Melbourne is the capital of Victoria, the second largest state in Australia. Founded in 1835 by a man called John Batman, the city might have been called Batmania (really), but it was eventually named after Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister of England. It is now a city of four million people.
There is no particular reason why Melbourne should have dragons. There are no dragons on its coat of arms, for instance. However there is a surprising number of handsome dragons to be seen within Melbourne’s central business district. If you are visiting Melbourne and have an hour or two to stroll around the city, why not discover Melbourne’s dragons?
Some binoculars or a telephoto lens will help to see the detail of some of the loftier dragons. Most of the dragons can be viewed at any time, with the exception of the dragons in the Chinese Museum which is open 10 – 5 every day except Good Friday, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Location: Forum Theatre, 150–162 Flinders Street (corner of Russell Street)
Originally known as the State Theatre, this imposing building began its life as a cinema. It was the largest picture palace in Australia, seating more than 3000. The theatre opened in Feb 1929 with a silent film accompanied by a wurlitzer. Currently, it is used as a live music venue and for the annual Melbourne International Film Festival.
Neogothic in style, the Forum was built by John Eberson, Bohringer, Taylor and Johnson in a faux Arabic design, and crowned by a jewelled copper dome. The interior has Moorish decoration and a blue, star-spangled ceiling.
However it is the exterior that we are interested in. Perched on top of columns and in niches are 11 crouching dragons. These imposing beasts are coloured green by verdigris and are possibly made of copper. With large feathered wings outstretched, and leg muscles taut, they are ready to pounce should any patrons misbehave.
Location: Former Stock Exchange, 380 Collins Street (near corner of Queen St)
Built between 1888 and 1891 this stunning neo-gothic building is worthy of long contemplation. It is festooned with decoration including beasts and monsters of all types. The building was originally the Stock Exchange Building and was designed by Melbourne-born architect William Pitt who was responsible for some of Melbourne’s most famous 19th century buildings (such as the Rialto, the Olderfleet Building and the Princess Theatre), according to Wikipedia he was also a passionate supporter of the Collingwood Football Club!
There are some delicate gargoyles high on the tower, but only one creature can be classified as a dragon. That is the one above the second-floor window to the left as you face the building. This is a handsome stone dragon of the type known as a wyvern — two-legged, winged, with a feathered breast and bird-like feet.
Location: State Library of Victoria forecourt (corner of Swanston Street and LaTrobe Street)
One of the statues gracing the State Library of Victoria’s forecourt is of St George and the dragon. This bronze statue is the work of Austrian-born, but English-educated Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm (1834–1890) who was sculptor to Queen Victoria. The mythological subject of this work is unusual for a man known for his realist statues of famous people and horses. His work can be seen at Westminster Abbey, Balmoral Castle and the Wellington Memorial at Hyde Park Corner.
Sir Joseph was also the creator of the portrait of Queen Victoria found on British coinage in 1887.
The statue came to Melbourne as an exhibit in the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition in 1888. Judges who awarded prizes to the best exhibits stated that the statue was “a masterpiece” which should not be allowed to be returned to Europe. The trustees of the Library agreed and purchased the sculpture for £1000.
St George is depicted as a Roman soldier astride a horse. The real Saint George was believed to be a Roman soldier who was tortured and killed because he refused to give up his Christian faith. He was probably born in Turkey or Palestine and died around AD 300. The dragon was actually added to George’s story much later.
In the statue, George is pretty much naked apart from a helmet and a short cape. The dragon is a four-legged, winged beast — a wonderful specimen with scales, horns and spines down his back. He has vicious claws and teeth, but sadly the statue captures the dragon in his last moments, as he has been speared by St George. The dragon is however fighting till the end with his teeth clamped firmly on the offending lance and his slender tongue coiled around it.
Location: St Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral, Cathedral Place (corner of Albert Street and Macarthur Street)
St Patrick’s is a gothic revival church, the largest 19thcentury church in the whole world. Quite a feat for a city barely 20 years old when building commenced. A richly ornate triple-spired French Gothic edifice built from local bluestone, the Cathedral is considered the finest work of celebrated English-born architect William Wardell (1824–1899) who emigrated to Australia in 1858 to improve his health. He had already designed 35 gothic revival churches in England. Despite the huge size of the building, Wardell had plans drawn up and the foundation stone laid the year after his arrival.
