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Our Global Neighbours: Mr See and Mr Zhai

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 20 Aug 2013

The flag for a colonial ruler.

Chinese Flag: H540

Stan Florek © Australian Museum

In January 1901 Mr John See donated four objects from China to the Australian Museum – a glass mirror in a finely carved frame, two ceremonial umbrellas and a flag.

This was just eleven days after the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act - and therefore Federation - was proclaimed on 1 January 1901 in Centennial Park in Sydney. About two months later Mr See had become the Premier of New South Wales – effectively the first after Federation.

We know very little about Mr Zhai, but he was probably a high level official in the British Administration in China – which almost certainly was Hong Kong with its associated territories.

The flag was presented to Mr Zhai by officials and businessmen as a form of symbolic tribute - to shows people’s respect, love and gratitude for his benevolent rule. The text on the flag reads in translation: Be praised Mr Zhai – Benevolent ruler for Great Britain – all officials and businessman with gratitude and respect.

It is possible to speculate that Mr Zhai held his office between 1842 – when Hong Kong came under British rule – and the late 19th century. Probably it was through some upheaval that his tribute-flag made its way into the hands of collectors and eventually Mr See. It could have been, for example, the Second Opium War (1856 - 1860), or the Bubonic plague that visited Canton in 1894 and spread to Hong Kong, where it killed up to 100,000 people.

Before his premiership, John See was a member of New South Wales Legislature for twenty years and despite different cultures and governing arrangements, he and Mr Zhai were peers in the vast apparatus of the British Colonial administration in their respective lands. The expression of gratitude was different with the decorum of Oriental flavour, but in essence not outlandish in that era of stiff hierarchy and splendour for the privileged.

Prepared by Libai Li and Stan Florek