“A dizzying wave of colour”

By Dr. Cheryl Griffin – Royal Historical Society of Victoria,

It is difficult to imagine from the distance of almost 120 years, but for a short time in 1901 Melbourne became a city or arches built to commemorate the creation of Australia.

On January 1, 1901 Australia became a nation and Melbourne its capital city (at least until a new capital city, Canberra, could be built half-way between Melbourne and Sydney). 

The arches were temporary structures designed to recognise and celebrate the contribution of a range of groups. The Age newspaper provided a word picture: “The arches rose over the great masses of the people in the gorgeousness of their colours like so many rainbows set against a cloudless sky. The senses were whirled away with the bewildering spectacle, and for moments together buildings, people and arches alike were blended in a dizzy hundred-tinted wave of colour.” (The Age, May 7, 1901)

The Chinese arch in Swanston St, close to Little Bourke St and at the western entrance to Chinatown, was paid for by the Victorian Chinese community and designed to look like a Chinese temple. Covered in beautiful silks and decorated with lanterns, flags and dragons, it bore the banner “Welcome by the Chinese Citizens.” 

The welcome banner was probably meant to welcome the royal visitors, the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York, but it could also be seen as a welcome to the new nation, one in which the Chinese community had played a part since gold rush days. Chinatown had been around for nearly 50 years by then. After the gold rush it became the heart of the Chinese community where Chinese people lived, ate, worked and spent their leisure hours. There was a decline in the number of Chinese living in the area from the 1920s, particularly as a result of Australia’s restrictive immigration policies, but it has remained the centre of activity for the community.

In this image, you can see the huge crowds and imagine the excitement of the time as street parades and other celebrations took over the city streets. The trams are not running, of course, but horses and buggies are making their way along the thoroughfare and if you look closely you will see a number of bicycles. There are children and adults in the foreground, so it is likely that this photograph was taken on a weekend or a public holiday during the first week of May when the first Federal Parliament was opened at the Exhibition Building in Carlton. There are flags aplenty and even the telegraph poles lining the street provide a decorative effect, as well as reminding us of the progress Melbourne had made since Victoria became a colony in its own right 50 years earlier. It must all have looked even more spectacular at night when the arches, ships on the bay and buildings in other parts of the city were illuminated. 

Some things don’t change in 120 years. In 1901, there were those who lamented the waste of public money on such celebrations. Others saw the economic advantages and thought that at least they provided employment, however briefly. Others still saw the extravaganza put on for the royal visitors as tantamount to grovelling, The Bulletin complaining that there was “too much Cornwall-and-York and too little Commonwealth …” yet others admired the spectacle but wondered why more effort wasn’t made to build more permanent structures. It seems as though some things never change.

100 years later, another Federation Arch was built on the Princes Bridge where Swanston St becomes St Kilda Rd, reimagining the arch that had stood there in 1901. Conceived by architect Peter Sandow, it was soon dubbed Pick up Sticks by its detractors and by 2003 it had been removed. Another piece of celebratory public art that has disappeared from view.

The image of the Chinese Federation arch featured here can be seen in two Royal Historical Society of Victoria publications – Remembering Melbourne (2016) and Melbourne’s Twenty Decades (2019). Both are available for purchase from the RHSV. Phone: (03) 9326 9288. Email: [email protected] Online bookshop: www.historyvictoria.org.au/bookshop or visit us in person at 239 A’Beckett Street, Melbourne (opposite the Flagstaff Gardens), 9am – 5pm, Monday to Friday •

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