I originally went to St Patrick’s to get a closer look at the gargoyles, which are very high up and difficult to see without the aid of binoculars. Gargoyles are not all dragons, but some of them are dragonish. However as I strolled around the exterior of the cathedral peering up at these creatures, I noticed that there were other dragons on the building, hidden dragons, quite a lot of them crouching above drainpipes as if about to slither down and take a drink and decorating the window bosses on the chapel windows. Not all of these beasts are dragons, but I counted at least 30 that are. I have included photos of six of my favourites and you can see where to find them on the plan.
Walk around the grounds to find the dragons on the north and south facing walls. Wherever you see a green drainpipe, look up its length and see what is lurking at the top. The dragons on the windows are mainly on the chapels at the east end of the cathedral. There is a gate that allows access to this back area, or to get a more elevated view, go up onto Albert Street. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you should be able to find the others.
It is interesting to imagine how these lovely carvings came about. Presumably William Wardell didn’t say, “I’ll have a dragon on this window, and a winged monkey on this one.” I think that stonemasons were given the freedom to come up with their own creations, which makes them all the more special and unique.
Some of the carvings are weathered, some are damaged where over-zealous plumbers have installed new drainpipes, but many are still in excellent condition. Definitely worth an hour of dragon spotting.
We now leave the Western dragons behind, those bad-tempered creatures who guard with the threat of fang or talon, and move on to the more benevolent dragons of the East. The first to be seen decorate two poles that form an entrance to Chinatown. The entry poles are a modern design, and the dragons are interesting because they represent an older style of Chinese dragon to the ones usually depicted. This is a Han Dynasty (206BC–220AD) style dragon — slender and stylised with tendrils curling from its body. Dragons are usually depicted in the style of the Qing Dynasty.
The poles and the dragons were designed by the University of Melbourne’s School of Design’s Asian architecture specialist Associate Professor Qinghua Guo, in collaboration with research student Jia Xu. The Blue Dragon of the East is one of the deities of the four directions, so the dragon was chosen to adorn this eastern entry to Chinatown. The dragon isn’t blue, however, it is black. The colours were taken from Chinese lacquerware.
The Facing-Heaven Archway was a gift from Victoria’s sister state Jiangsu Province in 1985 to celebrate Victoria’s 150th anniversary. It is a traditional Chinese gateway, a replica of a gate in Nanjing, made of wood and topped with a terracotta tiled roof. At the foot of the Archway, there are statues of lions, but on top of the roof are four fish-shaped dragons of the type known as chiwen.
There is a story in China about the dragon’s nine sons. In the Ming dynasty, Emperor Hong Zhi wanted to know who the sons were. One of his officials, a man named Liu Ji, explained how none of the sons were exactly like their father, each had their own appearance and personality. That is why certain dragon-like creatures used as decorative features on such things as swords, bells and bridges became known as the nine dragon sons.
The youngest of the sons was called Chiwen. He was a fish-shaped dragon who had sharp eyesight and was very watchful. He is positioned on the ends of roof ridge-beams, where he opens his mouth wide to swallow evil spirits. Because of his close association with water he can also put out fires which have been a constant threat to traditional Chinese buildings which are made predominantly from wood.
Two pairs of chiwen dragons sit on the Gateway roof with the roof beams clamped firmly in their mouths. These creatures are sometimes known as tunjishou or ridge-devouring beast, or da wen which means simply big mouth.
You will notice that the dragons have sword handles sticking out of their backs. A Chinese myth suggests why this is, and offers a completely different reason why chiwen dragons are on rooves. Long ago the world was beset with demon-dragons. Legendary Emperor Huang Di tried to get rid of them all. He was largely successful, but two of the worst escaped. Huang Di sent one of his assistants named Di Shi to capture them. Di Shi lured the demons out of hiding by offering to spare them if they would do a good deed. They fell for the trick. The task he gave them was to lift into place the roof ridge-beam of a temple that was being built. The demon-dragons each took one end of the ridge-beam in their mouths and flew up onto the temple roof. As soon as they had it in position, Di Shi took two magical swords and plunged them through the demon-dragons and into the roof, pinning them there forever where they would be useful and no longer able to follow their evil ways.
