LOCATION: Chinatown, near Rice Workshop, 238 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne
The many and varied histories of the world’s “Chinatowns” can be hard to pin down. Sure, the signifiers are there: arched paifang gates and stone lions, but the significance can be less obvious. For some, Melbourne’s Chinatown simply is a great place to get a meal with friends, if one were allowed to do such things. But for others, the spatial demarcation of race and ethnicity play into deep anxieties around belonging and otherness, creating enclaves to be feared not celebrated.
Melbourne’s early colonial experiences with Chinatown were as complex in terms of racial identity as they are today. Once considered a hub for prostitution and poverty, various charities and welfare groups established themselves in the area in order to save souls and preserve respectability. While the precise location of the Salvation Army mission hall is uncertain, this precinct nevertheless carries the legacy of such endeavours.
Darlene Silva Soberano’s work, “Dessert Story” name checks the contemporary commercial residents of Chinatown but brings a naturalised and ambiguously queered expression of love into that space, a love that might once have threatened ‘respectability’. In doing so, the work conjures the brief and fleeting expressions of love and closeness that we may all soon miss. Lovers/friends, or just love-friends, connect and share tactile closeness: hands in hands for warmth, breath on skin, bodies close to bodies. This is an uncertain future, “where no one is unchanged by cruelty” and we cannot be sure when we will next see those we love, where is ‘safe’, and who and how we will love now. Will respectability really matter as much when we are all denied of love and loving?
You are sweating when you see her, and she is so beautiful and confident, standing in front of the Rice Workshop. You want to stop and watch as she waits for you, but it is one of the coldest nights in June. You come up to her and embrace one another for a long time. People cross to the other side of Little Bourke Street to avoid your bodies taking up the entire, tiny footpath. Whoever designed this city did not anticipate social distancing. I’m so sorry I’m late, you say, I thought I was gonna get it all perfect tonight. She tells you that it’s okay. Standing in front of her now, you almost want to say something dramatic, like being late prepares all parties to enter into a divine space. But you’re just late and you’re both just so cold, so you walk further, past The Crane restaurant, enjoying this night of freedom in June, and you stop in front of the China Town Gift City. You spot the Dessert Story across the street, but you decide it’s too cold for their ice desserts, so she looks up other places on her phone. You stand on the steps and for once, you are taller than her. She leans into your side. You take her free hand with both of yours. You blow your warm breath into your hands and rub her hand to keep it warm. It doesn’t really work and you’re not really supposed to be touching so much but you decide that it’s worth doing. Later tonight you will drive her home, not knowing that it will be the last time you see her this year, because Victoria will go back into lockdown, and in two months she will fly to the country she grew up in, where it is safer. And you won’t be allowed to drive her to the airport. And you will wait for her, for the future when she returns—the future where no one is unchanged by cruelty. But for now, you are here, standing on the steps of a closed gift shop with somebody you love, and she is leaning her head into your shoulder, and you are holding her hand.