Architecture

The significance of Melbourne’s Chinatown gateways

February 18, 2015

This Sunday, Melbourne’s historic Chinatown precinct will come alive in a grandiose festival, marking the start of the Chinese New Year: the Year of the Sheep.

Above image credit: Roberto Seba. Article by ADR contributor, Bryan Chung.

This Sunday, Melbourne’s historic Chinatown precinct will come alive in a grandiose festival, marking the start of the Chinese New Year: the Year of the Sheep.

Set to attract more than 30,000 people, the Chinese New Year festival will feature a lively dragon parade starting from Little Bourke Street through Melbourne’s city streets, bringing luck to city-goers.

Setting the scene for the festivities are four striking pagoda-style Chinese gateways, which line each of Chinatown’s four street junctions from Swanston to Spring Street.

When the gateways were first constructed in 1976, there was an outcry in the local press that the structures were not traditionally Chinese or authentic.

They were not in keeping with the historic Chinatown precinct, originally established during the Victorian gold rush period in 1854.

The gateway’s architects T.W. Chu and Associates rebuffed those claims, explaining that its colours were related to Tsai Hua, a traditional Chinese art form, its materials were brought over from China, and it was painted by Chinese traditionalist artists in Hong Kong.

Detail from the 2008 Melbourne Gateways modification proposal by Qinghua Guo, Hui chuan Wang & Jia Xu Faculty of Architecture Building Planning The University of Melbourne

Detail from the 2008 Melbourne Gateways modification proposal by Qinghua Guo, Hui chuan Wang & Jia Xu, Faculty of Architecture Building Planning
The University of Melbourne

 

But in 2007, research by the architectural conservation department at The University of Melbourne found the original gateways to be severely lacking in authenticity.

The University of Melbourne research team, comprising two architectural doctoral students led by Professor Qinghua Guo, unearthed exactly how the design of the original gateways had not been well resolved. One of the gateways featured a pair of lion capitals atop the columns, a characteristic of tomb gateways in the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

Furthermore, the gateways’ measurements were disproportionate, their columns were square instead of round, and mostly wrong colours and patterns were used.

The team proposed a modification of the gateways to resolve their historical inaccuracies and upgrade their overall look. Missing historical components like traditional brackets were added in, the lion capitals were replaced with terracotta cappings, and intricate decorative motifs were added to give the illusion of rounded columns, among other improvements.

The upgrading works on the gateways were completed in 2008. The gateways’ refurbished and brightly coloured designs not only function as striking landmarks for local and international visitors, their authentic and resolved designs are symbols of Australia’s transition from naïve cultural assimilation to sophisticated cultural pluralism.

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