Request for help to identify Chinese dragon boat artefact found in NSW
Dear list members
I am writing to ask for your help to identify a Chinese artefact that was found at the port of Merimbula in southern NSW during my thesis on the coastal shipping industry, which may have been brought from Hong Kong by immigrants to Australia in the 19th century during the gold rushes.
Identification of the large ceramic artefact, found by divers at the Merimbula Wharf site during my MA research, would help me research Chinese immigrant culture in southern NSW in the second half of the 19th Century and first half of the 20th century.
The artefact’s design is of a sea-going wooden boat painted red riding on waves with a dragon’s head at the bow, and the deck is decorated with various traditional Chinese motifs including a Chinese chess board, fungi, lotus bulbs, and what appears to be the bases of eight robed figures standing or sitting around the games board.
The arrangement of these features appears to represent a traditional Chinese story “Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea” which is a familiar theme from the Taoist religion.
The artefact, recovered from the seafloor by divers, has been damaged with large parts of the top section with the ornamental figures broken off, however, the hull is largely intact. The dragon’s head has been recovered, but the figures, broken at their bases with only section of their robes remaining, are still missing.
The artefact could have been brought to the colony by Chinese immigrants during the gold rushes in southern NSW in the 1860s when miners disembarked at Merimbula on their way to goldfields, or by their descendants who later settled in the area. Possibly it was broken during a sea voyage from mainland China or Hong Kong to Merimbula and discarded as being unrepairable.
Perhaps it had been intended for use in a joss house or a private home as a decorative object to display aspects of traditional Chinese culture.
Four Chinese names are listed in the Eden District section of the Yewen’s Directory of the Landholders of NSW, 1900.
There is a Thomas Ah Kin, postal address Merimbula Post Office, who was a maize grower. In addition, there is Charlie Ah Lum, Mr Ah Yap (no first name given) and Jimmie Ching Pong, all of the address Pambula Post Office.
Mr Ah Kin’s descendants still live in the Bega Valley Shire, and he came from Hong Kong, so any information about the family would be helpful.
Mr Ah Lum is listed as growing “other crops” in a “Chinese Garden”. Mr Ah Yap grew maize and potatoes as well as “other crops” and Mr Ching Pong grew oats and “other crops”.
Chinese involvement in market gardening in the Bega Valley was at its height between 1891 and 1901. Indeed, in 1901 about 67% of market gardeners were Chinese. (Golden threads : the Chinese in Regional NSW 1850-1950 by Janis Wilton, 2004.)
Anybody with information about the artefact should contact me at my home email address, and I will send them photos of the artefact and maps of the site to help them identify it.
Cultural Heritage Officer
Home email: firstname.lastname@example.org