Chinatowns facing “identity crises”


Artist Scotty So performing one of his other RISING Festival acts, Let No One Sleep, which blends Chinese and Italian opera traditions. Photo: Scotty So at RISING Festival, represented by MARS Gallery.

A city carpark in Melbourne, Australia, is the last place you would expect to find a Tang Dynasty ghost.

Barefoot on the cold concrete of the five-storey Golden Square Carpark in Melbourne’s Chinatown floats contemporary artist Scotty So – tonight in ghostly white robes inspired by the Tang Dynasty, tomorrow in costume inspired by both Chinese and Italian opera, the day after in Japanese Kabuki theatre garb.

So’s artworks and performances play with questions of contemporary Asian, and particularly Hong Kong, identity.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find what it means to be a Hong Kong person,” So says, “Hong Kong people have never truly ruled their own city. And so what does it mean to even talk about Hong Kong people when they’re British and they’re Chinese?”

“We have afternoon tea time, but we drink Chinese tea and have dim sum. This is the part where the identity of Hong Kong people is really blurring the boundary, where it sits in between”.

So has been part of a crop of contemporary artists featured by the RISING Festival in Melbourne, which ended this week. The festival, three years in the making because of COVID lockdowns, has injected life into Melbourne’s arts and cultural scene, with some events and installations now extended into July.

Melbourne’s Chinatown has been a key theatre for this artistic reinvigoration. Established in 1851, when Chinese miners resettled from the Victorian goldfields to the colony’s booming capital city, Melbourne’s Chinatown is touted as the oldest continuous Chinese settlement in the Western world.

Dr Soon-Tzu Speechley, a Research Fellow at the Australian Centre for Architectural History, Urban and Cultural Heritage, says that Melbourne’s Chinatown shares its mining-related origin story with cities like San Francisco and Kuala Lumpur, and that despite the restrictions placed on the movement and activities of Chinese people via the White Australia Policy, “a lot of money was flowing into the businesses” of Chinese people involved in the gold rush and furniture making.

Walter Burley Griffin, the architect of Australia’s federal capital city Canberra, was one of a posse of adventurous architects hired by Chinese clients to design “quite fashionable and adventurous buildings” in the Chinatown precinct, Speechley says. Although Griffin’s Chinatown building has been heavily modified since its construction in 1922, having “an architect so central to the design of Canberra designing the headquarters for the [then] Chinese Republican Party” is an early example of the Melbourne Chinese community’s willing cultural osmosis.

This sense of cultural heritage was front of mind when choosing venues for the RISING Festival, says the Festival’s Co-Artistic Director, Gideon Obarzanek.

“For almost two-hundred years, Melbourne’s Chinatown has been the late-night meeting place for people of all different backgrounds. Like many buildings along Little Bourke Street, Golden Square Carpark has resisted development and remains part of a small enclave from the past that continues to function in the present.”

Established in 1853, Melbourne’s Chinatown is one of the oldest in the world, and is a longstanding part of the city’s CBD area. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Golden Square Carpark has been a brutalist fixture of Melbourne’s Chinatown since it was built during a mid-twentieth century wave of CBD redevelopment. Speechley says that using environments like the carpark in innovative and culturally relevant ways, such as during the Rising Festival, is essential to staving off the “identity crisis” Chinatowns are facing around the world.

Affected by gentrification, community dispersal and redevelopment, grassroots campaigners intervened to “save” Montreal’s Chinatown late last year. Speechley says that Melbourne’s Chinatown is holding up comparatively well, but that maintaining the precinct’s cultural relevance and adaptability is essential to its survival.

“I think Melbourne’s Chinatown has always been a place of hybridity. It’s associated with things like the invention of the dim sim, which is a very local take on Cantonese dumplings. I think it’s these kinds of cultural adaptations that in the long run will be what keeps Chinatown going,” Speechley says, adding, “when you have these sorts of art programs, particularly when the artists are referring to historic Chinese identities and Chinatown’s connections to the broader world, I think that bodes well for our Chinatown.”

For artists like Scotty So, whose art actively challenges China’s exertions in Hong Kong, keeping Chinatown culturally relevant and dynamic means allowing open political discussion and cultural exchange. Melbourne’s Chinatown has long embraced different waves of influence to become the oldest continuous Chinese settlement in the Western world, and it seems that doing so must also be part of its future.