One of Australia's oldest Chinese temples brings fortune and family, worshippers say

One of Australia's oldest Chinese temples brings fortune and family, worshippers say

One of Australia's oldest Chinese temples brings fortune and family, worshippers say

Updated 18 February 2018, 6:25 AEDT

The Bendigo Joss House Temple was built to protect Chinese miners, and almost 150 years later is still used as a place of worship.

The Bendigo Joss House Temple was built to protect Chinese miners, and almost 150 years later is still used as a place of worship.

People often visit motivated by the need for change.

Some ask for wealth, some for children, while others pay respect to their ancestors or offer gratitude, and at Lunar New Year the numbers swell.

Joss House supervisor Darren Wright describes the temple as a Chinese church or chapel.

Unlike a regular church gathering, people attend on a needs basis.

"It's not like a western church where everyone shows up on Sunday morning," Mr Wright said.

Not aligned with any one religion, the temple reflects the many streams in Chinese religion based on three distinct philosophies — Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.

"We're talking about cultural systems of worship and prayer that go back here, in some instances, over 2,500 years," Mr Wright said.

The heritage-listed Joss House, with three small rooms, is considered an important part of Bendigo's Chinese history, and it is one of the few remaining buildings of its type in Australia.

Once considered a den of iniquity, Mr Wright said there were many amusing urban myths about the temple, including it being a gambling and opium den.

'There is a history to this place'

For Bendigo's Dennis O'Hoy, the temple has a long history dating back to 1860 when his grandfather arrived on the goldfields as a merchant.

His family remained one of the few in Bendigo after the White Australia policy of 1901 and the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act, which limited non-British migration to Australia.

Born to Buddhists and Confucianists and sent to an Anglican school, Mr O'Hoy, also a Freemason, is a regular visitor to the Joss House.

While he finds the temple restful and peaceful with a "wonderful karma", a large part of his connection is in preserving the past.

"Just touching the brickwork there is a history to the place," Mr O'Hoy said.

A symbol of brotherhood, protection and commerce

Constructed in the 1870s, the Bendigo Joss House Temple was once part of the Ironbark Chinese Camp, where the miners were relegated to.

"They were viewed as competition and the government basically segregated them from the rest of the community by putting them into camps," Mr Wright said.

He said the Joss House was built out of a need for protection against discrimination, with the Chinese in need of a deity that would look after them.

The temple made from locally handmade bricks is dedicated to the deity Guan-Di, the god of war and prosperity, also known for bringing peace and justice to China.

"Guan-Di is a symbol of brotherhood, protection and commerce," Mr Wright said.

Fortunes change after visit

A few years ago, Bendigo surgeon Manny Cao was feeling desperate, but after a visit to the temple his fortunes changed.

Many his financial projects had been struggling, so at a friend's suggestion Mr Cao offered some prayers at the main altar, and while driving home he received a call from his father about the successful sale of his house.

Since then many of his family members have visited and experienced good fortune.

The refugee who arrived by boat in Australia at the age of two was not raised in a religious household — his Vietnamese parents practised the philosophy of Confucianism, with an emphasis on ancestor worship.

"I believe in a philosophy in life, not necessarily a religion. It's good to have some sort of belief," Mr Cao said.

His six-weekly visits to the temple are not just about securing good fortune, but to offer gratitude.

"Just to thank the gods above for giving me what I've got," he said.

'Magically whatever we have asked for happens'

Wendy Tang and her husband Michael Lau had been trying to start a family for some time.

Making her way through the temple to the Ancestral Room, dedicated to the memory of ancestors, Ms Tang kneeled at the altar dedicated to Guan Yin, the Chinese goddess of compassion and mercy, and asked for a child.

Two weeks later the business developer of Chinese Vietnamese heritage was pregnant.

"Ever since then when we ask for something or if someone is not well, we go and visit and it gives us a sense of purpose," Ms Tang said.

"Somehow magically whatever we have asked for happens."

It is the spiritual connection to the temple through the ancestors that resonates most.

"It's been blessed by the people before us. Those people were also migrants … I'm just following those steps," Ms Tang said.

After initially passing off the building as a small shed, Ms Tang and her family now make the visit from Melbourne about five times a year.

Each time they bring fruit as a gift of respect, cleaning the plates first and making tea before visiting each altar in the temple where they offer their gifts.

On the first day of the new year with her family in tow, including her five-year-old daughter, Ms Tang will be asking for a second child.

'Dinner table' at the altar

While some people are happy to bring fruit, sweets, incense and even bottles of beer, one family once brought an entire roast pig as an offering to the gods.

"It's all for the gods — the gods get their nourishment from what people bring," Mr Wright said.

"An altar in a Chinese temple is like a dinner table to the powers that be."

When health sciences student Xiaoyu Liu, from Bendigo, visited the temple for the first time with her family, she brought incense.

She asked the gods to take care of her family, praying for their wealth and safety.

Overwhelmed by nostalgia, the smells of incense reminded the 20-year-old of her childhood temple back in China.

"That's the smell I always smelt," Ms Liu said.

While the Melbourne-based student is not religious, she plans on visiting more often.