Asian Studies Program

Chinese Australia

Digital Documents Record

1239 Argus report on the Chinese procession at the opening of the first Federal Parliament

Full Document Caption:
This article provides a detailed description and response to the Chinese procession held to celebrate the opening of Australia’s first Federal Parliament in Melbourne by the Duke and Duchess of York. It expresses regret that the royal couple were unable to witness the display. Article refers to the presence in the parade of Cheok Hong Cheong and Rev. Moy Ling.

Source: ‘The Chinese procession: novel and picturesque display’, Argus, 8 May 1901

Region: Date From: 1901 To: 1901
Victoria - Melbourne    

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If there is any virtue that can be laid at the doors of the Chinese it is that responsible for first-class processions. The cold-blooded Westerner may be ignorant of Chinese lore incapable of fathoming the deep symbolism of their pageants, and impressed by nothing but amused contempt for Chinese militarism; but one thing is certain, when he sees the commencement of a Chinese procession he will not turn away until the crowd sweeps over the opening to signify that no more is to be seen. Chinese art, tawdry though it frequently is, and immeasurably inferior as it always is to that of Japan, seems to have satisfactorily solved the problem of how to present pageant at once brilliant and harmonious, and full of life and colour. There was not a jarring note in yesterday's procession, unless it was that of the Chinese bands. The Chinese procession was all such a procession ought to be. It was arranged with an eye to dramatic effect. It was not crowded with incident at any one point. Its main features were placed in positions carefully selected, and were approached by contrasts enhancing their value.

The procession started at Little Bourke-street, passed along Swanston-street to Flinders-street, thence through Queen, Collins, Spring, and Lonsdale streets, returning to Little Bourke-street by way of Swanston-street. After the escort of 20 troopers who rode ahead, came a European band, an excited Chinese, with a waving pigtail and a costume of two shades of blue, acting as a sort of unauthorised drum-major. He did not control the music, neither did he march in time, but he met all objections by gracefully gyrating in front of the band in a manner suggestive of the skirt-dancer. His exact position could not be determined, though the fact that he had a little round button on the top led many to accept him as a bona-fide mandarin. At the rear of the band was a drag containing the leading members of the See Yup - the Chinese philanthropic society - among them the Rev. Cheok Cheong and the Rev. Moy Ling. Then commenced the procession proper. Two gaily-attired standard-bearers, revelling in brilliant costumes of mauve and orange, carried a flame edged pointed banner of scarlet, with the dragon of China richly embroidered in gold. More Chinese, decked out in all conceivable tints, followed, bearing gold-embroidered banners of rare beauty, colour, and design; and throughout the whole procession there was not a tint that would not fix the eye of an artist r a combination that was discordant. Little half-caste girls, arrayed in all the gorgeousness of their father's land, rode milk white ponies, led by glittering grooms. Soldiers, armed with maces and wearing huge shields, adorned with hideous grotesque faces to scare the foe, marched in pairs; and here and there long scarlet, crimson, and gold banners of strange shape were borne on poles between the shoulders of a couple of sturdy Chinamen. The ordinary "vegetable John," garbed once again in the costume of his native land, seemed transfigured. Nobody recognised him. In all the glory of fine silk most of his patrons would have had some temerity in addressing him. He appeared to have advanced several hundred per cent. in social position; and, in place of being an obsequious person who vends cabbages, he stood upright, and faced the world unafraid. Behind a row of young girls, pretty as the half-caste women are almost without exception, came the first band. To musical experts it may have appeared weak in wind instruments, for it consisted of six yellow Paganinis, in heliotrope, who played the one-stringed violin; four earnest and diligent pounders of the tom-tom, in two shades of orange; a tall white-garbed man, who banged huge cymbals at intervals, regulated only by his tiring biceps; and one flautist, who rendered endless selections on an instrument which looked like a flageolet and sounded like the bagpipes, Chinese music is unhampered by any of the rules which stultify the imagination and the energy of the Western maestro. It does not submit to any of the shoddy doctrines of socialism. There is a healthy individualism throughout; every man plays his own tune, and plays it when he likes. The result is a symphony which gives great pleasure to a Chinese which has to listen only for the fleeting minutes while a procession is passing.

The band was followed by a line of coupled Chinese soldiers, each pair being attired in a different colour, and behind them came the waving head of the first dragon. The Chinese dragon is utterly unlike the animal slain by St. George. It has a huge head, rolling eyes, and a tongue which waves threateningly from side to side. The horns of this dragon were silvered with knobs at the end, and its face was covered with coloured lines like those of a Maori god. Behind its head stretched about 100ft. of body, carried by 60 legs, and covered with scales, and it terminated with a tail which swished vicously from side to side, sending ripples of anger along the whole length of the body, and causing the serrated backbone to wave in a horribly suggestive fashion. The hard-working and clever manipulator of the head of this dragon and his 30 assistants, who composed its legs, made this animal a trifle too realistic for the horse of one of the troopers, and the man had to turn its back on the horrifying spectacle, and keep its head averted until the dragon had passed. In front of the dragon, and almost at its very mouth, is the Chinese equivalent for a bandallero. In all countries water is regarded as the especial abomination of all properly-constituted dragons, and this man is armed with a mop, presumably saturated with the defensive fluid. During the whole route of the procession the duel was kept up, the man tormenting the reptile with the mop, and the reptile lashing out with its head to get under his guard. The battle was conducted most effectively, and, forgetting for the nonce White Australia, the people rose, and gave the clever Chinese the cheers they deserved.

Twenty yards behind this dragon came a smaller reptile, only some 10ft. long, which seemed vastly annoyed at the teasing to which it was subjected by a dozen half-caste boys. Its movements, also carried out by boys, were just as amusing and convincing in their way as those of the parent audience, and is amusing to a European one, monster, and the youngsters were accorded an extra cheer for their skill.

Standard-bearers of all descriptions, girls on horses, mounted men of fictitious age with long white beards, and archers, ready for the Russian invasion, followed in the wake of the dragon to the number of nearly 100. Here and there were illusions of the sort which occasionally lead westerners to ponder over at music-halls - a little girl on a palanquin carrying a child of twice her age on her outstreatched palm, or a man holding a slender twig on which a boy of 12 was reclining comfortably. Two more bands, similar to the first, marched past, then standard bearers in any number, and banners brocaded in all manner of designs and colours.

At no point was the general scheme of harmony interrupted. The colours were constantly changing, but were ever brilliant and beautiful. There was not a suspicion of vulgarity about any single figure in the pageant. The second dragon was even a more formidable creature than the first. It was 50ft. longer, its head fully 6ft. in diameter, and its legs were composed of 45 Chinese in exquisite uniforms of pink and orange. Every scale on its picturesque hide consisted of a tiny mirror, and its tail, though swinging across the whole street, at every turn, was manipulated with the same ease as that of its predecessor. This dragon, as the piece de resistance of the procession, was reserved to terminate the pageant, for it was practically over when its tail swung past. Behind it was, of course, its infant heir, this time provided with a comic, grinning face, which evoked loud laughter from every section of the crowd to which it was presented. The boys were there again to torture it, but it pursued them more with sporting instinct than with the deadly earnestness of its elders and its little cousin. At its tail were a few standard-bearers, then a band and finally a couple of buggy-loads of prominent Chinese merchants, dressed in their national costume, and with their pigtails let down in honour of the occasion.

The Chinese procession was one which for beauty and interest could not be surpassed, and it is to be regretted that the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York, used as they are to military processions, were not able to witness a show at once so picturesque and so novel.