Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Then and Now: Manchester Unity Building Rooftop

The Manchester Unity Building is one of the architectural jewels of the Melbourne. While researching the broader history of this iconic landmark, I came across this amazing photo:

It seems that from the 1932 through to about 1940, the rooftop of the building (Level 12) was home to a Japanese garden and cafe.

The same spot today:

The structure on the right houses a suite of offices, which had been converted from apartments (built in the 1990s).

Sadly, the rooftop is no longer open to the public, although Melbourne Open House often runs tours that include it. The rooftop is currently used for private functions, by the building's tenants.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Heavenly Queen of the Maribyrnong

Standing on a nondescript bend in the Maribyrnong River, between Footscray and Flemington Racecourse, is a most unexpected sight. Rising above a former industrial block, towers the Heavenly Queen of the Maribyrnong.

The Heavenly Queen of the Yarra, Footscray.

Under construction for more than a decade, her arrival at this location is a tale that actually stretches back several thousand years.

Lin Niang; traditional representation.

Born in 960, on the island of Meizhou off the south eastern coast of China, Lin Niang was marked as a remarkable child from an early age. Visiting a Buddhist temple with her family when she was 4, Niang experienced a vision of the Goddess Kuan Yin, which left her with the power of second sight.

Pious, and highly intelligent, Niang began to study Buddhist teachings when she was 10, and was accepted as an apprentice to the village priest shortly afterwards. From her early teens, people from the surrounding area would come to pray with Niang and she developed a reputation as a healer.

Niang seen by sailors, travelling atop a cloud.

She also had a profound connection with the sea; Niang's father and brothers were fisherman, and village life revolved around the ocean.

When Niang was 15, her father and eldest brother were out at sea when a fierce storm blew up and overturned their boat. Working on a tapestry at home, Niang was overcome by a powerful vision and fell into a trance. She was able to project her consciousness out to sea (some versions say she was actually transported, via cloud, as depicted above), and was able to drag her brother back to safety. When she returned to rescue her father, however, her startled mother woke her from her trance and her father was drowned.

And there are many more stories of Niang patrolling the ocean, or answering calls of distress, and rescuing sailors at sea.

When she was 27, answering the call of another powerful vision, Niang said goodbye to her family and climbed a mountain that overlooked her village. Clouds covered the peak and, when they cleared, Niang had vanished. It was said that she had ascended to heaven.

Such is the legend of Lin Niang, later known as Mazu, Goddess of the Sea.

Mazu Temple, Kinmen Matsu Park, China.
The story of Mazu - her heroic behaviour and protection of the weak - is one of the most popular in Chinese mythology, which has given rise to a legion of followers. Temples and statues have been erected to her around the world, and it estimated that she may have as many as 100 million active disciples.

So, it is no surprise to find that multicultural Melbourne, with its high population of Chinese residents, has erected a statue to the Goddess as well.

The Mazu temple site in Melbourne.
The project has been a long time in development.

Starting in the 1990s, a fundraising committee was organised to gather money to purchase both a site, and commission a statue. The location on the riverbank was settled on early, as the poor state of the land (it had been the long standing home to a factory) meant it was available at a reasonable price.

The committee, headed by local businessman William Tsang, had ambitious goals; a 16 metre statue, flanked by two temples (modeled after buildings in the Forbidden City, in Beijing), then surrounded by gardens. The statue alone would cost $450 000 and would be imported from Nanjing, in China.

Mazu: overlooking the Maribyrnong.

The elaborate temple site entrance.

Progress has been slow but steady. At time of writing, the statue and the first of the temples are complete, while the remainder of the site is still under construction (final completion is expected in 2019).

But the statue of Mazu already has a commanding presence. Clearly visible from the main road, and especially from the nearby train line, her calm, inscrutable countenance overlooks the waters of the Maribyrnong, much as it is said she did the waters of the China Sea, a thousand years ago.