Since 1988 I have been researching, writing, publishing, curating exhibitions and convening conferences on Chinese and their descendants in Australia, the history of the Chinese diaspora in general, and the history and culture of China. From 1990 to 2005 I was curator at the Chinese Museum (Museum of Chinese Australian History) in Melbourne. I currently work as a consultant historian and heritage advisor.
As a parallel stream, I’ve also had an interest in the history of natural therapies and the history of the natural world. I was Associate Editor of Diversity, the journal of the Australian Complementary Health Association, from 1993 to 2005. Since 2004, I have also worked with my partner Jocelyn Bennett in running Clearview Retreat, a yoga and nature-meditation retreat centre in central Victoria, Australia.
My Chinese research interests are primarily 19th century, but extend up to the 1940s.
A key focus of my work has been the life and career of Penang-born Cantonese, Lowe Kong Meng (劉光眀), Melbourne merchant of the 1850s to 1880s. His wide ranging interests and endeavours have led me to look broadly at trade and shipping, business structures and networks, business methods; 19th century media and communications; the Indian Ocean world; the trades in tea, sugar, gold, food, opium and alcohol; mining entrepreneurship; cross-cultural lives; Chinese in Malaya and Otago; the Hakka-Punti wars; Chinese merchants in the diaspora, the role of the treaty ports in diasporic lives; and the contrasts of anti-Chinese discrimination, Chinese political activism and agency, and European support for Chinese in the diaspora.
The extraordinary heritage of Chinese temples, huiguan and joss houses in Australia and around the diaspora has long been a fascination of mine. These are rich cultural treasures, which figured prominently in the social lives of the 19th and early 20th century diaspora, but have only recently begun to be seen as deep sources of historical content. I have been documenting the architecture, artefacts, inscriptions and social histories of these buildings; researching the industries in China that produced their fittings and contents; investigating decorative styles and symbolism; and exploring the traditional Chinese spirit world - its deities, legends, moral values and talismanic powers. Through considering the social context of their construction and usage, I see these communal institutions, and their evolution over time, as key loci of social governance in the diaspora, South China and the treaty ports - important in considering the roles of native-place associations, same-surname affinities, sworn brotherhoods, dialect and language groups, and political and business organisations.
My interest in material culture has developed into a broader consideration of the imprinting of Chinese historical activity in the physical world: in landscapes, sites and artefacts. I have long encouraged the cross-disciplinary interaction of the history, archaeology and museum-curating professions, through conferences, publications and research projects. Artefact finds on Chinese diaspora sites have particularly intrigued me, and I have been researching the usages, export/import and manufacture of these, especially of ceramics, coins, foodstuffs and tools; in short, their social biographies. Chinese played an important role in developing mass resource extraction economies in the 19th century world, affecting the cultural landscapes and terraforming-technologies of mining, intensive agriculture and settlement patterns in Australia and elsewhere. I am exploring means of interpretively locating specific sites and economic activities in such macro landscape analyses, in particular comparing Chinese, European and indigenous cultural approaches to ecology and land management.
Overarching these three main focuses of my research, I have more broadly been considering ways in which Chinese and European/Western societies across the globe have co-evolved since the early 19th century. Thematically, I have been exploring cross-cultural engagement and cultural change; ethnic conflict and cooperation; notions of cultural and political allegiance, and notions of cultural boundary; the evolution of civil society, political activity and concepts of governance; the conceptualisation of ‘modernity’ and ‘modernism’ contrasted with ‘westernisation’; and transformations in gender roles, labour relations and religious beliefs.