Kung hei fat choi! 恭喜發財! Happy new year!
As we enter the Year of the Dragon in 2024, here’s a look back at how the Chinese community in the tin mining settlement of Thomas’ Plains (also known as Weldborough), Tasmania, celebrated New Year in 1884 – one hundred and forty years ago.
The report by ‘Miner’, published in the Hobart Mercury on 6 February, 1884, includes a mention of the joss house at Weldborough. This temple was only newly opened at the time of writing, and it remained in use until 1934. Today, its contents, and those of five other nineteenth-century joss houses from the north-east of Tasmania, make up the Guan Di Temple (關帝廟) at the Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery in Launceston.
‘On first pitching my tent within the margin of this sunny oasis of the forest, I little thought eight years hence its echoes would be awakened by the discordant jinglings of a Chinese orchestra; but so it is, and the year 1884 of the Christian era, and the ninth year of the reign of Tsai-Tien, Emperor of China, leave an established epoch in the history of Weldborough.
Like most mining settlements, we, too, have passed through a series of perplexing ups and downs since the year 1875. So great, indeed, are the changes through which we have entered as to make us often somewhat doubtful of our position. Many who came here as the pioneers of our tin mines have retired from the field, some to rest upon their gains, and others, to toil afresh in pastures new; and some, I regret to think, are numbered with the past. What with births, deaths, and marriages, and earthquakes, we are induced to review the principles of cause and effect.
Both morally and physically we indicate a transition : the Celtic and Saxon blendings are fast yielding to the strongly-marked tendencies of the Mongolian. This is seen in all our public and festive gatherings, but strongly so in the large brood of almond-eyed, olive-cheeked urchins attending our day school. If there is any truth in the tenet advanced by many of our philosophers, touching Nature’s fiat on the ‘surviance of the fittest’, John, here, may be said to be in the ascendant, since he has driven the European from the field, and is now master of his position. …
We are now in the midst of the high festivities of their new year. There is one continual round of feasting, music, fireworks, and Joss ceremonials. There must be fully 300 men congregated within the camp, all living in the highest state of enjoyment, for the time being all things seem to be held in common, even the barbarous European is present again and again to partake of their dainties, consisting of pork, fowls, and rice, with oceans of oil and other celestial condiments.
There is one very noticeable feature brought out in John’s feastings, he does not forget his god. The inevitable pig is roasted whole, and borne as an offering to the altar, amid the burning of incense, the clashing of cymbals, prostrations, prayers, incantations, and a crackling blaze of fireworks, after which it is returned to render a more substantial service, as the sacred tit-bits of another feast.
Whatever may appear the architectural frailties of our Chinese dwelling places, which may be said to consist for the most part of palings, poles, and rice-bags, they have spared no expense in embellishing and decorating their Joss House, which may be said to glitter with adornments. The altar-pieces, and symbolical carvings, and gilding, and painting on glass, show much artistic skill and cleverness; but, alas! to what strange purposes employed. …
Yours, etc., MINER
Thomas’ Plains, February 1, 1884.’