Rediscovering Buk Ti

As I sat as guest at the annual Christmas party in late 2018 at the little pub at Lucinda overlooking Hinchinbrook Island, I was taken in by the enthusiasm of the President of the Ingham Family History Association Inc. (IFHA) and her request for help  with a “little display”. 

A “little display” she said, counting off on her fingers one by one, “…which talks about Chinese in the Lower Herbert Valley, why they came here, what they did, who they were… and hospitals, police, gambling, businesses, Chinatowns, the families, the schools, the opium…” and so the list went on.

“This is not a display,” I blurted out “this is an exhibition!”

And so our journey began to research, collate, write, organise and display what has become an extraordinary exhibition which consumed the next fourteen months of our lives!

Experts at researching family history, but never having undertaken such a large project before, IFHA were faced with an enormous task. There were gaps in knowledge when it came to computer, design and interpretive writing skills. Few had seen or knew what a Chinese artefact looked like and no one had ever really thought about the Lower Herbert valley as a place where Chinese men settled.

This was after all, a town known as an Italian town, with its Art Deco buildings, Romeo and Juliet balconies and annual Italian Festival

No one in the community expected a bunch of retired women with an average age of seventy-five to pull off such an ambitious program. But pull it off they did!

IFHA women threw themselves into the project with gusto to learn, discover and reveal the rich history of Chinese migration to the Hinchinbrook Shire district. They undertook training to develop computer skills in Power-point and Publisher, went on field trips and talked to the community to secure precious Chinese artefacts for loan.  

Most importantly the women talked to local Chinese descendant families and collected their stories, giving voice to over 26 families.  Family history stories form a vital part of the exhibition, revealing Chinese family links throughout north Queensland,  across many generations, including  deep connections into the Cairns community.

One of the most exciting discoveries made during the research phase was a small black and white photograph no bigger than 4cm X 6 cm of the now long gone Halifax Temple interior.

This is the only visual reminder of a once thriving spiritual and social community located deep in the heart of the sugar cane fields – cane fields that were connected by Chinese constructed tramways to one of the many busy Mills.

The quality of the image was so good it could be blown up into a banner 2.4 metres by 1.8 metres and revealed the name of the Temple deity – “Buk Ti” or Temple of the Northern God.

Cairns was the only other town to have a Buk Ti Temple. It was destroyed by fire in 1927, and today the site located where the small car park is today next to Oceana Walk Arcade in Grafton Street.

Connected as part of the broader Chinese Diaspora of the 19th Century, the links between the small thriving Lower Herbert River Chinese communities and the large Cairns and District Chinese community go beyond just a migration pattern. Extensive family and settler connections can be found in marriage and business links, sugarcane farming, market gardening and China based village associations.

After visiting this exhibition, why don’t you take a walk down to the old Cairns Chinatown in Grafton Street between Spence and Shields Street and imagine the old Chinatown there. Let your imagination transport you back in time to a bustling Chinese-Australian community and take a moment to reflect upon the hardships experienced by Chinese settlers living under restrictions and the White Australia Policy.