15. Masonic Altar, Bathurst

This elaborately carved and painted ‘altar’ is one of the last remaining objects from the Bathurst branch of the Chinese Masonic Society founded in 1921.[1] It is now to be found in a replica Chinese temple that is part of the Bathurst Goldfields display on Mount Panorama. The distinction between a Chinese temple or Joss house (see Nos. 10 & 18) and a Chinese Masonic Society hall was not always apparent to non-Chinese and it is not uncommon for objects from the one to be attributed to the other.

In fact the Chinese Masonic Societies were an evolution from the various ‘Brotherhoods’ or so-called ‘secret societies’ that were common associations among Chinese people in the 19thcentury. While some like to play on the ‘secret’ aspect of these groups, an observer as early as the 1870s felt that they had declined ‘into mere tea-shops’.[2] They were in fact more often simply self-help groups for those isolated from their usual family or dialect links who bound themselves to mutual support with ceremonies and sworn promises. Though as anti-Qing feeling grew among the overseas Chinese along with a desire to modernise China, these organisations formed themselves into branches of the Zhigongtang (致公堂– written above the altar) and known in English as the  Chinese Masonic Society. They were strong supporters of Sun Yat-sen and the 1911 revolution in China. 

Bathurst like many rural towns had a viable Chinese-Australian community made up of locally born descendants of gold miners and others who came after. The Bathurst Chinese Masonic Society was operating strongly in the 1920s when it hosted a visited by Ma Hsiao-chin, an early Sun Yat-sen supporter and member of the Chinese Parliament.[3] In this it was continuing a long tradition of overseas Chinese support for the Kuomintang (中國國民黨) or Nationalist Party. While the Bathurst Chinese Masonic hall was demolished in 1953, that in Sydney remains today. 

The elaborate nature of such altars and their presence in Masonic society buildings often meant they were mistaken for Chinese temples. Similarity as the Chinese communities that sustained these temples and societies dwindled the various objects within them were often abandoned or looted by locals. Gradually such objects are being recognised for their historic value and find their way into local history museums where they are not infrequently mislabel. (See No. 65)

For more on Chinese-Australian history in Bathurst

[1] For an account of its opening see, National Advocate, 15 June 1921, p.2.

[2] See Michael Williams, “Observations of a China Consul”, p.7.

[3] National Advocate, 27 June 1922, p.1.