Melbourne is replete with posters, monuments and plaques that ask pedestrians to remember the Hoddle grid’s colonial order as a majority/minority, white/Chinese binary that hinged along Little Bourke Street. But these calls to memory conceal more than they divulge. Not only do they erase the sovereignty of the traditional Indigenous owners, but also the diverse populations of colour who have lived in Melbourne from its inception as a city, built over the meeting grounds of the five Kulin nations. Where non-white urban-dwellers have been memorialised, they are usually consigned to marginal and/or racially marked streets, such as Little Bourke Street’s Chinatown. How, I ask here, might we memorialise the dynamic presence of ‘coloured colonials’ in Melbourne’s streets and footpaths?
Anyone who strolls east to west across Melbourne’s rectilinear street grid will regularly pass an evocation of Melbourne’s pre-national past.
On the corner of Collins and Swanston towers a statue of Robert Burke and William Wills, chests puffed, about to set off from Melbourne on their exploration of the imagined ‘empty spaces’ of Indigenous- occupied land.[i] A block west by an ATM near the corner of Bourke you can find a poster of ‘Swanston Street c.1895’; top hats and braces, a bonneted woman crossing the street, an insurance company sign, a cable car. This, the caption instructs us, is a commercial centre thriving off the wealth of the goldrush. Turn right into the narrower thoroughfare of Little Bourke Street and there on the footpath by the entrance of Rainbow Club Karaoke you will find a sign. Today, it states, Little Bourke Street is a food destination, its restaurants ‘not just serving Chinese food but also Indian, Malaysian, Thai, Japanese, German and Greek’. If we read on, we learn that in and beyond the nineteenth century, Little Bourke Street was a space where Chinese food was cooked to be consumed by both ‘Chinese’ and ‘western’ clients. In contrast to the previous sites, this sign announces a place of Chinese-ness, of the commodification of difference, and of benign inter-racial contact. Most fundamentally, it suggests that while Melbourne has had a long Chinese history, multiculturalism is a recent phenomenon.[ii]
Keep walking a block further west across to Lonsdale Street, head north a little, veer into the intimate space of Madame Brussels Lane and you’ll promptly arrive in the apparently innocuous Casselden Place. It has no signage but that on a single red brick terrace, rendered squat by comparison with the lofty Immigration Department building just a few meters away. This terrace, a plaque advertises, was originally owned by an England-born shoemaker, John Casselden, and is the last original of its kind in the so-called ‘slum’ precinct known diminutively in the nineteenth century as ‘Little Lon’, full of crime and prostitutes and the polar opposite of the (imagined) purity and light of Collins and Bourke.
Via their disparate locations, these open-air memory signs tell an overarching narrative of the settlement Melbourne as a European city absent of Indigenous people and increasingly inclusive of people of colour, or at least, of the ‘Chinese’ urban-dwellers who arrived from unnamed locations. This abridged tour of urban memory and its erasure of historic cultural diversity begs the question: if Melbourne streets are the public pages of our history, what do they teach us about its social past?[iii]
Reading between the lines, they rightly tell us that colonial Melbourne was a loosely racially segregated city. Yet I would suggest that these calls to memory inform us of a wider phenomenon that Penny Edmonds has described as ‘a pervasive amnesia in Australia regarding the contested and racialized nature of cities … that continues in the present’.[iv] Indeed, if I learned anything from the years I spent looking through colonial court records for trials that employed an interpreter, it is that colonial Melbourne’s white façade was just that – a front that covered the city’s stunning linguistic, cultural and racial diversity. For on the surface, Casselden Place appears to have been the colonial province of immigrants from Britain and Western Europe. (And China, too, if you read the timeline displayed at the rear of the terrace.) But as nineteenth-century contemporaries were well aware, and other historians have alluded, at the turn of the twentieth century the area around Casselden Place was markedly and remarkably multicultural, home to immigrants from England, Ireland, Italy, Poland, and Greece, some who lay stronger claims to ‘white’ness than others.[v] It was also the residential and trade centre for a nascent diaspora comprised of immigrants from India, Afghanistan and Syria (currentday Lebanon) whom worked in Melbourne and rural Victoria as importers, merchants, doctors and hawkers.[vi] Newspapers document that this urban residents of colour, designated ‘Asiatic’ in colonial parlance, were not merely present in the city. They had a political impact. Not least importantly, numbers of them would actively resist the 1901 federal Immigration Restriction Act; an Act in part a response to their presence, living, as they were accused, in ‘unhygienic’ crowded conditions just a stone’s thrown from Spring Street and from the heavy bluestone building that would in 1901 become the Federal Parliament.[vii]
We turn, then, to a story about colonial Melbourne life that is lifted from the court records and encompasses a number of inner Melbourne addresses. On a summer’s day of 1898, India-born hawker Jameet Singh and boarding house owner Isar Das went together to the General Post Office at the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets.[viii] Singh wanted to remit £5 to his brother back in Punjab. Because he could not ‘read or write English’, he asked the bi-literate Isar Das to help him post the note. The two thus walked together under the GPO’s Romanesque colonnades to enter the postal hall where Das filled out the promissory note in English at ‘a small table’.[ix] Singh then left Melbourne to go hawking in the country and over two weeks later he returned, only to find that the note had in fact not been paid and hence the money had not yet reached his brother.
