78. Argyle Place, 1850s Garrison Church painting

A Sydney scene: Buried in the bowels of the State Library is this water colour of Sydneysiders enjoying a stroll near the Garrison Church, Argyle Place. [Apologies for the poor image as no professional photograph has ever been made of this picture. SLNSW ML 49]

This watercolour by Frederic Charles Terry, labelled Argyle Place, Sydney, shows numerous Sydneysiders strolling sometime in the 1850s. Among them are two men wearing typical Chinese clothes for the period. One appears to be carrying a bundle on a pole. 

The interesting thing about this watercolour painting is that it is uninteresting. That is, it is an unremarkable scene of the time and the presence of the two Chinese men in Sydney not far from the port is just as unremarkable. They are perhaps on their way to the goldfields or perhaps are simply residents of Sydney, permanent or temporary. Certainly, the State Library of NSW does not consider this item worth digitalising and as a watercolour (as opposed to an oil) painting prefers not to display it in its book space consuming picture room.

Why feature this as one of the 88? Two reasons: Firstly, that the arrival and presence of Chinese people in Australia was not always a matter of controversy or even exoticism. Ordinariness is easy to overlook. And secondly that the State Library of NSW like other similar collections has much of relevance to Chinese Australian history that is not always apparent.

This issue of the ordinary versus the exotic is one that is not often discussed. Too great an emphasis on the extra-ordinary – no matter how true in itself – can lead to a lack of context that is the life-blood of stereotypes and myths. Thus the Chinese as gold seekers are often portrayed to the neglect of the Chinese as farmers (tobacco, corn, bananas), doctors or even opera players (No.16). Too great an emphasis on wealthy individuals – the Quong Tarts (No.23) or Lowe Kong Mengs (No.54) – leads to a neglect of the family man or women with a humble house (No.21) who made up the vast majority. Much of this is obvious but the focus of much history – not to mention journalism – requires the obvious to be oft repeated.

The second point is that if an object or document is not specially labelled “Chinese Australian” it may lie neglected in a collection (MitchelI Library 8). This was certainly the case with the dramatic murder defence by Ang (No.59) or the wonderful story by Vivian Chow (No.22). These are examples from a list that by definition is mostly hidden from us until we look more closely at such images as Frederic Charles Terry’s Argyle Place, Sydney and ask ourselves what more can it tell us.