Due to a cancellation in our schedule this weekend, my husband and I found ourselves with a bit of free time on a cold (for Melbourne) Saturday.  After blowing a fair portion of the morning and afternoon on TV (The Trouble with Tolstoy) and wine, I finally got around to suggesting that we leave the apartment and visit the Chinese Museum.

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Plaza off Little Bourke Street.

Chinatown in Melbourne runs along Little Bourke Street in the CBD.  Along Little Bourke Street and its laneways, you can find a plethora of Chinese restaurants and curio shops and a few grocery stores and herbalists.

I feel much closer to Asia now that I am in Melbourne.  I don’t mean that in a psychic emotional connection sort of way.  I mean, for example, that the economy of Australia is entwined with that of China and there is a greater fusion of Asian flavors in restaurants—Asia permeates life in a way that I did not feel in the United States.  In fact, I recently completed an eight week Mandarin course.  (Don’t ask me how my Chinese is progressing.)

In short, I was curious to learn more about the history of Chinese in Victoria and the Chinese museum seemed like a good place to start.

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We arrived at the Chinese Museum about two hours before close.  Two hours ended up being just about the perfect time to get through this small museum nestled in the heart of Chinatown.

After finishing our coffee in the entrance room, we headed downstairs to a recreation of the journey of many Chinese to Australia and life on the goldfields.  This area was one of my favorite parts of the museum.  We stood in the rolling berth of a ship in front of the tiny beds of Chinese immigrants.  In a recreation of a goldfield temple, an employee taught us how to use kau cim and other fortune telling devices (including their variations in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong).  And we played dress up in a Cantonese opera tent.

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Our next stop was to follow a giant winding Chinese dragon into a room of various dragon costumes.  Prior to moving to Melbourne, I had only seen Chinese dragons on TV.  Here, one sees them occasionally at special events, e.g., Chinese New Years, Moomba and the Night Noodle Market.  The Chinese Museum gave me an appreciation for the first time of the communal nature of these dragons.  The first dragons were brought to Victoria by anti-Manchu activists who later became known as the Chinese Masonic Society.  The costumes actually have bits of fur throughout.  And the dragon we followed upstairs is actually the longest in the world, requiring eight men to lift the head and being used only at the Moomba parade.

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Next, it was up to the top of the building to travel through three floors of post-Victorian Gold Rush Chinese-Australian life.  There were beautiful ornate carved and cloisonné pieces, maps showing waves of Chinese immigrations from Malaysia and Indonesia, old wedding dresses, stories of Chinese-Australian ANZACs and black and white society photos.  What struck me about the exhibits was the impact of the White Australia Policy. During the Gold Rush, there were roughly 40,000 Chinese in Australia (only eleven of which were women due to immigration policies—an imbalance that people said led to an abundance of opium dens and gambling).  By 1940, that number dropped to 9,000.  It was fascinating to think of such a strong culture drying up, with enclaves of Australians of Chinese descent left behind, and then to have the doors open again to immigration.

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Chinese alter.

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Extreme close up of Chinese wooden screen.

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Close up of Chinese wooden screen.

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Wedding gown brought from China.

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Museum stairway.

Since we were downtown (and close to my office where I always keep a spare bottle of wine) we thought the best way to finish our day was at Dainty Sichuan.  Dainty Sichuan is one of my husband’s favorite haunts. He has even been known to frequent the restaurant at lunch by himself because he “happened to be in the area”.  It offers hot pot as well as a standard menu of dishes.  And, for a A$3 corking fee, you can bring your own wine.

Sichuan food is known for its combination of burning chilies with tongue numbing peppercorns.  Added to this is a large portion of grease.  My favorite dishes are fish-fragrant eggplant, cumin lamb slice, chongqing chicken and dry-fried green beans with pork.

Without my noticing it at first, a miracle occurred while I was eating.  My husband observed that I was eating with chopsticks with relative ease for the first time.  Were my fingers correctly placed?  No.  But was the food successfully moving from plate to my mouth without making a pit stop on the table?  Yes!  I cannot tell you how many embarrassing work lunches I have had to suffer through due to my lack of chopstick dexterity.

A perfect end to a Chinatown adventure.

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Cumin Lamb Slice (undercooked unfortunately).

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Chive Pancakes with Smoked Pork Belly Strips (aka Bacon).

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Chinese Broccoli Stir Fried with Garlic.

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BYO.

Chinese Museum
22 Cohen Place
Melbourne, Victoria 3000
Hours:  10:00AM – 5:00PM
Cost:  A$8 per adult

Dainty Sichuan (CBD)
206 Bourke Street.
Level 2
Melbourne, Victoria 3000
Phone:  03 9650 2188