Melbourne was the reason my husband set off on our round-the-world journey. In February 2020, we finally arrive. I had two points of inspiration that led to this moment: a book and a client.

The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes
The Fatal Shore at our AlrBNB

The book is The Fatal Shore. It is a vivid and often gruesome account of the colonization of Australia by convicts and the soldiers sent to master them.

In 1787, the twenty-eighth year of the reign of King George III, the British Government sent a fleet to colonize Australia.
[…] Now this coast was to witness a new colonial experiment, never tried before, not repeated since. An unexplored continent would become a jail.

Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia 1787-1868 (Vintage 1987)

The client was an Australian manufacturer of parts used to construct DIY shelves and cabinets. I can’t remember the name of the company or my contact person. All I recall is her voice. Gravelly yet smooth, the way I imagine whiskey on rocks to taste. Possibly with a bit of a peat mixed in to account for all the smoking.

The book and the client converged into a desire to visit this fatal shore.

Ye Olde Melbourne

On the one hand, my client fascinated me with her account of a solicitor’s life in Melbourne. She worked in a loose association of other solicitors and barristers called law chambers. The barristers wore long black robes and powdered wigs for court appearances. She urged me to visit this little corner of Ye Olde England on a hot and dusty continent. Melbourne, in her eyes, was the most European and therefore attractive city in Australia.

Domed Reading Room Melbourne
Domed Reading Room, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Yet, at the same time, my client’s enthusiasm for old English ways sat strangely with me as I read The Fatal Shore. In its review of Hughes’s book, The New York Times described 18th century Australia as an “outdoor gulag.”

As I wander the streets of Melbourne, I struggle to see signs of either merry old England or the gulag. St Paul’s Cathedral is a lovely example of neo-Gothic architecture. There is the grand State Library of Victoria, founded in 1854 as the Melbourne Public Library. Its Domed Reading Room would grace any Western metropolis. Frankly, these are the boring bits.

Hipster Central

Melbourne gets considerably more exciting when you venture into its laneways where street artists go wild. Or out to funky St Kilda with its glamorous theaters, old-time amusement park and rehab centers. I window shop in trendy Fitzroy and dine high at a restaurant called Cumulus. So far, so touristy.

Street art Melbourne
Street art, St Kilda. Photo credit: Karen Kao

By a new confluence of the stars, my stay in Melbourne coincides with a trip back home by my Aussie friend Jackie. She was born in Tasmania but grew up in Melbourne. She offers to take me on a sentimental journey to show me the “real” Melbourne.

We cruise through the suburbs of Melbourne to visit Jackie’s childhood homes. It is a lesson in social mobility Australian style. As Jackie’s father climbs the corporate ladder, the family home grows increasingly grand.

The soundtrack to this installment of the Australian dream is just as tinny as the American version. Jackie’s father has to start work at age 15. Jackie’s mother immigrated from York and recalls being pelted with vegetables when they disembarked. There is a street in Melbourne that serves as the line between those who have made it and those who did not.

In the bush

Jackie takes me into the bush aka the exurbs of Melbourne. We drive through eucalyptus stands singed by the recent bush fires. Jackie’s friend Catherine has an app that warns her if some natural disaster has occurred within a 25 kilometer radius. While we drink our coffee, the app goes off multiple times to warn of flooded streets.

After 6 months on the road, I’ve forgotten how lovely it is to be with friends. Jackie and Catherine have known each other from their days at teacher’s college. That night, we’ll dine with Jackie’s best friend from high school, Fran. I envy Jackie the comfort of old friends and that ephemeral sense of being home.

Melbourne dimsum
Dimsum at HuTong Dumpling Bar, Melbourne CBD. Photo credit: Karen Kao

We feel the first effects of Covid in Melbourne. Hidden among the street art in Melbourne’s laneways, we find a pop-up memorial to Dr Li Wenjiang, the Wuhan whistleblower . It is resolutely ignored by the Chinese tourists who are still thick on the ground.

On the news, we hear reports of parents at Royal Children’s Hospital refusing treatment by doctors with an “Asian appearance.” The restaurants in Melbourne’s tiny Chinatown suffer as Australian diners avoid the area.

Old Lessons

When Robert Hughes set out to write The Fatal Shore, he thought to show Australians “something about themselves.”

Throughout ”The Fatal Shore,” Mr. Hughes threads the story of how the aborigines and convicts related to each other, and believes that racism in Australia originated in this period. ”The convicts,” he said, ”desperately needed to feel there was a group of people lower than they were.”

Thomas Keneally, “Rogues’ Continent” in The New York Times, 25 Jan 1987

The British colonists — convict, soldier and free settler — all but succeeded in erasing the Indigenous people from the continent.

Until I was in my twenties, I had never seen an Aborigine. Black Australians constituted one per cent of the population, and that one per cent was mostly located on reserves outside rural towns, or in outback government and mission settlements.

Robyn Davidson, “Marrying Eddie” in Granta 70: Australia (Summer 2000)

I didn’t see any Black Australians in Melbourne but I did feel a racialized hostility. Jackie tells me that tensions between white Australians and immigrants from Southeast and East Asia have been rising for many years now. Fear of Covid infections has only added fuel to the fire.

Despite all this, Melbourne turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. Not because of the European vibe or the convict legacy. I liked Melbourne because it was one of the few stops along our trip when I got to hang out with friends.