When Woolloongabba was Wattle Scented

Monday, February 23, 2015

Blessing of Breakfast Creek Holy Triad Temple - 1886 - First-hand Account.

The Temple Trustees(?) and Priest, and temple exterior, 1886.

Its a wonder that one of Brisbane's unique but lesser known historical buildings built in 1886 is with us today. Built with the patronage of one of Brisbane's biggest tea trading merchants, which happened to go broke in the most spectacular of financial collapses of the time, the Joss House was effectively abandoned by the turn of the century, faced demolition by the council for unpaid rates in the 1920's (until someone pointed out that despite the rates bill, it was a blessed house of worship after all) it wasn't until the 1964 that the buildings future was secured when the Qld government passed The Chinese Temple Society Act that was enacted specifically to address the problem that the temple had no legal owner.

Following is a detailed account of the blessing of the temple in January of 1886, published in The Brisbane Courier,  22nd January 1886.


Just about 500 yards in a bee line from the Breakfast Creek Bridge stands a peculiar looking building. It is the new Joss House and for the last three days the fever of anticipation had settled upon the usually cold-blooded Chinese of this city, for the building was approaching completion, and they at last were to have a respectable place wherein to conduct their strange rites and mysterious ceremonies. They would have a place where in the omnipotent Joss could be exhibited in a majestic and befitting manner, before whom his worshippers could grovel to their hearts content, and bow down in idolatrous adoration. The building is a peculiar specimen of architecture. It is about 45ft. in length and 24ft. wide, and the whitewashed brick walls are a little over 20ft. high. The walls are constructed in the plainest English style of architecture, but the roof is essentially Chinese. The building is triple roofed, the front and the back being ordinary gables, but the central one, which is not so high as the others is " hip" shaped with a semi-dome for a summit. On each side this central roof is raised from the top of the walls for about 2ft., thus allowing plenty of ventilation. It is also so constructed that slanting rains cannot enter. The covering of the roof consisted of tiles, with mortar ridge-rolls, coated with some black substance.This ridging greatly enhances the appearance of the roof. The guttering is so arranged by means of pipes that the water flows into four receptacles, two on each wall, and the liquid is discharged through the gaping maws of four hideous earthenware fishes. What gives the exterior of the building its queer and grotesque look is the mass of decorative incongruities which surmount the front and back roofs. Here are to be seen a heterogeneous collection of Chinese figures made of chinaware, cunningly painted. There is not much difference between the groups of gorgeous ornamentation on the two roofs. On the front one are pretty scenes, representing Chinese life in the ancient days. Kings, Emperors, Mandarins, and other courtiers and dignitaries are grouped together in a most picturesque and striking manner. Here a warrior with his circular gold-coloured shield and poised javelin, standing in an attitude of supreme defiance; there a king seated on a throne, with long thin spicular jet beard extending to the waist, his hands held out as if bestowing a benediction; then a pretty little veranda scene, with a lady smiling in a captivating manner, and waving a painted fan to an invisible somebody. Then there is clustered together a multitude of magnificently attired figures, bold and grand looking ;and there are other figures, on the features of which are faithfully depicted Hope, Fear, Despondency, Joy, &c. There are two porcelain female figures, one at each gable end. They are from a Chinese point of view of ravishing beauty, and from a Caucasian point of view it must be admitted that their personal attractions are of a most alluring character. They are seated in a graceful posture, with a gilt flute held between dainty tapering fingers. One is reminded that beauty with dangerous charms exists in China as well as in Australia, and one feels inclined to applaud the subtle strategy of the wily and jealous old monarch, Tsi, who in centuries gone by sent a bevy of beauties trained from infancy in all the seductive arts to overthrow the model court which Confucius had raised in the Kingdom of Loo. At the feet of each lady is a large and horrid fish, with enormous tail and fins, which curl in the air. In the centre of the roof, and between the two fishes, is a low,broad spire, surmounted by a small painted globe. When this grotesque cluster is closely inspected it is found to be more meretricious glitter than anything else. The painting is by no means artistically performed, in fact a near examination shows it to be nothing more than clumsy daubs. These ornamental roofs were imported from the Flowery Land by Quong Nam Tai and Co., and the whole triple roof was erected by Chinese artisans. With all its gorgeousness the roof leaks in several places, and it will certainly go hard with it when anything like a good stiff breeze blows off the Bulimba Reach.

