History students find Bendigo’s Chinese past persists

History students Josè Manga and Luke Barkmeyer are on work placement at the Golden Dragon Museum unearthing stories from old gold Bendigo.

“In history we talk about silences and this is one of the silences we perceive in Bendigo,” Josè says on the Chinese history that simmers under the surface here.

“The aim of our project is to open that silence so people can see there’s a strong Chinese presence in Bendigo.

“Back in the 1850s and 60s the Chinese immigrants represented nearly a quarter of the population of Bendigo, so it was quite a significant presence, but when you walk about the streets of Bendigo you don’t see that presence anymore. It’s kind of hidden.”

Josè and Luke are working with the museum’s research officer, Leigh McKinnon, on a pocket guide to the city’s lesser-known historical Chinese sites.

“The museum has an amazing history and a wonderful collection,” Josè says.

“It’s one of the highlight places for people visiting Bendigo. They showcase the Chinese heritage in Bendigo but they also want to invite visitors to the museum to go out and explore other sites outside the museum complex.”

For Josè and Luke, the project encapsulates the purpose of their degree. “In history it’s not about learning history and memorising things, it’s about creating history,” Josè says. “What we’re trying to do is learn tools and techniques to allow us to produce history. Learn how to research, apply critical thinking, find sources, reference and write things in our own words, using academic methods.”

From Peru to Bendigo

Josè is from Peru, where he worked with museums and galleries and as a tour guide. In the winter months he led trekking expeditions in the Andes and in the summer he introduced tour groups to his city’s historical and archaeological sites.

When he moved to Bendigo with his partner and found a university in his neighbourhood, he saw the perfect opportunity to build on his love of the past.

“It’s a different environment, a different culture, a different language to be studying compared to my first degree,” he says. “It’s nice to be involved with people who are like-minded. Working with Luke for example is nice, we share a lot of ideas and that exchange is very important. And I’m learning a lot about Australian culture as well.”

Following a passion

Luke followed his passion for military history to La Trobe three years ago in a quest to change his life. He’d been an engineer for 27 years.

“I’d really lost the love of what I was doing and lost sight of what I wanted to be doing with my life,” he says. “I didn’t figure I could continue doing engineering into middle age, it was just too mentally and physically demanding on me.

“Most of friends probably through I’d lost my mind or I was having a midlife crisis. But I didn’t see it as that. I felt it was a real challenge that I’d lost that passion for what I was doing and I wanted to find something else. I’ve always been interested in military history and had a real passion for it.”

Luke began volunteering at Bendigo’s military museum, which led to a job, and to returning to study. He says it’s been a great learning curve.

“When you’re stuck in a profession for 30 years that’s all you think about and all you know. It’s been a great challenge for me to come in and basically be like a kid out of high school but in my mid-40s. To go back and start writing 2000-word essays was a real challenge. I just knuckled down and asked questions. I found Bendigo has some really great lecturers and they were always open.

“What uni has taught me is to talk to people. And it’s allowed me to understand how to research better and construct a piece of work based on research and my own thoughts.

“Mentally it’s been a breath of fresh air for me. I can go and talk to interesting academics and spend time with Josè and a few other students and sit and listen to their stories, it’s helped me be a better listener, that’s for sure.”

Common interest unites

Josè and Luke have found a common interest in military history. It’s what first captivated Josè as a child, growing up on the site of the 1881 Battle of Miraflores.

“I was sleeping on a place where my ancestors 100 years ago had died,” he says. “I took it personally. That story got me. It’s about identity, how do you identify with those stories? And that’s what they do in this museum with the dragon for example, it’s not just a dragon, it means something to you.

“I would like to take that into a professional career. Coming from a tourism background I like to take that academic research and turn it into a story. It doesn’t have to involve dates and heavy readings, I just like to tell the story. A simple story you might remember forever. That’s where I’d like to take history.”

Luke is hoping to return to working at the military museum, which is currently closed due to the pandemic. He also has plans to use his skills to tell the story of the Vietnam war’s impact on veterans and their families.

“I’ve made a lot of acquaintances that are Vietnam veterans,” he says. “Everyone’s different but I generally find people have a story they want to tell but they’ve never been approached or if they were it wasn’t the right time in their lives.

“I think what we’re learning from WW2 diggers is that as people get older they feel they want to tell their story. I think for these people the demons of the past may have settled somewhat.”

As with this project on Bendigo’s Chinese past, Luke’s aim is to create history for current and future generations.

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