In July, a new date was published that pushed the opening chapters of Australian history back to 65,000 years ago. It is the latest development in a time revolution that has gripped the nation over the past half century.
In the 1950s, it was widely believed that the first Australians had arrived on this continent only a few thousand years earlier. They were regarded as “primitive” – a fossilised stage in human evolution – but not necessarily ancient.
In the decades since, Indigenous history has been pushed back into the dizzying expanse of deep time. While people have lived in Australia, volcanoes have erupted, dunefields have formed, glaciers have melted and sea levels have risen about 125 metres, transforming Lake Carpentaria into a Gulf and the Bassian Plain into a Strait.
How are we to engage with a history that spans 65,000 years? There is a “gee whiz” factor to any dates that transcend our ordinary understanding of time as lived experience. Human experiences are reduced to numbers. And aside from being “a long time ago”, they are hard to grasp imaginatively.
It is all too easy to approach this history as one might read the Guinness Book of Records, to search the vast expanse of time for easily identifiable “firsts”: the earliest site, the oldest tool, the most extreme conditions. The rich contours of Australia’s natural and cultural history are trumped by the mentality that older is better.
To political leaders, old dates bestow a veneer of antiquity to a young settler nation. To scientists, they propel Australian history into a global human story and allow us to see ourselves as a species. To Indigenous Australians, they may be valued as an important point of cultural pride or perceived as utterly irrelevant. Their responses are diverse.
Recently, one of us, Lynette Russell, asked 35 Aboriginal friends and colleagues of varying ages, genders and backgrounds for their thoughts about Australia’s deep history.
Many of the responses were statements of cultural affirmation (“We have always been here” or “We became Aboriginal here”), while others viewed the long Indigenous history on this continent through the lens of continuity, taking pride in being members of “the oldest living population in the world” and “the world’s oldest continuing culture”.
As expressions of identity, these are powerful statements. But when others uncritically repeat such notions as historical fact, they risk suggesting that Aboriginal culture has been frozen in time. We need to be careful not to echo the language of past cultural evolutionists, who believed, in Robert Pulleine’s infamous words, that Aboriginal people were “an unchanging people, living in an unchanging environment”.
This article seeks to move beyond the view of ancient Australia as a timeless and traditional foundation story to explore the ways in which scientists and humanists are engaging with the deep past as a transformative human history.
Memories of time
The revolution in Australia’s timescale was driven by the advent of radiocarbon dating in the mid-20th century. The nuclear chemist Willard Libby first realised the dating potential of carbon-14 isotopes while working on the Manhattan Project (which also produced the atom bomb). In 1949, he and James Arnold outlined a way to date organic materials from a couple of hundred years old to tens of thousands of years old. The key was to measure the memories of time preserved in carbon atoms.
By comparing the decaying isotope, carbon-14, with the stable isotope, carbon-12, they were able to measure the age of a sample with relative precision. The rate of decay and amount of carbon-14 provided the date.
“A new time machine has been invented”, Australian archaeologist John Mulvaney declared when he realised the implications of the method. In 1962, he used the new technique at Kenniff Cave in the central Queensland highlands and was stunned to discover that Australia had been occupied during the last Ice Age. The dates of 19,000 years overturned the long-standing idea that Australia was the last continent to be inhabited by modern humans and the artefacts he uncovered in his excavations revealed a rich history of cultural adaptation.
The following decade, at Lake Mungo, Australia’s human history was pushed back to the limits of the radiocarbon technique. A sample from spit 17 of Mulvaney and Wilfred Shawcross’ excavations at Lake Mungo revealed that the ancestors of the Mutthi Mutthi, Ngyiampaa and Paakantji peoples had thrived on these lakeshores over 40,000 years ago. Geomorphologist Jim Bowler also revealed the dramatic environmental fluctuations these people endured: what is now a dusty and desiccated landscape was then a fertile lake system with over 1000 km2 of open water.