Interior of the temple, 1886.

The interior of the Joss House is like a scene from the "Arabian Nights." The entrance is protected by a small veranda made by the front roof overlapping to the extent of about 4ft. Over the door is hung a fantastic piece of wood-work fancifully carved and painted, with Chinese hieroglyphics engraved upon it. On the wall on each side of the door there are a number of long tablets on which are imprinted more characters, which, if translated, would mean that no one was to enter the portals of the sacred edifice without first having performed a series of ablutions. He must be dressed in his best clothes and must also be clean in flesh and spirit. If he were not so, and he dared to enter, he would draw upon himself the everlasting anger of the almighty Joss. Then the supreme influence, the magnificence and the virtues of Joss are set forth. It is stated how he can pry into man's most secret thoughts, how he knows his every action from his cradle, and likewise what his conduct and bearing will be in the future. The devotee is informed that he must not go into the building unless he is perfectly contrite, and his intentions towards his fellow - men are strictly upright. Joss receives with open arms the good man, but he condemns the wicked to eternal torments. All this and much more is placed on wooden tables at the entrance to the house, so that a man gets a fair warning. Suspended from the veranda are two globe-like lanterns, one on each side of the door, the present of a gentle-manly Celestial of the name of Lum Sing. Entering the door there will be found a curiously-carved wooden case placed on a table against the wall on each side to supply the place of a niche. On the top of each case is a large burnished sun, and the gold-leaf has not been spared in tho adornment of the whole case. The back of the interior of the niches represents a Chinese scene drawn by an artist from China ; that on the right being a bird sitting on a tree growing on a mountain side. The bird is gazing in a fascinated manner at the sun surging through a mass of flaky clouds. The scene on the left is much tho same as the above, only the bird is larger and of more beautiful plumage. On the walls of the house hang red tablets displaying some of the maxims and proverbs of Mencius, Confucius, and other philosophers. Silk curtains with satin embroidery, in the centre of which are worked symbols in black velvet edged with gold, depend from the roof, and some are attached to the walls. Large lamps and lanterns of various shapes and colours also hang from the roof. A huge tongue-less bell hangs by a strong chain on one side of the cross-beam running through the centre of the house ; and on the opposite side a tubular shaped drum, with a glowing sun daubed in the middle of the ox-hide covering, stands on a tall wooden rest. The altar at the end of the house extends the whole width of the building. It consists of three niches, made of frail wood-work, carved into fantastic devices. A large burning sun surmounts the frame of each niche. In the background of the centre niche is represented a fabulous animal, which, from its terrifying aspect, is supposed to considerably affect the erring man for good. The legs are goat-like, the body scaled, and shaped similar to that of a dog, and the head like a dragon's the mouth being open, displaying four terrible fangs and a fiery tongue. With glaring eye-balls that the artist has made to appear ready to burst from their sockets, this hideous-looking beast is gazing intently at the sun surrounded by empurpled clouds. The scenery in the niches on either side of the centre one is very pretty, showing beautiful spreading trees, among the branches of which birds of all sizes and colours are embowered. The altar is simply one glittering mass, in which the variegated butterfly is placed alongside a horrible dragon, the humming bird beside that of Paradise, and the flowing bearded mandarin cheek by jowl with a ferocious warrior. A collection of military weapons of former days, some of which are remarkably like tho halberd wielded by our forefathers, are ranged in racks along the wall in proximity to the altar. These weapons cannot be considered dangerous, they are made of lead.


