and others could not enter. The Precinct was fenced to enforce this. The fencing remains in this area to reinforce the experience of isolation.

Passengers who were not infected were segregated on site by class (often defined by passenger class on the quarantined ship) and race. This is reflected in the physical layout of the site but is no longer reinforced by fencing.

Staff were also segregated within fenced areas that were isolated from the passengers. Over time there has been varying and controlled access of different groups to parts of the site. This experience should be retained (DACMP, 2001, 189; italics mine).