The date of 40,000 years had a profound public impact and announced the coming of age of Australian archaeology. The phrase “40,000 years” quickly appeared on banners outside the Tent Embassy in Canberra, in songs by Aboriginal musicians and in land rights campaigns. When the bicentenary of European settlement was marked on 26 January 1988, thousands of Australians protested the celebrations with posters reading “White Australia has a Black History” and “You have been here for 200 years, we for 40,000”. The comparison magnified the act of dispossession.
The discovery of 65,000 years of human occupation at Madjedbebe rock shelter on Mirrar land, at the edge of the Arnhem Land escarpment, draws on a different dating method: optically stimulated luminescence. This technique analyses individual grains of sand and the charge that builds up in their crystal quartz lattice over time. By releasing and measuring this charge, geochronologists are able to reveal the moment a grain of sand was last exposed to sunlight.
The archaeological site at Madjedbebe is far more than an old date; it reveals a long and varied history of human occupation, with evidence of profound cultural and ecological connections across the landscape, cutting edge Ice Age technology (such as the world’s earliest ground-edge axe) and dramatic environmental change.
Perhaps most evocatively, throughout the deposit, even at the lowest layers, archaeologists found ochre crayons: a powerful expression of artistic endeavour and cultural achievement.
In the wake of the discovery, in August 2017, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull seized upon the new date in his speech at Garma, singling out the possibilities of this deep time story for political reconciliation:
I am filled with optimism about our future together as a reconciled Australia. Last month scientists and researchers revealed new evidence that our First Australians have been here in this land for 65,000 years. … This news is a point of great pride for our nation. We rejoice in it, as we celebrate your Indigenous cultures and heritage as our culture and heritage – uniquely Australian.
Although Turnbull revels in the deep time story, his speech avoids reflecting on the more recent past. Here is a statement of reconciliation that does not address the estrangement that it is seeking to overcome. As such it opens itself up to being dismissed as simply a prolonged platitude.
We cannot engage with the past 65,000 years without acknowledging the turbulent road of the past two centuries.
A story of rupture and resilience
When Europeans arrived in Australia in the 17th and 18th centuries they were setting foot onto a land that had been home to thousands of generations of Indigenous men and women. These groups lived along the coasts and hinterlands and travelled into the mountains and across stone plateaus; they thrived in the harsh deserts and gathered in great numbers along waterways and rivers.
Although Australia is a continent, it is home to hundreds of different nations, over 200 language groups and an immense variety of cultural, geographic and ecological regions. To the newcomers these people were simply perceived as “the natives”, and despite the immense cultural diversity across vastly different environmental zones, the disparate groups became labelled with the umbrella term: “the Aborigines”.
There is a similar tendency today to homogenise the deep history of the first Australians. The dynamic natural and cultural history of Australia is too often obscured by tropes of timelessness. Tourism campaigns continue to tell us that this is the land of the “never never”, the home of “ancient traditions” and “one of the world’s oldest living groups”.
Such slogans imply a lack of change and hide the remarkable variety of human experiences on this continent over tens of thousands of years. While there is great continuity in the cultural history of Indigenous peoples, theirs is also a story of rupture and resilience.
The discovery of old dates at Madjedbebe does not make the history of the site any more or less significant. It simply reminds us that science, like history, is an ongoing inquiry. All it takes is a new piece of evidence to turn on its head what we thought we knew. Science is a journey and knowledge is ever evolving.
The epic story of Australia will continue to shift with the discovery of new sites and new techniques, and by engaging and collaborating with different worldviews. It is a history that can only be told by working across cultures and across disciplines; by bridging the divide between the sciences and the humanities and translating numbers and datasets into narratives that convey the incredible depth and variety of human experience on this continent.
The authors of this article will continue this conversation at a public event in Wollongong on Friday 24 November 2017 at the annual meeting of the Australasian Association for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science. There will be two other sets of speakers, exploring issues surrounding precision medicine and artificial intelligence. Register here.