All Wednesday afternoon the scene at the Joss House and on the ground was a most animated one. In the building almond-eyed Mongols were fixing up the various decorations, or putting a finishing touch here and there. Outside a number of Chinese butchers were slaughtering and cooking pigs and fowls. There were about a dozen pigs slain, and the bodies cooked in a large brick oven erected for the purpose in one corner of the ground.

At 6 o'clock the Chinese struck work for tea,which consisted of boiled rice, strewn with small pieces of pork and fowl ; strong black tea, and the spirit saki, which is dear to the soul of the Celestials. About 7 o'clock, as the full moon crept up in all its splendour from behind the wooded height of Toorak, Ah King, Lum Sing, and Shin Fooie brought forth musical instruments, and formed themselves into a orchestra. A small cask-like drum, a sonorous sounding pan-gong, and a pair of enormous cymbals formed the orchestral instruments. Shin Fooie was deputed leader. First they began by gently tapping and clapping, gradually putting on steam until the noise culminated in one prolonged and deafening crash, a most rude and tormenting din that would have awakened the Seven Sleepers. This kind of thing was kept up for over an hour, during which all the people of the neighbourhood poured into the yard. Soon there were the loafer and larrikin, and "Arry" and " Arriet," arm in arm; there were women with babies in arms, and any number of budding beauties, with springing elastic step; and there was the workman washed and combed down for the night. Curiosity had driven them all out to see the fun that was going on, and they mingled with the Mongolians and sadly plagued the poor wretches by asking questions, and getting them delightfully mixed in their efforts to explain in pigeon English.

About 11 o'clock Chick Tong and other notables arrived. There were two flaring red flags with white mitred borders already flying from two masts on the ground. There was a third mast without a flag, and shortly after Chick Tong arrived he hoisted his own, a splendid flag of real silk, beautifully coloured and worked, and costing nearly £50. The notables did not like to see the large number of white men and women thronging tho Joss House and poking about in an inquisitive manner, and they were glad when several heavy cases were brought into the yard to be able to inform tho whites that they were going to make the final arrangements for the approaching festival and they wanted the building to themselves. The whites had to leave and the doors were closed against them. The doors remained closed for over two hours, and much speculation was rife as to tho nature of the mysterious business that was being conducted within. People idled around, gossiping and yawning, and wishing that 2 o'clock would come, the hour when something very startling, it was said, would occur. But the lamp of night shone down and bathed the surroundings in floods of silvery light ;the air was dry and warm, and on the whole it was a lovely night to be out in, and there was the thirst of curiosity to be satisfied.


Shortly before 1 o'clock our reporter managed, by aid of a couple of Chinese friends, to get into the Joss House. The scene was one of striking and imposing grandeur. The place was ablaze with light, and the altars that glittered in the daylight now fairly dazzled one. Spiral bouquets of artificial flowers made of golden-hue tinsel and innumerable peacocks' feathers of rare beauty had been placed on the altar ; and on these and the mass of gold which had been worked into the altar frame fell the effulgence from thousands of tiny tapers placed in silver urns. The perpetual lamp before the central niche had been lit, and all the lamps, chandeliers, and lanterns which hung around now gleamed and blazed. In each niche of the altar there had been placed an object, which was covered with crimson-coloured paper, and the niches near the door also contained hidden objects. On the tables before these small pyramids of rice were placed, besides plates of uninviting food and infinitesimal cups of tea and saki. In the very centre of the house three cooked pigs, crisp and greasy, rested upon a table, and between these latter and the altar stood another table, the front of which was carved, gilt, and ornamented. On this there were five silver gilt peculiarly-shaped vases filled with sand, in which were place artificial bouquets and feathers. There was also on the table a small square rack, containing twelve prettily painted bannerets, and in the centre there was a short wooden sword in a paper sheath. Near the altar was another and smaller table covered with small cups of spirits and tea, pyramids of rice, roast and boiled fowls, pastry, and numerous other comestibles. This was the banquet for the triune God.


