Chinese Dragons in Australia

Tsan-Huang Tsai 蔡燦煌 is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW), The Australian National University. A graduate of the University of Oxford, Dr Tsai is an ethnomusicologist who conducts research on the musical cultures of Taiwan and China.–The Editors


The CIW dragon.

The CIW dragon: 飛龍在天 (draco volans in coelo).

On the evening of 24 July 2014, the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University hosted a party to welcome its newly-arrived dragon. The dragon’s creator, Cao Zhenrong曹真榮 is a renowned lantern maker in Nanjing whose achievements have led him to be recognised as a Transmitter of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Jiangsu Province since 2008.

The cold and dark mid-winter night did not discourage colleagues and friends from attending the dragon’s welcoming party. Forty of us gathered in the foyer of the CIW’s award-wining building, the Bamboo Hall. To the accompaniment of traditional Cantonese music,[1] CIW’s Director Professor Geremie Barmé introduced the lantern dragon which he commissioned and its maker after which we all eagerly went to see the magnificent creature in the CIW gallery.

The dragon is arguably one of the most cosmologically significant and complex mythical creatures in Chinese culture. Its symbolism and meaning is multi-layered. It is associated with the emperor, virility and fertility as well as with spring rain for the rice fields. In recent decades, Han Chinese often refer to themselves as ‘descendants of the dragon’ (longde chuanren 龍的傳人), after the Taiwan singer Hou Dejian’s 侯德健 famous song of that name. Stories of the dragon spread to other parts of East Asia and were transmitted by overseas Chinese to the many different places where they migrated. The Chinese dragon is thus no alien to Australia: appreciation of the Chinese dragon, especially in the form of the processional dragon-dance, can be found in the historical record of late-nineteenth century Australia.

The Dragons of Bendigo

Two giant imperial Chinese processional dragons, several dancing dragons and lions together with other processional regalia form a major part of the collection currently exhibited at the Golden Dragon Museum 金龍博物館 in the town of Bendigo which is153 kilometres northwest of Melbourne. The museum is located on Bendigo’s Bridge Street. Bendigo, known to the local migrant Chinese community as ‘Big Golden Mountain’ (Dai gum san in Cantonese; Da jinshan in Mandarin 大金山), is the fourth largest town in Victoria with a population of about 100,000. The city landscape ­– in particular the heritage buildings – reminds one of its glorious gold mining past. Built in 1991, the museum has become a major tourist attraction. The museum traces the history of the Chinese people from the gold-rush of the 1850s onwards, and houses historical items from the Bendigo Chinese Association 大金山中華會 of which there are some 2,000 photographs, objects, works of embroidery and costumes.

The museum’s collections consist mainly of items that had been used for the Bendigo Easter Fair (‘Big Gold Mountain Religious Procession’Dai Gum San Coi Wui or Dajinshan saihui 大金山賽會) from 1871 into the twentieth century. The purpose of the Fair was to raise money for the Bendigo Benevolent Asylum and Hospital. The Chinese provided music, theatre and acrobatic displays for the event and by 1879 the spectacular Chinese costumes and performances had become the Fair’s main attraction.

Together with about 200 cases of processional regalia, the giant Chinese imperial dragon was first introduced to the Bendigo Easter Fair in 1892. This 200-feet long imperial five-clawed dragon, positioned underneath bamboo hoops, required sixty men to carry it. It was originally crafted in the city of Fat Shun (Foshan) in Canton. The Chinese dragon soon became the symbol of the Bendigo Easter Fair and its appearance was eagerly anticipated at the annual procession thereafter. [2] With its dragon, lions, costumes and other paraphernalia, the Bendigo Chinese Association became a sought-after participant at events across the country (including Ballarat, Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Tasmania).[3] Some of these events were significant moments in Australian history such as the Jubilee Charity Carnival in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Anniversary at the Sydney Agricultural Ground on 28 August 1897 and the Melbourne Parade for the founding of the Australian Federation in 1901. There were also charity events to assist Chinese communities in different parts of Australia.