Billy Griffiths, Research fellow, Deakin University; Lynette Russell, Professor, Indigenous Studies and History, Monash University, and Richard ‘Bert’ Roberts, ARC Australian Laureate Fellow and Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH), University of Wollongong
Recent research presented at a maritime archaeology conference has revealed at least 48 shipwrecks – including WWII ships and some post-war vessels – have been illicitly salvaged in Southeast Asia. This figure is an astonishing escalation from the handful of wrecks already known to have been damaged or destroyed.
However, sources close to the issue suggest that the figure may be much higher still, with one Chinese company claiming to have salvaged over 1,000 wrecks in the South China Sea.
It is now a race against time to protect these wrecks and preserve the histories they embody. Museums can play a key role. For instance, exhibitions such as the Australian National Maritime Museum’s current Guardians of Sunda Strait testify to the continuing resonance of these ships’ stories even as the sites themselves are destroyed.
This exhibition, which looks at the WWII loss of HMAS Perth and USS Houston, is made more poignant by the fact that HMAS Perth, in particular, has been heavily salvaged in recent years.
The emotional echo of the stories of courage and sacrifice told here – such as that of HMAS Perth veteran Arthur Bancroft, who was shipwrecked not once but twice, and USS Houston’s Chaplain Rentz, who insisted a young signalman take his lifejacket after the ship sank – is amplified, not diminished, by the accompanying contemporary tragedy.
Some countries, such as the US, have enacted legislation to protect their sunken military craft, regardless of where they rest.
At an international level, the 1982 UN Law of the Sea states that, unless explicitly abandoned, a flag state (the country where the vessel is registered) is entitled to exclusive jurisdiction over shipwrecks. This is also irrespective of whether the vessel sank in foreign waters or not.
For ships that have not been completely destroyed, there is a strong case to be made for the recovery of “touchstone objects” such as the ship’s bell on naval vessels – an item with which every officer and sailor, irrespective of rank, would be familiar.
In 2002, in response to concerns about the illicit salvaging of British wrecks in Malaysian waters, a team of Royal Navy divers oversaw the recovery of the bell from HMS Prince of Wales. This vessel was part of British naval squadron Force Z, established to protect Britain’s colonial interests in Southeast Asia. The force was destroyed in 1941 by Japanese aircraft. Reports indicate that the illicit salvage of HMS Prince of Wales, as well as nearby HMS Repulse, is ongoing.
Such strategic recovery initiatives must be the prerogative of the flag state, and strict conditions would need to apply. In many countries, this would require legislative changes. In instances where sunken war vessels are known to be underwater graves, the recovery of objects would also need to be conducted in consultation with survivors and descendants.
Snapping the past
Although we now know that many wrecks have been damaged, there are still some that remain untouched and even unlocated. For instance, the whereabouts of Australia’s first submarine, AE1, remains a mystery.
Meanwhile, near Savo Island in the Solomon Islands, HMAS Canberra rests upright and intact at the bottom of “Ironbottom Sound”. Scuttled after a damaging encounter with the Japanese in August 1942, the wreck was located in 1992 by Robert Ballard (better known for his discovery of RMS Titanic).
There is also a mystery hanging over the ship: with some suggesting the possibility that it was the victim of friendly fire. It is not known whether HMAS Canberra is at risk from salvagers, but there is no question that the ship will eventually succumb to natural degradation.
Well-preserved wrecks such as HMAS Canberra are prime candidates for one of the most exciting developments in maritime archaeology: digital preservation through photogrammetry. This involves a diver or a remote-operated vehicle taking thousands of photographs of a wreck and its debris field. These images are then digitally “stitched together” to create 3D visualisations, reconstructions and even replicas.
There is significant potential for such technology in a museum environment, not least of all because it enables new audiences to virtually access wreck sites while eliminating the challenges of depth, currents and poor visibility. Photogrammetry also surmounts legal barriers to access.