It was about half-past 1, when suddenly there broke upon the still night a thundering feu de joie of crackers and bombs. Outside a cable of crackers interspersed with bombs had been run up to the top of a high pole. It was this rope of fireworks, which was over 30ft in length, that had been fired, and it took seven minutes to explode them. Showers of sparks fell, and clouds of smoke rose and darkened the yard. 

It was evident that the hour was at hand, for the Chinese appeared to be considerably perturbed. At a quarter to 2 o'clock a most unearthly din was heard coming from the yard, and the front-door of the Joss House being thrown wide open a strange procession entered. First came a young Chinese strenuously beating a gong, followed by Chick Tong and George Shue bearing between them a small strip of cloth half rolled up. There was a canopy of the richest material magnificently embroidered and embellished held over their heads, while above that was raised an enormous leaf-shaped fan composed of stuff similar to that in the canopy. Behind the two last mentioned came an old Chinaman with prominent cheek bones, hollow jaws, and lacklustre eyes. This was the priest, and he was attired in a surplice of red flannel relieved by chintz borders, and a rural scene painted on the part covering the small of the back. He wore a black cap, with red border and a golden knob on the crown. In his hand he held a circular plate of iron, which he kept beating with all his might. Following him came the rabble, beating drums and gongs and playing on reed instruments in a most infernal way, while outside there were the crackle and roar of the exploding fireworks. When the procession reached the altar the cloth was unfolded and hung in the centre niche just covering the body of the terrible dragon-headed monster. This was no sooner done than eager hands tore away the crimson paper hiding the objects in the niches, and there were revealed to the gaze several bronze idols. Then one after another the excited Celestials fell upon their knees and bowed their heads three times, touching the floor with the forehead. The priest next took a branch, and,dipping it in a bowl, sprinkled the idols, the altar, and the building around, muttering to himself while doing so. This being done, Way Hop entered with a live cock, and the comb on its head was solemnly bled. Taking a pointed stick the priest set up a low, weird chant or wail, and proceeded to anoint the idols on various parts of the body with the blood of the cock. On beginning this work hundreds and hundreds of tapers were brought and added to those already lighted. Then the awful orchestra set up its ear-splitting noise, which it continued until being signalled to stop by the priest. The old man went round to all the statues, anointing each one, and chanting his mystic wail. When he concluded this task, the Chinese began to genuflect with amazing rapidity, grovelling abjectly and bobbing like marionettes. Bundles of printed gilt paper were burnt, and the house now fairly reeked with the smell of roast pig and the rancid tallow from the candles. It was hot as an oven, full of smoke, and the air was close and stifling. As soon as some of the smoke had cleared away, tho old priest was seen standing before the altar, still chanting, but in a louder voice, while kneeling behind him were Chick Tong, George Shue, Way Hop, Wam Yo, and Tong Wah, the trustees of the house. By anointing the idols with the hot blood taken from the head of the living cock.

The Chinese, believed that life had mysteriously entered the statues. Now the priest was informing the Trinity who the trustees of the  church were, and invoked the god to guard them from all evil. The invocation lasted until 3 o'clock, and it concluded in a decidedly ludicrous manner. In finding out if the Great Spirit had come among them, and whether he intended watching over his people,the priest tossed in the air two pieces of wood,which fell on the floor, and were feverishly scanned by the kneeling trustees. There was a favourable reply from Joss after seven tries,and a cry of thankfulness broke from the motley crowd. After this the trustees bowed to each other with clasped hands, and the singular service terminated.

Feature about the temple published in The Queenslander, 1906.

The Holy Triad Temple, 1987.

 'OPENING OF THE JOSS HOUSE.', The Brisbane Courier, 22 January, 1886.

'Bhudda and Cofuscious in Brisbane' The Queenslander , 4th April, 1903.

Photo Images: 
State Library of Queensland, John Oxley Collection.
Department of Environment and Heritage Queensland