If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else – Confucius
Whether the Chinese settlers who flocked to north Queensland in the 1880s knew where they were going is a matter of conjecture now, but visitors to the region today certainly do – and a new addition to many itineraries is a vivid reminder of those days.
Chinatown Museum and Hou Wang Temple
This small piece of Confucian wisdom greets me in Atherton, a bustling town just an hour west of Cairns. Atherton has a rich and colourful past. Just outside the town, the Hou Wang Temple is a captivating reminder of the 1880s to mid 1900s when Atherton was home to a thriving Chinese community.
The Chinese who settled here came directly from China, or via the Pine Creek goldfields of the Northern Territory, initially to mine at the Palmer River Goldfield and later to farm in the area.
Although the Chinese population of the area has now dwindled, the remnants of Atherton’s Chinatown are now considered of archaeological significance.
As one of only six temples around the world dedicated to Hou Wang, and the only surviving timber and iron Chinese temple in Australia, the Hou Wang Temple has great historical significance.
Built in 1903, it is the second oldest temple in Queensland and was used as a place of worship until the early 1970s. The oldest temple, in the Gulf Savannah town of Croydon, was built earlier the same year.
Now owned by the Queensland National Trust, the Hou Wang Temple has been conserved and restored, with most of its fittings, including the carvings and items used for worship still intact.
Guided tours take visitors through the temple, which is now part of a complex including a Chinatown museum.
Rice wine bottles, opium tins and pipes, teapots and cups, rice bowls, dominos (wei chi), counters and gambling tokens speak volumes about the lifestyle of the people who lived in what was once known as Cedar Camp.
The Atherton settlers, most from the Sze Yap or Zhongshan districts of China’s Guandong province, joined the rush after gold was discovered at Palmer River, near Cooktown, in 1872.
But the 1878 Queensland Goldfields Act amendment banned Chinese miners from working new mines in Queensland for the first three years after arriving, so they turned to timber and market gardening, particularly maize, for their living.
The museum features a collection of original artefacts – including musical instruments – donated by James Cook University. Interactive displays, dioramas and exhibits recall the journeys, hardships and triumphs of the Chinese pioneers in north Queensland.
The temple is all that is left of a once thriving community. By the late 1920s, Atherton’s Chinatown was almost deserted but the temple was used until 1975 and in 1979 the National Trust took over the 30 acres (12ha) and began rescuing small pieces of the temple.
Life of Hou Wang
The pagoda blew away in a 1956 cyclone and was rebuilt in 1986. Vandals and souvenir-hunters also took their toll, with three or four gods – including Hou Wang himself – stolen or destroyed over the years.
In life, Hou Wang was Yang Liang Chieh, Commander of the Bodyguard of Ti Ping, last Emperor of the Sung Dynasty. Hou Wang is not a name but a title translated as `Prince Marquis’, one which also belongs to the Commander of the palace guard of the Jade Emperor, ruler of heaven. Many of the gods worshipped at Chinese temples were once real people who were deeply revered after their deaths and eventually worshipped as deities.
The wide path from the museum to the temple – once Chinatown’s busy main street – is lined with small contemporary stainless steel sculptures created by local sculptor Hans Pehl.
Carvings, incense burners and statues of the gods decorate the small interior of the temple, which is dominated by an ornate altar panel, hand-carved in China a century ago.
At the back of the temple are two more tin structures – the community hall with the caretaker’s room at the back, and the community kitchen, where dioramas recreate life as it was.
The Hou Wang Temple and Chinese Museum, Herberton Road, Atherton, is open Wed-Sun, 11am to 4pm. Ph: (07) 4091 6945. Admission $10 adults, $7.50 concessions, $5 children (5-15) and $25 for a family of 6. Atherton is 130km west of Cairns.
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