Location: Paramount Hotel, viewed from Little Bourke St
Sculptor: Marcus Pettifer
While photographing the chiwen, I happened to notice another very non-Chinese dragon in my view finder. This terracotta dragon graces the roof garden of the Paramount Apartments building across Little Bourke St from where he gazes down at his Chinese counterparts. Only residents get to see this attractive dragon up close, the rest of us can just glimpse him from the street.
This is the home of Melbourne’s largest and most spectacular dragons. Whereas all the dragons we have seen so far have been robust creatures made of bronze, stone and terracotta, these dragons, though huge, are relatively fragile and made of silk, paper and bamboo.
These are processional dragons known in Chinese as wulong or dancing dragons. During street parades, a processional dragon is carried by dozens of supporters who make the creature snake back and forth. Melbourne has had a processional Chinese dragon since at least 1956. The Museum houses three of them. They are all housed in the new Dragon Gallery, along with an introductory video and all the dragon parade paraphernalia. (Pay special attention to the video as I wrote the script!) It is well worth the $11 entrance fee (children $9, family $26) to get up close and personal with these magnificent dragons, as well as discovering other dragons in the museum.
Melbourne’s current dragon is a huge beast called Millenium Dragon. If you are in Melbourne at Chinese New Year (January or February) or at the Moomba Festival (March) then you can see the dragon prancing around the city streets in all his glory. At any other time of the year you can find him hibernating in the Museum.
The dragon requires six people to carry its head, 22 people to support its serpentine body and four for the tail. It is 63 metres long.
The dragon’s body consists of silken skirts hung with tassels, beads and bells, and covered with thousands of scales. Each scale is handmade from paper, silk, gold foil, rabbit fur, sequins with a central mirror. In the Museum, you can see the whole of the dragon’s body as it snakes down the ramp to the lower ground floor. You can also see his lovely silk tail with coloured pearls caught in it, but most spectacular is the dragon’s head which is decorated with embroidery, fringes, pompoms and paper cuts. This dragon’s head is three metres high and the Museum claims it is the largest in the world. It is so big the horns have to be removed to fit it inside the Museum.
Medium: split bamboo, wire, silk
The Chinese Museum also houses a couple of retired processional dragons, including Dai Loong made in 1979. Smaller and softer looking as his colours have faded over time, this is a gorgeous dragon. It was the first processional dragon to be made in China after the Cultural Revolution. Note the circular mirror on the dragon’s forehead which is there to repel evil spirits.
Medium: split bamboo, wire, silk
Also in the Dragon Gallery there is a more fragile and faded dragon made for the Young Chinese League in 1953. It was once topped with lovely pink and pale-blue horns, but sadly these have been lost. It has sockets in the eyes for electric light globes so that the dragon’s eyes would glow in night-time parades. Have a close look at the detail on this lovely dragon, for instance the lovely bat hovering above its nose. The bat is a symbol of good luck in China. That is because fú is the Chinese word for ‘bat’, and it is also the word for ‘good fortune’.
It is interesting to see how the dragons have grown in size over the decades from this delicate creature to the massive Millenium Dragon.
It is worth allowing a little extra dragon-spotting time at the Museum as there are plenty of other dragons to be seen — on lanterns, on banners, on vases, on robes and on the bases of the lion statues out the front. These are generally the more familiar Qing Dynasty style dragon such as those that appear on the dragon robes or long pao seen on the third floor. These robes were worn by high-ranking officials. There are nine dragons on the robes.
1. Crouching guardians
Thorpe, Ross 1976, Picture Palace Architecture in Australia, Sun Books, Sth Melbourne
Michael Pointer, President of the State Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Victoria) 1987–1989, personal correspondence March 2018
Bates, Roy, 2002, Images of Asia: Chinese Dragons, Oxford University Press, Hong Kong
Wilkinson, Carole 2007, The Dragon Companion: An Encyclopedia, black dog books, Fitzroy, Vic.
8. Celestial dancers
Dallwitz, Rebecca 2007, Millennium Dragon: Melbourne’s Chinese Dragon Lineage, Construction, Context and Preservation, unpublished Masters Thesis, Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, Melbourne University
Wilkinson, Carole 2007, The Dragon Companion: An Encyclopedia, black dog books, Fitzroy, Vic.