I walk up the hill, away from the graffiti and loathsome cakes on Acland street in St Kilda, to the Jewish Museum of Australia. Most people are here on a rainy Sunday afternoon for the exhibition of Warhol’s Jewish Geniuses. I head, instead, to the back of the building, ignoring the Judaica too. I want to find out about the first Jewish migrants to Australia.
In fact many of the fourteen Jews, on the first fleet of convicts, were from London’s Jewish East End. John Harris, who stole eight spoons, was among them. I assume, perhaps wrongly, that he turned his back on petty crime as he become New South Wales’ first policeman. His was not the only success story. Fellow convict Esther Abrahams, married Governor George Johnston and became the unofficial first lady of New South Wales. Jewish free settlers followed later, buying land and engaging in commerce and the arts, advantages often denied to them in Europe at the time.
I catch sight of a fine chanukiah lamp, a simple, contemporary design. It was made with nail scissors out of an old kerosene tin by George Chodziesner. George escaped from Germany in 1839 but was imprisoned on the Isle of Man. He was then transported with 2,500 enemy aliens, 2,000 of them Jewish, on HM Dunera to Australia. As Kurt Weiser wrote in his diary, ‘19 wasted months’. But not entirely. The internees of Hay Camp set up a university, held music ensembles and ran art activities. Among the many artists in the camp was Ludwig Hirschfield-Mock. He studied printmaking at the Bauhaus under Kandinsky and Klee and depicted camp life in moving woodcuts.
Many of the World War 11 detainees stayed on in Australia and became successful in politics, commerce and the arts. An intriguing kippah (skull cap), covered in a dot Aboriginal design, seems to support the Museum’s message that Jews adapted and assimilated to their new home. But the men attending the synagogue opposite are wearing nothing so flamboyant.
In the basement of Melbourne’s Museum of Chinese Australian History I meet Wong Kwok Lum.
A sign invites me to join him on his journey in the 1850s to seek his fortune on the Gold Mountain. I steady myself as the wooden planks move and creak as Wong’s voice evokes the high seas and cramped quarters. I pass dioramas of Chinese men digging for gold in the outback,
enter their cookshops, temples and gambling clubs.
They even held operas down the mines – with an all male cast I assume. In 1857 there were only 3 women among the 25,000 Chinese. From the posters it seems the only criteria to fill the role of bearded wise man or woman warrior was to fit into the costume.
The longest Chinese dragon in the world leads me up the winding staircase. The top floors provide more context to the life of Chinese miners and the discrimination they faced. They were taxed £10 entering the colony whilst Europeans were taxed a mere shilling. From 1858 they had to pay a £6 licence fee and 2000 were jailed for non-payment. They also suffered at the hands of Chinese businessmen to whom they were contracted and then indebted as they paid back their passage.
Yet, although numbers declined with the increasingly restrictive immigration and other discriminatory laws, the Chinese showed resilience. They became market gardeners, herbalists, merchants, shopkeepers, cabinetmakers and restaurateurs. Some joined work gangs of up to 500 to clear the bush and dig dams. They adapted, assimilated – holding debutante balls, joining sports teams, performing opera that combined the best of east and west with some converting to Christianity.
I climb to the top floor of this five-storey building. Here panels educate me about the diversity of Chinese Australians. Michael Ann Tan, aged 6, escaped from Vietnam with his mother. He believes it was the right decision, although painful, as his father had remarried, “even though …..we may have ended up at the bottom of the ocean.” Now he is, “ too Aussie to be Asian but not Aussie enough to be true Blue.” Are the two really so contradictory? I wonder, given Australia’s location.
When Ken Ong, from Malaysia, was young he saw Kuala Lumpur burn and dead bodies in the streets. He left believing that, “the situation was never going to be equal for us (Malay Chinese).” Alex Tseng came from Hong Kong in 1966 for schooling and then graduation, having fled communist China in 1959.Wei Wei Quian, after holidaying in China writes, “This (Australia) is my home.”
All stories are important but one in a temporary exhibition I found particularly moving. 200 men of Chinese descent enlisted in the Anzacs during World War One, 40 died and 19 received gallantry awards. Billy Singh, of Chinese and Scottish descent on his mother’s side, was one of them. Known as the ‘assassin’ he received the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Croix de Guerre. In 1918 he was medically discharged, having been wounded and gassed. He lived alone for the rest of his life and died in poverty.
This Museum has a wealth of rich material but its displays are eclectic, varying in styles and, no doubt, developed at different times. Poor Wong Kowk Lung has been suffering seasickness in the basement for far too long. Not that I would get rid of the immersive experience – ham it up even, reenact the opera in the mines, cook the menu displayed in the cookshop, invite us to join in the lottery game, even dig for gold. Maybe one of the successful Chinese migrants could be persuaded to invest some cash to bring cohesion to the design and revitalize this important story.
I take the number 86 tram to the end of the line and then walk through a creek for about forty minutes. I sigh with relief when I see a mosque, enter and ask the warder,
“Can you direct me to the Islamic Museum of Australia?”
The warder looks blank. He knows nothing about any museum so I hail a taxi. I fall lucky. The cab driver is a Lebanese Muslim who has taken his children to this new museum that recently opened in February 2014.
“It’s a Turkish mosque,” he says as if that explains the ignorance of the warder.
I enter into a hall way filled with light filtered through a frieze of stars. I pass quickly through the sections on Islamic way of life although stop to read an illuminating interpretatiion of ‘jihad’ and to listen to young enlightened Muslim women. In the next gallery I stop to read about the Islamic take on the Dark Ages. It is the Golden Age of Islamic science, engineering, literature, art, architecture and navigation communicated through an up-beat, child-friendly film. The text too is engaging. I learn about a Muslim who opened vapour baths on Brighton seafront in 1759 and was appointed Shampooing Surgeon to King George IV and William 1V.
As I pass through the gallery on contemporary art I am stopped in my tracks by an upright surfing board decorated with Islamic design – even more startling than the Aboriginal kippah.
But again, it is the history of Muslims in Australia that captures me.
It was as early as the 1700s that Muslim fisherman came first from Indonesia to Australia’s shores. They sailed across the ocean, 50 boats at a time, to fish for sea slugs, considered a delicacy by the Chinese. That is until their visits were banned in 1907. Then came the camel handlers from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. 2,000 came between 1870 and 1920 to drive 20,000 camels. The animals were ideal for exploring into the interior, and transporting material for constructing roads. Unable to bring over their wives and children the handlers left in the 1940s when camels were no longer needed. That is except for those who had married Indigenous or European women.
The 20th century saw the arrival of Muslims from Cyprus, Turkey, Albania, Boston, Lebanon, other Middle Eastern countries and Africa. From 1900s Malay labourers came as pearl divers and to fish sea slugs. In the 1920s Albanian migrants came to work on the sugar cane fields and later Bosnians and Kosovans came to build the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electrical scheme. Today Muslims make up less than 2% of Australia’s population.
On the way back to the city I pick up a newspaper and read about the terrifying siege in Sydney. A radical Muslim or a deranged individual? In any case a timely reminder of the importance of such museums perhaps – but in such an out of the way place?
So how will the Museum of Immigration compare with these more community driven initiatives, all keen to show their contribution to present day multicultural Australia. What role do they play that is distinctive and what can the Museum of Immigration add? Tomorrow will tell.