Australia has its fair share of exotic animals; spiders, snakes and crocodiles are the stuff of legend. But it’s a little-known fact that we also have dragons; magnificent, brightly coloured, larger-than-life puppets made from wood and silk that represent power, strength and good luck, designed to be brought to life by teams of people that make them dance and leap with clever choreography.
They were brought to Australia by Chinese immigrants in progressive waves of migration that began with the Victorian gold rush and continue today, and the burgeoning city of Bendigo, 150 km north-west of Melbourne, boasts some of the most rare and beautiful dragons of all. There is Loong (Old Dragon), said to be the oldest imperial, five-clawed dragon in the world. He’s in retirement now, but there are seven other dragons to do his bidding, including Choi Loong (Competitive, Prosperous, Colourful and Lucky Dragon), who glows in the dark, and Sun Loong (New Dragon), said to be the longest of his kind in the world.
Most of the year, the dragons slumber peacefully in the town’s Golden Dragon Museum, which was founded by prominent Chinese-Australian local Russell Jack and the Bendigo Chinese Association in the early 1990s to preserve Bendigo’s unique Chinese history and culture. Located in a public square filled with golden pavers and Chinese sculptures, the museum is next door to the pretty, walled Yi Yuan (joy) garden and the Kuan Yin (goddess of compassion) Temple. Together, they form the town’s Dai Gum San (Big Gold Mountain) precinct, which is a proud focus for the community.
Every year at Easter, the townspeople gather here to symbolically "feed" the imperial dragons a branch from the pomelo tree, awakening them to dance in the procession and bring good luck. The dragons come out for other special occasions too, such as Kuan Yin Festival in March and the Harvest Moon Festival in September.
“Anywhere else in the world, the most important day in the Chinese calendar is Chinese New Year,” says Russell, who was born in Bendigo in 1934 and has lived in the town all his life. “But here, we have our biggest celebration at Easter. There are more than a thousand people marching in the parade and it’s a really great time.” The tradition stems back to 1871, when the Chinese community joined the Bendigo Easter Procession to raise money for charity.
“My mother planted the pomelo tree in the early 1900s,” says Russell. A citrus tree native to South and South-East Asia, the pomelo bears large yellow fruit with sweet white flesh and is sometimes called Chinese grapefruit. The Mandarin word for pomelo – yòuzi – is the same as the word for "blessing" and the fruit is considered auspicious.
Most of Bendigo’s first generation of Chinese immigrants, and Russell’s ancestors, came from Taishan, a county in China’s southern Guangdong province that is part of the Pearl River Delta and flows into the South China Sea. Russell reckons its proximity to the coast inspired his forebears to take to the seas and travel to Bendigo.
Like many hopeful immigrants from other parts of the world such as Ireland, England, Scotland and Germany, the early Chinese immigrants were drawn to Bendigo (Australia’s highest producing 19th-century goldfield) by the discovery of gold in 1851. Thousands travelled 450 km overland from Robe in South Australia to avoid a landing tax imposed on Chinese immigrants at Victorian ports, and went on to establish a large Chinatown on a bountiful gold run to the north west of Bendigo.
The Taishanese brought the moderately spiced Cantonese cuisine of their region. Typical dishes included steamed or stir-fried food that contained preserved ingredients such as xiányú (salted fish). From Canton (a Portuguese transliteration of Guangdong), we are familiar with hoisin, háoyóu (oyster), sūméijiàng (plum) and táng cù jiàng (sweet and sour) sauces, and dishes such as chăomiàn (stir-fried noodles) and gūlūròu (sweet and sour pork).
Russell’s parents met in Bendigo in the early years of the 20th century. “My father came out from the village of Haw Mook in Taishan in 1899. He could speak English before he arrived because he had a good education,” says Russell, going on to explain that his family name is really Louey, not Jack. “We, the Chinese, put our surnames first. My father was Louey Juk, but when he arrived, the authorities put down what they heard, which was Louey Jack! So now, my surname is Jack.”