In Bendigo. Photo courtesy of Xinxin Guo and Kyoko Tsujimoto

In Bendigo. Photo courtesy of Xinxin Guo and Kyoko Tsujimoto

But although Bendigo’s Chinese dragon was an eagerly anticipated presence in the town’s annual Easter Fair, it became a victim of the ‘White Australia’ policy (1901-1973). Two major factors contributed to the serious decline of Chinese participation in the Fair. First, the local Chinese community was aging and immigration restrictions prevented younger Chinese from entering the country. If we compare two news reports in the Argus from 1927 and 1950, we see that whereas in 1927, 100 Chinese took part in Bendigo’s Easter Fair (Argus 7 June 1927), by 1950,‘only five Chinese – the youngest of them aged seventy – were available to help carry the huge dragon in the procession’ (Argus 10 April 1950). Second, under the ‘White Australia’ policy, especially in the period from the Great Depression (1929–32) through the Second World War (1939–1945), most Chinese in Australia found themselves in financial difficulties. Thus, the Bendigo Chinese Association could not contribute to the upkeep of its processional regalia.

In 1950, Bendigo’s white community supported the resumption of the processional dragon dance. The town’s giant imperial dragon was carried that year by members of the town’s white and Chinese communities, with the Chinese carrying the dragon’s head and tail. As there were not enough Chinese in Bendigo to perform this task, Chinese volunteers from Sydney and Melbourne came to help out. In 1969, the Bendigo community (both Chinese and non-Chinese) formed the Loong 100 Committee to search for a new replacement for the processional regalia. They found a maker in Hong Kong who had learned the craft in Canton. The new dragon known as Sun Loong took four months to build and arrived in Bendigo in time for the 1970 Easter Fair, along with new lions, banners and other processional goods including musical instruments.

The first giant imperial dragon Loong presented at the museum was registered by the Heritage Council of Victoria as item H2120. It reminds us of the continuing efforts the Chinese put into making the astonishing display from the late 1890s and the integration of what had begun as a Chinese activity into part of Bendigo’s cultural tradition. The arrival of the second giant imperial dragon Sun Loong in 1970 not only maintained the town’s tradition of having a Chinese dragon at its annual festival, it also marked a new era of collaboration between the white and Chinese communities in Bendigo.. Today, the dragon and lion dances in Bendigo and the display of the town’s processional dragon are performed by men and women from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The dragon’s central role in the present-day Bendigo Easter Festival [4] is evident from the Festival logo. Besides the annual festival, the dragon also makes several special appearances. One notable occasion was that of the visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales to Bendigo in 1983, which saw the dragon dancing a tribute to Charles and Diana on the town’s behalf.

Bendigo’s processional dragon and the lantern dragon now housed in the CIW share the mission of using China’s beloved mythical creature to symbolise the hope of an enduring relationship between China and Australia. As the dragon’s maker Mr Cao remarked during an interview at ANU: ‘We have come here to learn from and to exchange ideas with Australians. This is a truly unique experience for me as an artist. We brought lanterns and handicrafts from Nanjing to ANU, and we will take something of Australian culture home with us.’


[1] In 2011 for instance, the Chinese dragon was used as the logo design for the Bendigo Easter Festival, and the front page of its official website [20 June 2011].

[2] The newly released CD of a traditional Cantonese ensemble Sounding Treasures 清音重聞: Volume One: A Collection of Cantonese Music, 2013. Produced and published by the Chinese Music Archive, Department of Music, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong: ROI Productions Ltd. RB-141002C. CD.

[3] Although the Chinese in Western Australia were all recruited from Singapore (Ryan 1995), the dragon captured in photographs during the visit of the Duke of York to Perth 1901 appears very similar to the one used in Bendigo.

[4] In 2001, the Bendigo Easter Fair was renamed as the Bendigo Easter Festival.