Curtin University’s HIVE facility is using big data, sophisticated algorithms and the processing power of a supercomputer to digitally preserve the wrecks of HMAS Sydney, lost in 1941 with all on board, and the German ship that sank her, HSK Kormoran. These wrecks are protected sites under Australian legislation, and are not accessible by the general public.
Nor is photogrammetry limited to those with access to a supercomputer. Maritime archaeologist Matt Carter is currently developing a 3D model of the Japanese mini-submarine M-24, located off Sydney’s Bungan Head, using little more than high-resolution cameras, off-the-shelf software, and a lot of patience.
Gone, but not forgotten
The responsibilities of museums become more acute the more that heritage is threatened – not just by thieves and pirates, but by climate change, rising sea temperatures, the impact of both coastal and deep-sea development, and natural degradation. And, as with many terrestrial sites, underwater heritage is now increasingly threatened by the effects of tourism.
Heritage objects and sites are not ends in themselves. The real value of these things and places is in how they can be used to make meaning, to reflect on the past, and to translate and interpret it anew for future generations.
For me, the destruction of these 48 ships does not preclude their stories from being told. Illicit salvaging of underwater heritage, particularly the unauthorised disturbance of human remains, warrants strong condemnation.
But our ability to derive meaning from these wrecks is not diminished by their absence. Some scholars even go so far as to propose that the destruction of heritage, as distressing as it is, provides an incentive for more active and conscious forms of remembrance.
Guardians of Sunda Strait will be on at the Australian National Maritime Museum until November 19.
Aboriginal Australians have been observing the stars for more than 65,000 years, and many of their oral traditions have been recorded since colonisation. These traditions tell of all kinds of celestial events, such as the annual rising of stars, passing comets, eclipses of the Sun and Moon, auroral displays, and even meteorite impacts.
But new research, recently published in The Australian Journal of Anthropology, reveals that Aboriginal oral traditions describe the variable nature of three red-giant stars: Betelgeuse, Aldebaran and Antares.
This challenges the history of astronomy and tells us that Aboriginal Australians were even more careful observers of the night sky than they have been given credit for.
What is a variable star?
The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote in 350BCE that the stars are unchanging and invariable. This was the position held by Western science for nearly 2,000 years.
It wasn’t until 1596 that this was proved wrong, when German astronomer David Fabricius showed that the star Mira (Omicron Ceti), in the constellation of Cetus, changed in brightness over time.
In the 1830s, astronomer John Herschel observed the relative brightness of a handful of stars in the sky. Over the course of four years, he noticed that the star Betelgeuse, in Orion, was sometimes fainter and sometimes brighter than some of the other stars. His discovery paved the way for an entire field of astrophysics dedicated to studying the variable nature of stars.
But was Herschel the first to recognise this?
There is evidence that ancient Egyptians observed the variability of the star Algol (Omicron Persei).
Algol consists of two stars that orbit each other. As one moves in front of the other, it blocks the other star’s light, causing it to dim slightly. This is called an eclipsing binary. It can be seen in the sky as the winking eye of Medusa’s head in the Western constellation Perseus.
Are there any clear records from oral or Indigenous cultures that demonstrate knowledge of variable stars?
Emerging research reveals two Aboriginal traditions from South Australia that show the answer is a clear “yes”.
Nyeeruna and the protective Kambugudha
A Kokatha oral tradition from the Great Victoria Desert tells of Nyeeruna, a vain hunter who comprises the same stars, in the same orientation, as the Greek Orion.
He is in love with the Yugarilya sisters of the Pleiades, but they are timid and shy away from his advances. Their eldest sister, Kambugudha (the Hyades star cluster), protects her younger sisters.
Nyreeuna creates fire-magic in his right hand (Betelgeuse) to overpower Kambugudha, so he can reach the sisters. She counters this with her own fire magic in her left foot (Aldebaran), which she uses to kick dust into Nyreeuna’s face. This humiliates Nyreeuna and his fire-magic dissipates.
