In the late nineteenth century, the eastern end of Melbourne’s Bourke street, swarming with theatres, skittle alleys, and bars, abutted the city’s Chinatown. The stage entrance to the Theatre Royal was in Little Bourke Street, where the great majority of Melbourne’s Chinese population lived. A number of other Bourke Street theatres also had storerooms or dressing-rooms which backed onto Chinatown.
Children in doorway near Little Bourke St, 1900 (from Melbourne’s Chinese Museum: see here for more info)
According to Sophie Couchman, the Chinese Australian children who lived in Little Bourke Street often hung about for a glimpse of theatrical performers. When he was a boy in the 1910s and 1920s, Russell Moy used to mill around the back entrance to Her Majesty’s Theatre with his friends, for example, hoping for a sight of the razzle-dazzle chorus-girls as they got ready for a revue. ‘They were very good to us really’, he told an oral historian later in life. ‘They’d say “come in”, “come in””.
In the 1870s and 1880s, Suey Land, another Chinese Australian, used to hang about the entrance to the Theatre Royal. She was especially interested in attracting the notice of Maggie Moore, the Irish-American actress I wrote a post about recently, who emigrated to Australia in the 1870s. ‘Maggie Moore used to take notice of me and my sister and brothers’, Land told a reporter for the Herald in 1913. ‘She used to give me bunches of flowers, and I know I could point out now the room that used to be her dressing room. One day she gave my father a little perambulator, so that I could wheel my little brother around in it’.
These two vignettes are tantalisingly evocative. Surely they point to other connections between Melbourne’s everyday theatrical scene and the city’s Chinese community? I am reminded here of the image of a Melbourne pantomime gallery-audience from the 1870s which first appeared in the Australasian Sketcher, and shows a Chinese-Australian among the crowd. Also of a stray programme for a Sydney production of Alfred Dampier’s melodrama, Voices of the Night, at the Royal Standard Theatre in 1886. Along with an upper-class new chum and a larrikin, there were three Chinese characters in this Australian play – two of whom were played by Chinese actors, Lee Pang and Hi Lung.
Lee and Hi’s characters were supposed to be ‘denizens of Lower George Street’, the Sydney equivalent of Little Bourke Street. They appeared in a tableau set in a ‘Chinese gambling house’ in Redfern, and were obviously played throughout the rest of the play according to the tradition of scurrilous (read ‘racist’) low comedy. Frustratingly, though, just as these snippets start beckoning to an intriguing role for theatre in the culture of Chinese Australians, my own knowledge of the evidence runs dry.
Australasian Sketcher, 21 Feburary 1874.
Sophie Couchman, ‘”Oh, I Would Like to See Maggie Moore Again!”: Selected Women of Melbourne’s Chinatown’, in Sophie Couchman, John Fitzgerald, and Paul McGregor, eds, After the Rush: Regulation, Participation, and Chinese Communities in Australia, 1860-1940, Special edition of Overland 9 (2004): 171-90.
The Stage, 27 July 1886