Architecture, Poetry and Impressions of a Bendigo Chinese Doctor, James Lamsey

1 August 2017

In the last poem, ‘adoration’, I evoke my own ambivalence toward the Villa’s brick façade. The façade at once speaks to me of empire and settler colonisation and of Chinese pride and belonging, and evokes conflicting desires to rejoice in and reject Victorian architecture.

now your red and white façade leaves me
mouthing    “it’s beautiful/ nah, it’s stuffy”

Poetry and architecture further share room for ambiguity. The identity of a proprietor, or an author, is not necessarily revealed in the design of the house, or the structure or the poem; in façades, or in lexicon. One read of a poem; one look at a building, might result in a false impression of the author/s; the occupant/s. As such, my reason for dwelling on Lamsey’s architectural choices is not to sensationalise the apparently odd fact that a migrant from Canton chose to commission the construction of Victorian colonial buildings; a decision that on second archival look is not odd at all but thoroughly strategic. Rather, this is by way to realise that the aesthetics of property is not separate from its racial power.

As architecture has moved settlers to reverence, so might it achieve the opposite. Yu’s poem moves the reader from Bendigo streets through the courtroom to end in the local museum.1 Here, he disrupts the celebration of Federation, a moment that wrought harmful effects for people of Chinese descent through the enactment of the Immigration Restriction Act. Yu does so first with his body, with many farts, and then by recording the farting in his poem. This disruption was aural and odorous rather than visual, which, Yu hoped, enabled him to avoid white surveillance.

In the local museum celebrating the birth of the nation
I, the only visitor, farted and kept farting hoping that the security camera
Did not detect the noise.

Since reading this poem a few months ago I think of it every time I enter a colonial building. For me, Yu’s poetry does work akin to that of Lamsey’s places. It impresses and challenges me, and so changes the way I connect to buildings, to people, and to place.

When I am in and near Lamsey’s places, I feel my location between Europe and Asia.2 Arriving at Chinese places built on Dja Dja Wurrung Country, I become a visitor, albeit one moored to the privileges of my institution-base. My entrance into community knowledge is subject to the admission and generosity of Bendigonians of Chinese and non-Chinese descent who literally have the power to open and close the door to me as a researcher. In this way, the historical power relationship where white settlers assert themselves as those with the power to open or close the doors – of the nation and of its history – to non-white people – to practice what Moreton-Robinson has called ‘the right to exclude’, is inverted.3 In ‘entrance’:

I keep arriving, on Dja Dja Wurrung Country

knock knock

who’s there?

This sense of place – twice an outsider to Dja Dja Wurrung country, and to the Bendigo Chinese community – moves me closer toward a position where I must continue to unlearn my entitlements to the properties of whiteness, and know myself to be an indebted visitor.4 This is all the more complicated by the fact that I’m entering this place as an historian; a discipline that itself has a history of colonising via laying claims to the past. This is one reason why I have tried to shift my gaze between Lamsey’s actions and white modes of engaging in Lamsey’s history. In ‘collection’ I seek to call attention to the ways in which settlers – myself included – have an impulse to collect history, and then selectively display and conceal Chinese pasts in public and private places:

since history’s business is to crave more

                                                                                                                        keys


                  I / knock / on proprietor’s mouths

Of course, though, becoming self-reflexive about the colonising potential of research doesn’t guarantee I become an unsettled settler. To paraphrase Bonny Cassidy, a poet’s desire to ‘unsettle’ their own presence on colonised land might, well-meaning or not, ‘achieve the opposite effect’.5 So is my engagement with Lamsey’s story at risk of re-settling my relationship to Chinese-Australian history, or worse, of laying claims to possess it.

  1. There is no local Bendigo museum, so this presumably refers to a display in either the Art Gallery or the Post Office Gallery.
  2. ‘A Centre Place’, Peril: Asian Australian Arts and Culture Magazine, online.
  3. Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive, 19-20.
  4. Olivia Barr has suggested that the act of walking can both be a form of practicing common law and of unsettling place in her A Jurisprudence of Movement: Common Law, Walking, and Unsettling Place, London: Routledge, 2016, 3.
  5. For discussion of settler poets’ attempts to appropriate Indigenous connections to land see also Bonny Cassidy, ‘Unbidden: Settler Poetry in the Presence of Indigenous Sovereignty’, Cordite Poetry Review, August 2016.
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