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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Zhaocai jinbao as an emblem of defiance

During the current Lunar New Year period celebrating the arrival of the Earth Dog, as an Australian of mixed East Asian backgrounds, it is all the more important that I write about a Chinese heritage emblem of defiance of Australia’s institutionalised racism in its public health history near the Wharf Precinct of the North Head Quarantine Station. It is none other than zhaocai jinbao, a Lunar New Year expression used for decorative purposes in a spirit of joyful auspiciousness.

With the four characters zhao, cai, jin and bao elegantly fused together to create the optical illusion of one character, yet at the same time clearly discernible as four different characters upon closer look, zhaocai jinbao literally means “Attract wealth, ushering in treasure.” Its interplay of unison and difference, calligraphically co-located on the same two-dimensional plane, makes zhaocai jinbao one of the most easily recognisable emblems of Chinese culture in mainland and in diaspora.

Drain cover outside P5, north side

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?