Trepang: crossing cultures / creating connections

by Alison Inglis and Susan Lowish

In 1879, a fist-sized jade sculpture of a man on horseback, blackened by soil and damaged with age, was unearthed 2 metres below a large banyan tree being cleared for a road running from the town at Palmerston along the seacoast of Port Darwin. The discovery, by a party of Chinese labourers, was reported in The Prehistoric Arts, Manufactures, Works, Weapons, etc. of the Aborigines of Australia, a hotchpotch of early accounts and strange ideas, compiled and collated by the town clerk of Adelaide, Thomas Worsnop. Although the object was unidentified and unclaimed, it needs to be acknowledged that the Chinese have had a love affair with jade for over 9,000 years. The author of this early book deemed it "evidence of the visit of foreign people to the north-west part of the continent" (Worsnop, 1897, 12).

Published some 70 years later, anthropologist Donald Thomson's book Economic Structure and the Ceremonial Exchange Cycle in Arnhem Land was the first systematic account of Aboriginal ideas of wealth and payment, property ownership and economic exchange. In it, Thomson argues that the impact “of a virile culture from Indonesia, which has probably occurred only during the past two hundred years, has stimulated a remarkable ceremonial exchange cycle so that goods were passed far inland” (Thomson, 1947, 5).

Skip forward to 2010 and the release of Djulirri, a short film featuring imagery of a stunning and remote rock art complex on land belonging to the Maung-speaking people of North-East Arnhem Land. “This site includes at least 20 layers of art,” said Dr Sally May. “And importantly, it has also yielded the oldest date yet recorded for contact rock art in Australia. A yellow painted prau (Southeast Asian sailing vessel) is found underneath a large beeswax snake. This snake was radiocarbon dated ... to between AD1624 - 1674, meaning that this is a minimum age for the sailing vessel painting”. This is the first rock art evidence found that dates the Indonesian visits back to the 17th century.

These visits would continue up until the early twentieth century. Traditional owner, Ronald Lamilami, tells how one of his grandfathers climbed aboard one perahu vessel and sailed away, never to be seen by his family again!

When the ground-breaking exhibition Trepang: China & the story of Macassan-Aboriginal trade first opened in the Capital Museum, Beijing on 1 April 2011, the surprised Chinese audience was presented with the little-known story of ancient trading links between Australia, Indonesia and China. The trade was based almost solely upon Chinese people’s relish for what the Indonesians called trepang, an exotic delicacy and aphrodisiac in the form of small sea creatures (known in the West as sea cucumber or bêche-de-mer) found along the northern coasts of Australia.

The comments in the Beijing Visitors’ Book underlined the unexpectedness and novelty of the subject, with one viewer declaring: “The art objects unfold the Chinese, Macassan and Australian Aboriginal people’s trade and cultural exchanges very well and I have learnt something quite new: Chinese-Australian trade began long ago”. Another comment suggested hopefully: “Chinese-foreign cultural and art exchanges can open up our intellectual horizons and break through former boundaries”.

If the majority of the Chinese visitors’ comments are any indication, the fascinating historical components of the show - the maps, documents, artefacts, models of ships and photographs - were themselves only a background to the modern-day cultural exchange that was also showcased within the installation; namely, the artistic collaboration between the senior Aboriginal artist John Bulunbulun and the classically-trained Chinese artist Zhou Xiaoping. As one member of the Beijing audience enthused: “... combining together Australian Aboriginal sensibilities and Chinese art brought forth a wondrous beauty”.

Marcia Langton’s catalogue essay makes clear that the two contemporary artists’ long-standing friendship was at the heart of the project:
After years of collaboration ... they bring together their understanding of historical events that entangled their ancestors across cultures and the seas and archipelagos between China and the north coast of Australia more than two centuries ago (Langton, 2011, 15).

Certainly some of the exhibition’s most memorable images are those that record the two artists in deep conversation, working together in Arnhem Land, cutting bark from a tree or preparing their various painting supports. These photographs form a counterpoint to the contemporary paintings displayed in the space - Xiaoping and Bulunbulun’s individual works of ink on rice paper or ochre on bark respectively, and also their striking joint productions, such as From art to life (2009), made from ink, acrylic and ochre on rice paper and canvas, which depicts the sacred fish of Bulunbulun’s saltwater country gradually transforming themselves into the Koi fish of Xiaoping’s China. Another whimsical merging of traditions resulted in Xiaoping’s elegant blue-and-white china bowls, decorated with ancestral designs taken from paintings by Bulunbulun.

But the intermingling of Chinese and Aboriginal materials and imagery did not always reflect a shared agreement on the significance of the historical trepang trade. In Xiaoping’s provocative painting Why not? (2009), he depicts himself and Marcia Langton debating the true extent of the exchanges between Australia and China, with the text above Marcia’s head reading: “Fuck No! No! No! There was no direct connection” while over Zhou’s bent head appears the question: “Why not?”

Of course, a large part of the exhibition is devoted not to China, the final destination of the precious trepang cargo, but to Macassan-Aboriginal exchanges, both cultural and mercantile, that developed over many centuries. It was the Macassan traders from the Kingdom of Gowa (now Sulawesi, Indonesia) who harvested and processed the trepang from north Australian waters and then transported them to the ports of South East Asia and China.

The richness and complexity of Macassan-Aboriginal relations is also movingly conveyed in the final catalogue essay by Aaron Corn, Allan Marrett and Djangirrawuy Garawirrtja, which recounts the 2005 visit to Australia by Takbing Siwaliya, a Macassan cultural ensemble of dancers and singers. Garawirrtja describes a deep ancestral affinity brought to life in the present day:
Somehow we connected. It was amazing, you know? … We have to meet again another day. … By claiming through the dalkarra [ancestral power] that we still exist, we were also proclaiming that they still exist (2011, p.79).

These accounts of cross-cultural performances were cleverly suggested in the exhibition space through the use of film and soundscapes. The regular attendance of the artist Xiaoping also enlivened the exhibition when it was shown at the Melbourne Museum in July-October 2011. Poignantly, his lone presence underlined the absence of his friend and collaborator John Bulunbulun, who sadly died in April 2010, just as the catalogue was completed.


Corn, Aaron, Allan Marett with Djangirrawuy Garawirrtja (2011), 'To proclaim they still exist: the contemporary Yolnju performance of historical Macassan contact’, in Trepang: China & the Story of Macassan-Aboriginal Trade. Melbourne: Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, University of Melbourne: 72-89.

Langton, Marcia (2011), Trepang: China & the Story of Macassan-Aboriginal Trade. Melbourne: Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, University of Melbourne.

May, Sally (2010), 'Australia’s earliest contact rock art discovered', Australian National University [media release] Friday 23 July 2010, accessed online [March 2012] from:

Thomson, Donald, F (1949) Economic Structure and the Ceremonial Exchange Cycle in Arnhem Land. Melbourne: Macmillan.

Worsnop, Thomas (1897), The Prehistoric Arts, Manufactures, Works, Weapons, etc. of the Aborigines of Australia. Adelaide: C. E. Bristow.