I’ve been keen to see the Musuem of Sydney’s new exhibition, Celestial City: Sydney’s Chinese Story, since it opened last month. So, with two weeks of school holidays and three kids to amuse, it seemed that a trip to Sydney was in order. I hope to have a chance to write up some more detailed thoughts on the exhibition, particularly on its treatment of gender, but for now I’m going to give some quick impressions from our visit. Our party of seven included two adults (one historian, one non-historian) and five kids, ranging from age 4 to age 11.
One of the first things you see walking into the exhibition space are large reproductions of two of the best-known anti-Chinese cartoons, images that are (to my mind at least) racist and offensive. One, which depicts the Australian colonies as beautiful young women working together to dispose of ‘the Chinese pest’ in the form of the large, disembodied head of a Chinese man, particularly caught the little kids’ eyes. The other cartoon, the Bulletin’s notorious ‘Mongolian Octopus’, also caught their attention. On surrounding walls are other large reproductions of illustrations of 19th-century anti-Chinese activities. These images were a sudden and unfortunate introduction for the kids to an exhibition that claims to celebrate ‘the diversity of experiences and successes within the Chinese community’.
These images dominate the space so much that our only real conversation in the exhibition was about racist ideals of White Australia, not about the old and deep connections that tie Sydney to China and the Chinese to Sydney. Supervising the kids meant I didn’t get to read everything for myself, or even to take note of other objects or text that might have told this deeper story in the first part of the exhibition. But if I didn’t see it, the kids certainly didn’t either. (I do have photographs, though, which I’m going to refer to again – it’s just first impressions here.)
The only other item in the exhibition that really caught the little kids’ eyes was a labour contract written in Chinese. Three of the little kids are studying Chinese and have spent significant amounts of time in China. They keenly tried to spot words that they knew. From memory, there is only this one piece in the exhibition in Chinese (actually, now I think about it, there is also an article from a Chinese newspaper and a Chinese-English word book). It would have been great to see more Chinese language material included in the exhibition (and yes, it does exist), particularly as the museum seems keen to attract a Chinese-speaking audience (there is a Chinese-language version of the exhibition catalogue).
When interrogated the day after we saw the exhibition, my 8-year-old said that along with ‘those cartoons’, the thing she remembered from the exhibition was ‘the speaker with the Nomchong thing’, an oral history recording with Lionel Nomchong. She said she listened to a bit of it until her 4-year-old sister came and snatched it off her. Such are the perils of visiting museum exhibitions with (even littler) kids.
The 11-year-old gave the exhibition a much more considered look than the four younger ones. A little way into the exhibition, though, she told me she was confused, although she later said she had ‘mostly understood’ what it was about. Her favourite part was the bit on hawkers and market gardeners – she liked the objects that accompanied it. And she liked Margaret Tart’s Chinese jacket (but hadn’t understood who it belonged to or why she had it).
And as for the impressions of my non-historian friend and me? She thought Celestial City was ‘shallow’, with that shallowness mostly coming from the dominance of White Australian voices throughout the exhibition. White Australians saying how the Chinese were good, White Australians saying how the Chinese were bad. She also didn’t feel she had learned anything new, that the ‘Yellow Peril’ material didn’t really expand her understanding of what life was like for Chinese at the time. Largely that’s how I felt about the exhibition too.
I would have loved to see some of the more recent scholarship on Sydney’s Chinese communities being drawn into the exhibition (e.g. Mei-fen Kuo’s Making Chinese Australia), as well as newer theoretical approaches such as transnationalism. I also have some real concerns about the historical accuracy in parts, the language used (e.g. ‘influx’), and parts of the story that are omitted (which I’ll blog about separately when I’ve had time to think it through a bit more). I had wanted so much to love this exhibition – and there is some great material there, even an item or two that were new to me! – but overall I’m afraid we all came away disappointed. Sydney’s Chinese story is just as fabulous as the exhibition’s publicity hype says it is. Unfortunately this exhibition just doesn’t manage to convey it.