Nyreeuna is persistent and replenishes his fire-magic again to get to the sisters. Kambugudha cannot generate hers in time, so she calls on Babba (the father dingo) for help. Babba fights Nyeeruna while Kambugudha and the other stars laugh at him, then places a row of dingo pups between them. This causes Nyeeruna much humiliation and his fire-magic dissipates again.
The story explains the variability of the stars Betelgeuse and Aldebaran. Trevor Leaman and I realised this in 2014, but we did not realise until now that the story also describes the relative periods of these changes.
Betelgeuse varies in brightness by one magnitude every 400 days, while Aldebaran varies by 0.2 magnitudes at irregular periods. The Aboriginal people recognised that Betelgeuse varies faster than Aldebaran, which is why they say that Kambugudha cannot generate her fire-magic in time to counter Nyreeuna.
Waiyungari and breaking sacred law
The second oral tradition comes from the Ngarrindjeri people, south of Adelaide. The story tells of Waiyungari, a young initiate who is covered in red ochre.
He is seen by two women, who find him very attractive. That night, they seduce him, which is strictly against the law for initiates. To escape punishment, they climb into the sky where Waiyungari becomes the star Antares and the women become the stars Tau and Sigma Scorpii, who flank him on either side.
The Ngarrindjeri people say Waiyungari signals the start of Spring (Riwuri) and occasionally gets brighter and hotter, symbolising his passion for the women. It is during this time that initiates must refrain from contact with the opposite sex. Antares is a variable star, which changes brightness by 1.3 magnitudes every 4.5 years.
What does this tell us?
Ruddy celestial objects hold special significance in Aboriginal traditions – from red stars to lunar eclipses to meteors – which may be one of the reasons why these stars are so significant.
Red objects are often related to fire, blood and passion. Psychological studies show that the colour red enhances sexual attraction between people, which may explain why both stories relate to sexual desire and taboos.
The Aboriginal traditions change the discovery timeline of these variable stars, which historians of astronomy say were discovered by Western scientists.
We see that Aboriginal people pay very close attention to subtle changes in nature, and incorporate this knowledge into their traditions. Astrophysicists have much to learn if we recognise the scientific achievements of Indigenous cultures and acknowledge the immense power of oral tradition.
Duane Hamacher is giving a plenary talk on this research into Aboriginal observations of red-giant variable stars at the Australian Space Research Conference, to be held at the University of Sydney on November 15, 2017.
King Arthur is probably the best known of all British mythological figures. He is a character from deep time celebrated across the world in literature, art and film as a doomed hero, energetically fighting the forces of evil. Most historians believe that the prototype for Arthur was a warlord living in the ruins of post-Roman Britain, but few can today agree on precisely who that was.
Over the centuries, the legend of King Arthur has been endlessly rewritten and reshaped. New layers have been added to the tale. The story repeated in modern times includes courtly love, chivalry and religion – and characters such as Lancelot and Guinevere, whose relationship was famously immortalised in Thomas Malory’s 1485 book Le Morte D’Arthur. The 2017 cinematic outing, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, is only the most recent reimagining.
But before the addition of the Holy Grail, Camelot and the Round Table, the first full account of Arthur the man appeared in the Historia Regum Brianniae (the History of the Kings of Britain) a book written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in around 1136.
We know next to nothing about Geoffrey, but he claimed to have begun writing the Historia at the request of Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, who persuaded him to translate an ancient book “written in the British tongue”. Many have concluded, as Geoffrey failed to name his primary source and it has never been firmly identified, that he simply made it all up in a fit of patriotism.
Whatever the origin of the Historia, however, it was a roaring success, providing the British with an heroic mythology – a national epic to rival anything written by the English or Normans.
As a piece of literature, Geoffrey’s book is arguably the most important work in the European tradition. It lays the ground for not just for the whole Arthurian Cycle, but also for the tales surrounding legendary sites such as Stonehenge and Tintagel and characters such as the various kings: Cole, Lear and Cymbeline (the latter two immortalised by Shakespeare).
