Dragon Tails 2013

Twenty-three papers, two publication launches, one workshop and one master class later, Dragon Tails 2013 (6-8 July) is over.

Held at the University of Wollongong, the conference was convened by Julia Martinez, Jason Lim, and Paul Macgregor. Dragon Tails is a biannual conference on overseas Chinese history and heritage that showcases research on Chinese communities in Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Canada, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

There were many outstanding papers and it seems terribly unfair not to be able to mention them all. Delegates learned about the print culture of Chinese shopkeepers in New Guinea from Sophie Loy-Wilson (Deakin University), while the value of the records of the Chinese Consulate in Melbourne was highlighted by Mei-fen Kuo’s research (La Trobe University) into the lives of Chinese students who arrived on passports in the 1920s.

Stepping outside the bounds of universities, Emily Cheah (Chinese Museum, Melbourne) presented on a fascinating 1860s Chinese-English phrase book in the museum’s collection, which includes characters unique to colloquial Cantonese (as opposed to Mandarin).

The last day of Dragon Tails was timed to overlap with the start of the Australian Historical Association’s conference. As a result, keynote speaker Professor Henry Yu (University of British Columbia) had two audiences for his presentation, “The Cantonese Pacific and the Making and Un-Making of White Settler Nations.” It was encouraging to see the common history of the Chinese diaspora in the Pacific engaging the eyes and ears of both young and experienced historians within a mainstream context, particularly as the natural bias (at least in practice, if not in theory) of the Dragon Tails conference towards those working on the history of the Chinese in Australia can make delegates appear to be only ‘speaking to themselves.’

Those who have become regulars at the biannual conference tend to hold it in special regard and it’s easy to see why. It is sufficiently specialist to work as a single-stream conference — meaning that everyone gets the opportunity to hear all the speakers — and for there to be an assumed body of knowledge among delegates. Despite this, its appeal is broad enough to attract delegates from a range of backgrounds. During breaks between sessions, university-affiliated scholars, independent researchers, community activists, and members of the wider community mingled freely, exchanging congratulations, emails, knowledge, and resources. This absence of scholarly hierarchies, paired with a keenly felt sense of being among ‘kindred research spirits’, is what I personally love most about Dragon Tails.

I was fortunate enough to attend the postgraduate masterclass chaired by Associate Professor Julia MartÍnez, in which participants discussed their progress on their respective master’s and doctoral theses. It was heartening to note the range of topics represented, including a history of Chinese market gardens in Australia and New Zealand (Joanna Boileau, University of New England), which was until recently a curious gap in a literature otherwise filled with references to market gardens. Peter Gibson’s thesis (University of Wollongong) on the Chinese community in Wollongong, meanwhile, offered an insightful companion perspective to the predominant histories of cities with larger Chinese populations (such as Sydney and Melbourne). If this masterclass offers a glimpse into the future of historical research of the Chinese in Australia, it is looking bright indeed.

Alas, we will have to wait until 2015 for the next Dragon Tails, which may, if early indications are anything to go by, be held in Queensland.

Will I be there? You can count on it.

You can find the twitter archive for Dragon Tails here: http://thebroadside.org/tw-archives/index.php?archive=dtails2013