Becoming distraught, Singh paid a visit to Khooda Bux’s place at 161 Exhibition Street, a boarding house and pawnshop frequented by Indian, European, Syrian and Jewish men that operated as a kind of information exchange. There, Singh questioned the government-appointed Indian interpreter, Arthur Pritchard, for any news on the remittance money. Since Pritchard had not received news of the note Singh then went to the London Bank on Collins Street but, having no luck there either, he finally resorted to laying charges of larceny against Das. This resulted in a series of civil and criminal trials more protracted than Singh could have imagined.[x] After being tried for fraud, Das underwent a trial for perjury in the Melbourne Supreme Court, on the corner of William and Lonsdale Street, which was abruptly adjourned when Das was sighted speaking with a juror at recess. Ultimately, Das was cleared of the perjury charges and the briefings do not reveal whether Singh ever regained the £5.
This might seem like a mundane story, but the point of telling you is this. In his efforts to remit money to Punjab, Singh did not heed the real and imagined racial divisions of the Hoddle grid, but engaged in the public life of the ‘civil’ streets, as Bourke and Collins were then known. And indeed, the colour dominated networks of which Singh was part spilled over into Collins and Bourke Streets and shaped their daily rhythm. ‘We have Indians coming to the office every day’ in the ‘Post and Savings Bank at Bourke Street East’, testified bank employee Margaret Robinson in 1890.[xi] Robinson’s observation, combined with Jameet Singh’s story, moreover suggests the porosity of Melbourne’s racial order.
In light of this research, it is clear that the historical markers of ‘civil’ Melbourne, Chinatown, and ‘slum’ Melbourne in east-west order construct a deceptively neat and stagnant binary of white/Chinese colonial Melbourne. How, then, might we move beyond this reductive binary? How might the dynamic and heterogeneous networks that stretched from and between Little Lonsdale and Collins be displayed in the city today?
The problem, in part, lies in the materials of memorialisation. Plaques are by design stationary, kept still by screws and glue. Signs are similarly still, living for years or decades at one address.[xii] And herein lies the paradox. Colonial urbanites of colour such as Jameet Singh and Isar Das were, on the contrary, not stationary, but daily crisscrossed the city’s street grid, moving and forging connections between areas of residence, commerce, leisure and politics.
And the sedentarising effect of historic markers is not the only conundrum of memorialisation. For even if we did, for imagination’s sake, memoralise Little Lon’ as ‘Little Arabia’, as it was labelled by 1912, what effect would this have in counteracting the public construction of Melbourne’s colonial past as a centrally white one? This is ostensibly the question of what would it mean to remember that racial minorities existed in a site that’s already invested with marginality?
