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.

Advertisement

Chinese Lantern Festival

Among the badly faded Chinese calligraphic inscriptions on the sandstone rocks in the Wharf Precinct of the North Head Quarantine Station is one that stands out in terms of the timing of the inscription itself. In it a Chinese person from SS Taiyuan, then a regular maritime visitor to Australia from Hong Kong, made reference to the date of writing as “Yuanxiao” (元宵), which is an auspicious time in the traditional Chinese calendar, a time that brings families, friends and communities together in celebratory public space: the Lantern Festival.

Yuanxiao falls on the 15th day of the first month in the Chinese calendar, when the moon is full. Going by the Chinese zodiac, one can also learn from the inscription the year in which it was made.