Sunday 8 November 2009

Sovereign Hill: New Gold Mountain Remixed

Lola Montez and I have a history. In 1855 she scandalised Victoria’s polite society by performing her saucy spider dance across the colony.

Then in 2005, I wrote an article for The Age (which was dismissive of Montez the first time round) to commemorate the 150th anniversary of her all-conquering tour.

And finally, we met in passing today on the streets of Sovereign Hill, though the former mistress of the King of Bavaria was more concerned with trading blows with newspaper editor Henry Seekamp, who’d dared to imply that the dancer possessed uncertain morals.

It was, of course, a historical reenactment with a slight edit - Montez and Seekamp did test out horsewhips on each other in real life, but in the confines of the United States Hotel. I, coincidentally, am writing this at the long timber bar of the rebuilt United States Hotel, on the main street of this replica town, which recreates the lively and chaotic gold rush era of 1850s Ballarat.

Gold rush town

Got all that? Good. So while the folk band in the corner strikes up another tune and the barmaid pours another ale, let me give you my thoughts on the place.

The first time I came here, I’d expected a cheesy antipodean Disneyland, a kind of “Gold Rush World” complete with corporate branding and actors dressed in giant fibreglass heads resembling those of bearded, gap-toothed Victorian-era gold miners.

The reality was, to my surprise, quite different. There’s something about Sovereign Hill that’s both charming and very relaxing. It’s partly because it really does resemble a small country town - the inhabitants may be in fancy dress, but there are enough streets lined with dusty timber buildings and ragged miners’ tents that it has the right “feel”.

On top of that, it’s full of businesses selling items typical of the era - clothing, toiletries, candles, sweets - many of which are made here. As you wander away from the busy main street, there are more items of interest scattered through the side streets - market gardens, animals, a wheelwright’s factory - which you can often wander through on your lonesome.

Panning for gold

There are also activities to undertake, such as panning for gold at the diggings area below the main street. Here, crouching visitors agitate wide metal pans vigorously in the hope of retrieving a few flecks of gold. There is certainly gold present, by the way, as the management has thoughtfully salted the stream with a modest amount beforehand.

Watching the gold panners is theatre in itself; I sat and observed a tour group from China getting down and dirty at the stream, having a thoroughly good time sloshing the pans in the hope of scoring a speck of the fabled metal.

There were several Chinese tour groups here today, living proof of the reported big increase in Chinese arrivals at Melbourne Airport. And I noticed something I’d never seen before at Sovereign Hill - their Mandarin-speaking guides were themselves dressed in Chinese garb of the 19th century, featuring silk shirts and broad straw hats.

Chinese connection

And then the penny dropped - Sovereign Hill isn’t just another Australian peculiarity on the itineraries of Chinese tourists, like kangaroos and penguin watching. There’s a strong Chinese story here on the goldfields, via the thousands of Chinese miners who came to “New Gold Mountain”, as they named the Victorian goldfields, to try their luck on the diggings.

With that in mind, I had a look through Sovereign Hill's Chinese Camp, a recreation of the Chinese miners’ homes and lives in 1850s Victoria. To my surprise, the small temple contains an impressive audiovisual presentation, via suspended widescreen TVs placed strategically within (haven’t flatscreen TVs been a godsend to museum curators everywhere?).

The story of the Chinese miners is an intriguing element of the multi-ethnic Victoria of those days. It’s not a story, frankly, that reflects well on the European population, who did much to make the Chinese feel unwelcome; but seeing the crowds of newly prosperous Chinese tourists now visiting Sovereign Hill and panning for gold, there’s a sense that amends have been made.

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of V/Line's daily Goldrush Special train and Sovereign Hill. But I paid for all the sippin’ whisky myself (and soon hope to have my sight back). For accommodation, see my 2007 review of Sovereign Hill Lodge.

Also check out the Sovereign Hill post and Eureka Centre post of my friend and blogger Walter Lim, who accompanied us on this trip.

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