On the eve of the White Australia Policy, the community that networked via Khooda Bux’s shop, boarding houses, pubs and other hubs, became vocal in the city’s official political centre. In 1898, numerous Melbourne residents spoke in Parliament House to oppose the impending Restriction Act, including hawkers Oderamull Tharamull and Essor Singh, prominent Christian missionary Cheong Heok Chong and Abraham Davis, an importer and frequenter of Khooda Bux’s shop, who complained that the proposed legislation would affect the Indians with whom he had business relations.[xiii] This was by no means the first time non-anglos had been admitted into this building, the exclusive space of self-described ‘white men’. Just seven years earlier, Aboriginal residents of Coranderrk mission had marched 60 kilometers from Healesville to Spring Street to petition the government for land rights.[xiv]
There is clearly work to be done to ‘colour in’ the current whitewashing, settler colonising narrative displayed across Melbourne’s streets and footpaths. Given the economy of memory materials and the heterogeneity of pre-1901 Melbourne society, this is no simple task. But doing so, I believe, matters. It can help white Australians such as I, and students of the city in general, to see and feel white dominance for what it has long been in this country: variously denied, ignored and resisted by people of colour, spatially dependent, and definitively incomplete. And on the flipside, it might help us to unsettle the colonising tropes that remain embedded in the streetscape, and to see Melbourne not merely as a product of the ‘enlightened’ multicultural policy of recent decades, but as part and product of the deep and shifting geographies of Asian and global migration.
[i] The procession also included Afghan camel drivers, though they are not depicted on the engraving of horses, camels and European men below the statue.
[ii] Historical perspectives on the life of Chinese men and women in Chinatown are found in Sophie Couchman, John Fitzgerald and Paul McGregor, After the Rush: regulation, participation, and Chinese communities in Australia, 1860-1940, Kingsbury: Otherland Literary Journal, 2004.
[iii] Tony Birch, “A Land so Inviting and Still Without Inhabitants”: Erasing Koori Culture from Post-colonial Landscapes,’ in Kate Darian-Smith, Liz Gunner and Sarah Nuttall, eds., Text, Theory, Space. Land, Literature and History in South Africa and Australia, London and New York: Routledge, 1996, 176.
[iv] Penelope Edmonds, Urbanizing Frontiers: Indigenous Peoples and Settlers in 19th-Century Pacific Rim Cities. Vancouver: University of British Colombia, 2010, 6. See also Gary Presland, Aboriginal Melbourne: The Lost Land of the Kulin People, Melbourne: Penguin, 1994, 36-37.
[v] For discussion of how ‘white’ operated as an internally heterogeneous category in colonial Melbourne see Andonis Piperoglou, “Vagrant ‘Gypsies’ and Respectable Greeks: A defining moment in early Greek Melbourne, 1897-1900,” in Maria Palaksoglu and Michael Tsianikas, eds., Proceedings on the Tenth Biennial International Conference of Greek Studies, Adelaide: Flinders University, 2014.
[vi] For reference to multicultural ‘Little Lon’ see Charlotte H. F. Smith and Deborah Tout-Smith, ‘Recreating Place: Little Lon,’ Museum Management and Curatorship, 25(1), 2010, 37-51; For more on the politics of ‘Asiatic’ immigration restriction in Melbourne see my ‘Listen to Nodes of Empire: Speech and Whiteness in Victorian Hawker’s License Courts’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 15(2), 2014.
[vii] Pamie Fung has discussed the restriction of Chinese immigration preceding the IRA in ‘The significance of the first anti-Chinese legislation in Australia,’ http://peril.com.au/featured/anti-chinese-legislation-in-australia/
[viii]Jameet Singh, Depositions, The Queen v Isar Das, Supreme Court, Melbourne 15 November 1898, Public Record Office of Victoria, VPRS30/P0, Unit 1159, Case 496.
[ix] Bhugwan Singh, Depositions, Ibid.
[x] ‘Purity of the Jury System,’ The Argus, Melbourne, 26 November 1898, 10.
[xi] Margaret Robinson, Depositions, The Queen v Abdul Hussam Ebramji, VPRS30/P0, Unit 811, Case 39, 14 August 1890.
[xii]The exhibits of the Chinese, Melbourne and Immigration Museums, of course, tell more nuanced and personal stories. Here, I wanted to explore the free of charge and open-air signs of history.
[xiii] ‘Asiatic Immigrants: The Restriction Bill: Evidence Before the Legislative Council Committee,’ The Geelong Advertiser, 1 September 1898, 4.
[xiv] Richard Broome, ‘There were vegetables every year Mr Green was here’: right behaviour and the struggle for autonomy at Coranderrk Aboriginal reserve,’ History Australia, 2006, 3(2), 46.