Russell grew up with six brothers and two sisters, and remembers experiencing a “fair bit” of prejudice, but the Jacks were good at sport, which cut across social-cultural barriers. Russell excelled at football, baseball, athletics and golf, and played football for Bendigo.
Of course, things have changed since then. Bendigo’s last goldmine, the Central Deborah Gold Mine, closed down in 1954, not long after people started leaving for the big city, resulting in Bendigo’s population – Chinese and Anglo-Australian alike – dwindling. The original Chinatown was bulldozed and turned into a carpark, and the city’s Chinese roots were in danger of being lost.
Then, in the late 1960s, the town’s business community set about raising money for a new dragon to rejuvenate the town. “We had to find a dragon-maker, which was hard because of the Chinese Cultural Revolution,” recalls Russell. “Eventually we found one in Hong Kong, a man working in a tiny room. When he finished the head of the dragon, he couldn’t get it out the door! They had to lift the roof off.”
The new dragon was Sun Loong, and it seems he really did breathe new life into Bendigo. In the 1970s and ’80s, newcomers arrived, including a fresh wave of Chinese families – most like Alan Khong from Malaysia. When Alan and his wife Jeannie (who was born in Batavia, now Jakarta) first came to Bendigo in 1976, it was “a short-term thing”; they were given the opportunity to manage a local hotel and thought they’d give it a go. The Khongs liked Bendigo’s easy pace of life and friendly community so they stayed, and, in 1987, established their family-friendly Chinese, Malaysian and Thai restaurant which has since become a local institution. Jeannie is the House of Khong’s maître d’, while Alan is head chef. Two of their three children are also involved in the business: son Marcus manages the restaurant, and daughter Chelsea is a fully qualified chef who takes charge of prepping and kitchen supplies.
“Food is in my blood,” says Alan, who grew up hanging around his father’s hotel and cafe, and eating Singapore noodles and curry laksa in Ipoh in northern Peninsular Malaysia.
Bob Yam of the Malayan Orchid restaurant is another Malaysian-Chinese immigrant who had short-term plans for Bendigo, but ended up staying. Bob arrived in 1982 as an accounting student and sought part-time work at local Chinese restaurants as a means of staying afloat and satisfying his cravings for a taste of home.
“For me, Chinese food is comfort food,” says Bob. “And I love the spices of Malaysia, and do you know what? I never practiced as an accountant!” he laughs. Instead, Bob fell in love with the kitchen, learned to cook and today, he and wife Pamela own and run Malayan Orchid, widely regarded as one of the most upmarket eateries in town.
“I’m very happy here in Bendigo. I have a very well-balanced life. I don’t have to worry about traffic and I get to cook creatively,” explains Bob. “The food is much more authentic back home, but what’s different about Asian cuisine in Australia is that the ingredients here are superb. We have wonderful meat and vegetables – we don’t realise how lucky we are.”
Bob is a member of the region’s Food Fossickers network and uses locally sourced produce where possible. He has a soft spot for the fresh, spicy, home-style Nyonya dishes of his home state of Malacca, a love for Indian flavours and a keen awareness of Chinese regional variations.
Over the years, Bob has noticed Chinese food in Bendigo evolving in line with migrants and their food lore from regional China. “In the ‘80s, there was a bigger influx of Malaysian-Chinese to Australia, and laksas and noodles became popular. Now we’re seeing regional Chinese people and food from other regions, like Shanghai dumplings.”
The Bendigo Dumpling House is one of the latest eateries to hit the local scene and it’s proved hugely popular. “We make and eat jiaozi (dumplings) at home on special occasions, but we didn’t think about opening a dumpling house until friends mentioned that they really liked them,” says manager Bill Guo, who moved to Australia with his family – father Ting Neng, mother Yu Ting, and sister Lisa – from Fujian, a mountainous province on the south-east coast of mainland China, 18 years ago. After eight years in Melbourne, the Guos moved to Bendigo, and opened a fish and chip shop on Lyttleton Terrace.
