Cairns Museum is hosting an intriguing exhibition on the influential generation of post war Chinese-Australians who grew up in Tropical North Queensland – but be quick, this exhibit will close late March.
Museum manager Suzanne Gibson explains the background to Two Worlds.
Can you tell me a little bit more about this exhibition?
This exhibition features photographs, objects and stories from Chinese Australians about growing up in Cairns in the period from WW2 to the 1960s.
They reveal young people steeped in family and community. Food, work, parties and play all feature. On camera, this generation effortlessly - and stylishly - step out and into all that Cairns had to offer.
However, their memories reveal a more complex story. Growing up in Cairns for these young people meant navigating between a traditional Chinese family life and an outside world steeped in ‘White Australia’ patriotism.
The result was a resilient, self-reliant and adaptable generation. These young people put their heads down and worked hard. They obeyed the demands of family and business and they built lives that contributed to the social, cultural and economic fabric of Cairns.
The exhibition is a collaboration between Cairns Museum and CADCAI for Chinese New Year and is based on interviews with 6 local Chinese Australian who came of age in Cairns from WW2.
How fascinating is the Chinese history here in Tropical North Queensland? .
The Chinese community is one of this region’s pioneering communities – as we know in the early years of Cairns the Chinese community comprised almost 30% of the non-Indigenous population.
Often our understanding of the community is based on the early history of Chinatown, which is understandable – but this exhibition explores the lives of the subsequent generations of Chinese Australian in Cairns, after the implementation of the White Australia policies, when Australia turned its back on Asian migration.
The Cairns Chinese Australian community of the 40s and 50s worked hard, socialised together and valued family above everything. They were also an important part of the local economy – fruit and vegetable wholesalers and retailers like Sangs, Chiu Chongs, Tong Sing and Lee Sangs supplied most of the fresh fruit and vegetables in Cairns, while Chinese-owned market gardens, restaurants, farms and retailers were also part of the local economy.
Yet there were very real impacts of the White Australia era on their lives. Overseas-born Chinese in Cairns were unable to become naturalised, so they endured decades of restrictions based on their status as ‘aliens’. Those born here also had challenges. The playground was tough. Jobs or socialising outside the Chinese community was virtually unknown, especially for young Chinese women.
You have timed this with Chinese New Year, do you feel this is a great way to celebrate / mark the occasion? .
Yes! The Elders we have spoken with are all locals and their memories and photographs are a wonderful and never before exhibited window into Cairns of the 40s, 50s and 60s.
Who do you think would enjoy this exhibit?
We expect the exhibition will appeal to both locals and visitors. We know international Chinese visitors are interested in learning about local Chinese history, so we want to welcome them to the exhibition. Many locals will know the people whose stories we explore and as well, the photographs are absolutely beautiful so younger visitors will enjoy exploring the stories and fashions of another era..