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.

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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?