As a piece of history, however, it is universally derided, containing much that is clearly fictitious, such as wizards, magic and dragons.
If we want to gain a better understanding of who King Arthur was, however, we cannot afford to be so picky. It is Geoffrey of Monmouth who first supplies the life-story of the great king, from conception to mortal wounding on the battlefield, so we cannot dismiss him entirely out of hand.
A full and forensic examination of the Historia Regum Britanniae, has demonstrated that Geoffrey’s account was no simple work of make-believe. On the contrary, sufficient evidence now exists to suggest that his text was, in fact, compiled from a variety of early British sources, including oral folklore, king-lists, dynastic tables and bardic praise poems, some of which date back to the first century BC.
In creating a single, unified account, Geoffrey exercised a significant degree of editorial control over this material, massaging data and smoothing out chronological inconsistencies.
Once you accept that Geoffrey’s book is not a single narrative, but a mass of unrelated stories threaded together, individual elements can successfully be identified and reinstated to their correct time and place. This has significant repercussions for Arthur. In this revised context, it is clear that he simply cannot have existed.
Arthur, in the Historia, is the ultimate composite figure. There is nothing in his story that is truly original. In fact, there are five discrete characters discernible within the great Arthurian mix. Once you detach their stories from the narrative, there is simply nothing left for Arthur.
Cast of characters
The chronological hook, upon which Geoffrey hung 16% of his story of Arthur, belongs to Ambrosius Aurelianus, a late 5th-century warlord from whom the youthful coronation, the capture of York (from the Saxons) and the battle of Badon Hill is taken wholesale.
Next comes Arvirargus, who represents 24% of Arthur’s plagiarised life, a British king from the early 1st century AD. In the Historia, Arthur’s subjugation of the Orkneys, his return home and marriage to Ganhumara (Queen Guinevere in later adaptions) parallels that of the earlier king, who married Genvissa on his return south.
Constantine the Great, who in AD 306 was proclaimed Roman emperor in York, forms 8% of Arthur’s story, whilst Magnus Maximus, a usurper from AD 383, completes a further 39%. Both men took troops from Britain to fight against the armies of Rome, Constantine defeating the emperor Maxentius; Maximus killing the emperor Gratian, before advancing to Italy. Both sequences are later duplicated in Arthur’s story.
The final 12% of King Arthur’s life, as recounted by Geoffrey, repeat those of Cassivellaunus, a monarch from the 1st century BC, who, in Geoffrey’s version of events, was betrayed by his treacherous nephew Mandubracius, the prototype for Modred.
All this leaves just 1% of Geoffrey’s story of Arthur unaccounted for: the invasion of Iceland and Norway. This may, in fact, be no more than simple wish-fulfilment, the ancient Britons being accorded the full and total subjugation of what was later to become the homeland of the Vikings.
Arthur, as he first appears, in the book that launched his international career, is no more than an amalgam. He is a Celtic superhero created from the deeds of others. His literary and artistic success ultimately lies in the way that various generations have reshaped the basic story to suit themselves – making Arthur a hero to rich and poor, elite and revolutionary alike. As an individual, it is now clear that he never existed, but it is unlikely that his popularity will ever diminish.
You pass through the Chinese gate and into the red wash of the main thoroughfare. Strings of lanterns hang above you, lighting your passage. To your left, a glaring neon sign blinks on and off, while on your right, pagoda roofing and latticed woodwork adorn an otherwise non-descript building.
It’s clear that you’re walking through Chinatown. But this small, highly-stylised slice of the Orient could be located in almost any Western city in the world – and perhaps surprisingly, almost nowhere in China.
There’s a reason that Chinatowns across the globe bear a strong resemblance to one another. They are a spectacle specifically built and replicated to attract tourists. And they were all spawned from a single event: the great earthquake of San Francisco, in 1906.
