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

1 August 2017

Responding to architecture

Natalie Harkin has suggested that for her, and for other Indigenous poets and writers, poetry is a responsibility.1 In this vein, Birch recently challenged white Australians’ Sorry Day performances of guilt: ‘As we contemplate the word sorry and question to what extent it has become little more than a symbolic gesture – at best – we must also pause and give due thought to the word responsibility.’2 This call is a timely provocation for thinking about White Australia’s relationship with Chinese-Australian history and communities too. Two days before Birch’s piece was published a group of 10 Chinese Australians, including Ballarat leader Charles Zhang, ended a march from Robe, South Australia, at Parliament House – a building designed to impress authority if there ever was one. Standing in the Parliament foyer, just meters from the chambers where the Immigration Restriction Act was passed 116 years earlier, Premier Daniel Andrews apologised for the government’s historically unjust treatment of Chinese people; ‘On behalf of the Victorian government’ he expressed ‘our deepest sorrow and I say to you that we are profoundly sorry’.3 Andrew’s apology is evidently heartfelt, but, though he claimed that ‘we are in your debt for all of those kilometres that you’ve walked’4, it remains unclear whether this debt – linked, as it was, to the labour of the walkers and not to the historical labour of Chinese Australians – is merely symbolic or will translate to monetary compensation, as it has in New Zealand and Canada.

The politics of debt brings me to the ethical crunch of dwelling on the nexus between architecture and poetry. It is no coincidence I am writing about property now. Last year I became a mortgage owner, and I have been confronting the uncomfortable truth that now I am on the trajectory to profiting (even more) from the dispossession of Kulin people. People often ask how I feel about this transition from renter to owner. It is beautiful to be able to transfer our pot plants into the earth and to think we do not have to move at the whim of a landlord but, to be honest, I am also deeply ambivalent about it:

…     we too bought a façade  & mostly I 
sleep deep but hell    one wall’s got mould

Knowing the history that I know, it feels to me that a mortgage does not only grow one’s debt to the bank, but also grows an ethical debt to redress historical injustice. This debt is foremost to Indigenous people for occupying and profiting from their stolen land, and also to such people as Lamsey who have had to work harder to enter the settler property system, and who worked for the benefit of white settler health and communities and, moreover, gave substantial philanthropic support to hospitals at a time when doctors of colour were excluded from the Medical Board.5 To be clear, this sense of debt is not a matter of shame, but flows from knowing colonial history. This is why:

… I might be      an inside-out-collector
free of shame                    and full of debts 
and sight our cabinet of rights

And so I want to suggest that being cognisant of the possessive workings of architecture, and exploring this in and through poetry, might reveal deeper connections between the material and the symbolic workings of settler colonial power. In particular, it brings into relief the way that possession is an active and ongoing process, and works at once through entwined material, emotional, and aesthetic currencies.

These apologies along with the histories of Villa and Howard Place are not the only reasons I have had property on the brain. My conversations with heritage activist and veritable celebrity, Dennis O’Hoy have called my attention to the fraught racial politics of heritage. Dennis’s grandfather, Louey O’Hoy, supported the health of Chinese and non-Chinese Victorians, as has Dennis’s brother, Jan O’Hoy. Since he founded the Bendigo Trust in 1970, Dennis has been enormously and proudly influential in stopping the Council from tearing down the (quintessentially colonial building) that is the Town Hall, as well as saving the Bendigo trams, and preserving the Chinese Joss House so that it continues to serve the community as a living temple today.6 When Dennis won a Heritage Council award in 2011 he recounted to the Bendigo Advertiser:

It was leaked to me that there were plans to demolish the town hall because it was … poor in its 19th century appearance and a relic of bygone days and a new modern concrete building should replace it … And I thought, ‘God, they must be dreaming. They can’t do it’. Now everyone recognises it as an icon of Bendigo but if a few of us hadn’t got together we wouldn’t have it.7

Dennis’s activism jars with Yu’s reactions to Bendigo’s building-scape, and reminds me there are no easy correspondences between buildings and identities.

As a Melbourne-based historian, teacher, and poet, the question of what kind of actions my debt calls for – and where they can and should be performed – looms as heavy and intimidating as Parliament House’s stony structure. Writing, reading, and listening to poetry enable me to self-reflexively build responsibility, and to make connections between settler colonialism and possession otherwise hard to see, and to feel. But, of course, poems don’t necessarily result in material change either. And yet Lamsey’s story – as contemporary poets – remind me I need to continue to find creative ways to unlearn the forms of property locked up in my skin through my ancestor’s historical rights; ways to see and know and feel white possession as strange. Part of this responsibility is to know and to feel my relationship to the property system I’m profiting from. So the challenge is at once simple and difficult. How to breathe the daily conundrum of how to find and share stories that shake up the foundations of whiteness without re-laying claims to it. As I enter further the wonderful webs of community history, I remain steadfastly hopeful and sanely skeptical this is possible.

  1. Natalie Harkin, ‘On Responsibility’, Overland, 2017, online.
  2. Tony Birch, ‘White Australians Stole Indigenous Children and then Stole their Victimhood too’, 26 May 2017, online.
  3. Benjamin Preiss, ‘Premier Daniel Andrews apologises to Chinese community over racist gold rush tax’, 25 May 2017, online.
  4. Adam Holmes, ‘Bendigo Chinese Association welcomes the Premier’s apology for past injustices to the Chinese’, Bendigo Advertiser, 25 May 2017, online.
  5. This is not to equate these debts, but to observe them both. For more on the racial politics of medicine in this era see Rey Tiquia,‘Traditional Chinese Medicine as an Australian tradition of health care’, PhD thesis, The University of Melbourne, 2004.
  6. ‘Bendigo Man Honoured for a Job Well Done’, Bendigo Advertiser, Bendigo, 12 April 2011, online.
  7. For discussion of the rise of Indigenous architecture see Timmah Bell, ‘Black Critics: flipping the power play in the arts’, 10 May 2017, Overland Journal, online.
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