Content in this section appears courtesy of the artist, John Young Zerunge.
The History Projects are a body of work by Chinese-Australian artist John Young Zerunge (also known as John Young), exploring the Chinese diaspora in Australia, from pre-Federation onwards.
“In 2013, John Young was the recipient of the Australia Council Visual Arts Fellowship to research the History of Chinese Diaspora in Australia. The Fellowship supported a two-year program of funded research with a team of part-time researchers distributed across Australia’s major cities to engage their specific local archives, resources, and communities. Over 130 stories were unearthed through primary and secondary research, out of which Young has developed visual, interdisciplinary, collaborative projects and exhibitions that engage these narratives.
The History Projects stem from the artist’s ongoing interest in cross-cultural perspectives, aesthetics, actions, and ethics. Young is interested in historical instances in which a person reaches beyond or outside of their own cultural background in order to aid a stranger, because such moments represent instances of rupture, re-inscription, or displacement of the prevailing values of a culture or nation. These events also point to the rich and generative position of the diasporic or bi-cultural figure, who in living ‘between’ or across multiple cultures, is able to draw on the values and perspectives of each and thereby reinvent or renew the culture or nation in which they find themselves.”
This section was contributed by Deanne Gilson and Tammy Gilson, Wadawurrung Traditional Custodians.
“There are stories of the Chinese camping with First Nations peoples along Yarmalok (now known as Yarrowee Creek) in Ballarat. Many Aboriginal family groups were present living and camping here at the time of the gold rush. Yarmalok was a thriving place where Wadawurrung women assisted the Chinese miners helping them to light their fires at night after a hard day’s work on the diggings.”
In her paintings of this era, Wadawurrung Elder and artist Marlene Gilson pays homage to and honours the Chinese story on the goldfields. Their survival alongside First Nations peoples reflected brave men and women who tried to make go of it in this country.
“Open Monument by Chinese-Australian artist John Young is a major public artwork acknowledging the history of the Chinese community in Ballarat.Listen: Open Monument - John Young talks about his commissioned major public artwork that commemorates and acknowledges the rich Chinese history in Ballarat since 1850 (approx. 4 mins).
It consists of a group of lasered stone and marble slabs arranged in a grid, which depict individuals and stories from the local Chinese community who made Ballarat their home after the gold rush. From the rear, the monument resembles a shovel embedded into a grassy mound, a reference to Ballarat’s history of gold mining.
Adjacent to this structure is a 30 odd metre timeline embedded into the ground, in which paved stones list the key events for the local Chinese community for every decade from 1850 to 2010 and folding out to 2170.
Stories and images of pioneer translators; Chinese diasporic networks of gold miners that encompasses South China, California in the US, Victoria, Central Otago in New Zealand, and Witwatersrand in South Africa; the walk that Chinese miners made from Robe to Ballarat in the 1800s to avoid the Victorian poll tax; Ballarat’s Joss House and Red Lion Hotel; Australia’s earliest bilingual newspapers; middle class leisure activities; market gardens; Chinese-Australian soldiers bound for WWII; and life on the goldfields, all of these can be seen in the drawings and photographs engraved within Open Monument.”
In Lambing Flat, John Young reaches into Australia’s history to bring forward a little-known, yet pivotal event in shaping the narrative of Australian identity.
“Over a 10-month period from November 1860 to September 1861, Chinese miners on the Burrangong Goldfields in New South Wales were subjected to a series of escalating robberies, violent clashes and scalpings to remove their traditional ‘queue’ braids. These acts were perpetrated by their Australian, European and American counterparts in the largest racially motivated riots in Australia’s history. The riots culminated in the destruction of the Chinese campsite on 30 June 1861, displacing thousands of injured Chinese miners into the night.
These events led directly to the implementation of New South Wales’ Chinese Immigration Act of 1861, one of a string of laws in Australia’s colonies that preceded the federal Immigration Restriction Act forty years later in 1901, the basis of the White Australia Policy, which effectively ceased all non-European immigration to Australia. This was one of Federated Australia’s first substantive pieces of legislation.
The works are the result of 18-months of research undertaken by the artist in and around the town of Young, New South Wales, conducting interviews, collecting oral histories and photographs, and combing through local archives. The collective works emerge from the omitted pages of Australian history, transformed by John Young into a reminder of the continuing legacy of cultural othering, notably missing from our public memory. This project was commissioned and developed by the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, with the support of curators Mikala Tai and Micheal Do.
Photographs layer details of the ‘Roll Up Roll Up No Chinese’ banner over images of Chinese miners wearing costumes of Cantonese Opera. The cloth banner, which was carried by European and Australian miners during the riots is historically and aesthetically significant, insofar as it evidences a prototypical use of the Southern Cross emblem as a racially exclusive symbol of working-class rights and character.
A chalk drawing East Meets West Values places Australian values, of Mateship, Equality, and Freedom in dialogue with a more dispersed array of Chinese ones, including Kindness, Wisdom, Piety, Tolerance, Righteousness and Etiquette. Both are written in English and in Chinese. Another drawing pairs contemporaneous pejorative terms for Chinese people (caterpillars, plague, barbaric race) with the wounds that were inflicted upon them during the riots (skull fractured, burnt tents, scalped). The complex position of Chinese miners as both refugees and settlers within this historic context is drawn out here in works that reference the displacement of the Burrowmunditory tribe of the Wiradjuri Nation from the area, and the entanglement of Chinese migrants within this history.”
In this image titled “The Field” Chinese-Australian artist John Young has subverted the roles of oppressor and oppressed, swapping the historical Chinese miner with an archetypal white Australian woman with deep red hair and dense freckles.
Her hair is tugged back and forth in an act mimicking the scalping of the Chinese miners in the riots. The reversal of identities between perpetrator and victim within this work is in order to infer a universal capacity (to violence, trauma, or benevolence), and to thereby make it more difficult for a viewer of the work to distance themselves from these histories on the basis of their own cultural background. The purposeful discomfort induced by this slippage reveals the significant role that cultural subjectivity plays in the retelling of histories.
Head to John Young’s website to see more artwork from John and other artists. Explore other history-based works of art.