A bad reputation
Chinatown existed in San Francisco before the earthquake, too, but the area was despised by the rest of the city. Although the stories of underground tunnels, brothels and opium dens were mostly fabricated, they gave Chinatown an aura of notoriety which marked it out as different and debased.
Public health investigations found or invented faults fuelled by racist invective. Chinatown was declared a “cancer in the heart of the city”, crowded with the “filth” of an “infamous race”.
In 1882, the widely-supported Chinese Exclusion Act became the first (though sadly not the last) law to exclude a group from the United States on the basis of race or religion: a testament to the levels of antipathy harboured towards the Chinese, and Chinatown.
When the earthquake struck San Francisco, the inhabitants of Chinatown were not even included in the death toll.
Less than one minute’s worth of seismic activity was all it took to change the face of Chinatown forever. Space opened up in the heart of San Francisco. Where once had stood the buildings and streets of Chinatown, there now lay an opportunity to build – and to capitalise.
Influential figures such as mayor E E Schmitz saw a chance to claim the central space for their own, proposing that Chinatown be rebuilt in Hunter’s Point, on the very margins of the city.
A new vision
Nevertheless, the leaders of Chinatown managed to secure the previous location for their community, and began to refashion San Francisco’s Chinatown as an exotic wonderland for non-Chinese visitors. Look Tin Eli and other Chinatown leaders had a vision of an “Oriental city [of] veritable fairy palaces filled with the choicest treasures of the Orient.”
Unlike the brick, Italianate buildings of pre-earthquake Chinatown, which were common throughout the city at the time, Look commissioned buildings that would imitate Chinese design elements. The process was continued two decades later, with Chingwah Lee’s popular seven step plan to make Chinatown a “tourist magnet”.
Yet the architects initially responsible for designing this Oriental scene were, in fact, white men who had never visited the Orient; and their designs betray an inexperience with Chinese architecture.
Nevertheless, Look’s creation of an Oriental city was a success. The design of San Francisco’s new Chinatown reestablished a centre of business for the Chinese community, and enticed non-Chinese customers to explore the exotic-looking streets and shops within.
A real phoney?
Throughout the 20th century, most of the West’s Chinatowns went on to mimic San Francisco’s successful, tourism-based model. There are unique features to be found in each of these Chinatowns, yet many of the aesthetic and commercial genes of San Francisco’s post-quake enclave are expressed in its offspring.
New Chinatowns are still being designed and proposed today. For instance, the city of Liverpool in the UK is anticipating the construction of the New Chinatown project, which advertises itself as a “distinctively Chinese urban quarter” and “an utterly unique shopping experience”. The project is designed and managed by UK-based, non-Chinese community companies, but has sought investors from China and Hong Kong.
Chinatown has come to represent a clear, cohesive and supposedly “authentic” idea of the Orient. But it’s based on a version of “Chineseness” designed for consumption by tourists. The identity of Chinatown’s inhabitants is, in fact, far more diverse than its name implies.
In San Francisco, the area is inhabited by migrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China, their American-born offspring, people of other Asian backgrounds and increasingly, people of non-Asian descent. All bring their own political, cultural and social allegiances to the space.
Yet the skyline of modern Chinatown can also be viewed as a response to decades of discrimination; a protective surface defending a vital inner world. San Francisco’s new Chinatown was designed and marketed as a beautiful and fantastical vision, to encourage a new outlook on the space and to make it a more attractive area.
Under threat of relocation to the outskirts of the city, the reconstruction of Chinatown atop its old site was a declaration of fortitude, and its stylised Oriental design was a means of survival. Chinatown’s exotic aesthetic attracted custom and ensured a Chinese presence in the centre of San Francisco — and other cities across the world — for well over a century, and continues to do so today.
Before 1914, flowers in everyday life spelt beauty, femininity and innocence; they were seen as part of women’s culture. But during the first world war, that changed. Men gathered posies of flowers on battlefields and dried them in honour of the dead, they turned to wild flowers as motifs for paintings and photographs, and they recognised in blue cornflowers and red poppies the fragility of life.