In mid 2011, they opened the Dumpling House next door.“At first, I felt hesitant about moving to Bendigo. All my friends were in Melbourne,” says Bill, who was 15 at the time and is now in his final year of a Bachelor in Civil Engineering. “But now, after living here, I prefer the countryside and the quieter life.”
Newcomer Alex Pee moved to Bendigo from Klang, a 30-minute drive from Kuala Lumpur in January 2012. He came to manage Sabah House, which is owned by restaurateur Sam Chang and serves many of the Malaysian-Chinese dishes Alex ate growing up. He, too, is enjoying Bendigo’s laidback pace. “Bendigo is a great town. It’s not too big and not too small, and the Golden Dragon Museum has a very strong presence. I have met a lot of the local Chinese already; they seem to like coming to Sabah House.”
Walking the wide, tree-lined streets of Bendigo is like walking with one foot in the past and another firmly in the present, all year round. But it’s not just food, culture and history that draw people to this vibrant town; recently, mining has recommenced in the rich quartz reefs surrounding Bendigo. Some miners are even searching for gold the Chinese way, with round mineshafts designed to ward off bad spirits and have been shown to produce greater yields than the square mines traditionally used by European miners. Whether or not they’ll strike it rich remains to be seen, but one thing’s certain: the Big Gold Mountain continues to shine.
The hit list
House of Khong
Alan Khong credits his mother and the chefs he has employed over the years with teaching him to cook dishes like Cantonese fried rice and sizzling steak. 200 Hargreaves St, (03) 5442 5088.
Try emu kecap manis, crocodile gyoza broth or spicy red-cooked camel. 155-157 View St, (03) 5442 4411, malayanorchid.com.au.
Bendigo Dumpling House
Chicken and pork jiaozi are popular options here. Shop 4, 176 Lyttleton Tce, (03) 5443 8880, bendigodumplinghouse.com.au.
Sabah House restaurant
Don’t miss the char kway teow. 14 Pall Mall, (03) 5443 0028.
Golden Dragon Museum
Built on the site of Bendigo’s original Chinatown, the Golden Dragon houses artifacts and stories of early Chinese settlers. In addition to its collection of dragons, the museum has a heritage-listed collection of 19th-century processional costumes. On the third Sunday of the month, the museum hosts yum cha. 1-11 Bridge St, (03) 5441 5044, goldendragonmuseum.org.
Bendigo Joss House Temple
This Chinese house of prayer dedicated to Kuan Kung (the god of wealth) was built in the late 1860s, and is one of the few remaining buildings of its kind in Australia. It’s located a few kilometres out of town and is on the Vintage Talking Tram tour route. Emu Point, Finn St, (03) 5442 1685, bendigojosshouse.com; bendigotramways.com.
Central Deborah Gold Mine
Take an underground tour and try your hand at panning for gold at this historic mine which operated from 1939 to 1954 – the last commercial mine in Bendigo. 76 Violet St, (03) 5443 8322, central-deborah.com.
Food Fossickers Network
The network showcases local growers, producers and events such as the bustling farmer’s market in the heart of town on the second Saturday of the month. foodfossickers.com.au.
Plan your trip to coincide with September’s Harvest Moon Festival, March’s Kuan Yin Festival or the annual Easter Festival. bendigotourism.com.au.
The Hotel Shamrock
For immersion in Bendigo’s historical gold rush heart – creaking floorboards and all – stay at the Shamrock. A member of the local historical society conducts a guided tour of the hotel every Sunday at 2pm, which includes afternoon tea ($10). Cnr Pall Mall and Williamson St, (03) 5443 0333, hotelshamrock.com.au.
These apartments behind a bank were once staff digs, but now they’re comfortable lodgings and the bank has become the elegant and heritage-listed Wine Bank on View. 45 View St, (03) 5441 7003, allawahbendigo.com.
Photography Sean by Fennessy.