Historian Paul Fussell referred to the red poppy, Papaver rhoeas, as “an indispensable part of the symbolism” of WWI. When, on November 11, those who fought and died in WWI are commemorated, the sanguine colour of the red poppy, a flower that grew in profusion on Flanders Fields, is a vivid reminder to the living of the cost of sacrifice in war.
At the end of the conflict, artificial replicas of the Flanders poppy were sold in Allied countries to be worn in honour of the dead. Their resistance to decay became an embodiment of everlasting memory.
However, the red poppy was not always adopted without criticism. After 1933, in opposition to the symbolism of it, peace ceremonies appropriated the white poppy. Each flower expresses a different view on war: red embodies commemoration of sacrifice; white opposes political violence and remembers all war victims.
As living forms, as art, and as symbols, the wildflowers that soldiers encountered in WWI Europe help us negotiate the unimaginable enormity of war and deepen the solemnity of remembrance.
‘We are the dead’
Among the most affecting, but least talked about, Australian war paintings that officially commemorate and remember the fallen soldiers of the First World War, is George Lambert’s Gallipoli Wild Flowers (1919). Painted while Lambert served as Official War Artist, the work is unusual for the absence of soldiers’ bodies shown in action or in death. Yet it alludes to both by the inclusion of an empty slouch hat and a cluster of battlefield wildflowers. At the centre of the array of blossoms is the Flanders poppy.
The painting is a floral still-life. It exudes the melancholy of life stilled, and challenges popular conceptions that flowers are feminine, passive and beautiful. If the flowers in Lambert’s painting are beautiful, it is beauty tempered by the knowledge of human suffering. And they break with convention by relating to men, not women.
The dark centres of the poppies stare at us like the eyes of men who fought at Gallipoli. The message they communicate is the same one relayed by poppies in the lines of John McCrae’s mournful poem In Flanders Fields (1915): “we are the dead”.
Other Australian artists deployed by the Australian War Memorial tried to render the same power, and the same symbolisms, as George Lambert’s wildflower still-life, although with less intensity. Will Longstaff, for example, painted Menin Gate at midnight (1927), a monumental commemoration to men who were buried in unmarked graves on the Western Front in which the ghosts of the dead rise up among blood red poppies that grow in the same soil where their bodies decayed.
Flowers and the battlefield
On churned up war landscapes, masses of wildflowers covered derelict tanks and blanketed the ground where the dead lay, juxtaposing cold metal and the destructive power of men with the organic growth and regenerative power of nature.
Such contrasts presented Frank Hurley, Australia’s Official War Photographer working in Flanders and Palestine from August to November 1917, with many of the war’s most powerful images. Hurley could not ignore the cruel irony of all that fragile beauty growing free in the midst of industrialised warfare, mass killing, and the corpses of the dead.
Hurley’s Lighthorseman gathering poppies, Palestine (1918) is a rare colour photograph from the period. Hurley well understood the power of the poppy. He knew that for the image to become a national icon of comradeship, the flowers had to be coloured red because it is the poppy’s redness that made it the official symbol of sacrifice. Yet Hurley’s photo is pastoral, and in its vision of ideal life suggests the antithesis of war.
It may also be that flowers have a particular power over our perception. Elaine Scarry argues that the high colouration of a flower’s face is more perfect for imagining and storing images to memory than the faces of people. Official and unofficial WWI records lend support to Scarry’s theory.
When Cecil Malthus, a New Zealand soldier at Gallipoli in 1915, found himself under attack, it was not the faces of the soldiers around him that he remembered, but the faces of self-sown poppies and daisies on the ground.
This is just a short post by way of an announcement – that I am going to take some time off from my Blogs for the next week or so. I expect to be back posting in the usual manner from about the 16th November. There may be the occasional post before that, but nothing too regular. Why? I just need to get a few things done around the house and in my personal life that I can’t put off any longer, and a short break is also good for my well being. So back in a little bit.