The Ararat Caretakers

Occasionally people do things for others they don’t know and have no direct or familial association with.

Why?

When I met Henry Gunstone, I understood why he is devoted to creating the Gum San Chinese Heritage Museum in Ararat. He didn’t tell me, I just knew. In my soul. I got it. The moment I met him. He knew I knew. I was introduced to him by Heather and Joy because they knew I would understand.

Later Henry said “it’s a story that just gets under your skin”.

Norma and I had just spent five days on the road–painting scenes along the way from Robe to Ararat. Trying to capture the story of the Chinese Miners. By the time we arrived in Ararat, the story was definitely under my skin, and these people could tell.

Ararat Caretakers (left to right) Heather Lockland, Joy Gunstone, Henry Gunstone. Talking to Norma Sullivan.

Joy and Heather volunteer at the Museum, taking people through the exhibitions and explaining this amazing slice of Victorian History. They and Henry, and others in their community, made this museum happen because they wanted the world to remember how Ararat was founded and the epic journey of the people who found it. That was in the Eighties.

They care. They are The Ararat Caretakers. They are ordinary rural towns people. They are not Chinese. They just grew up in a town that they love and want to make sure important parts of what makes this town what it is are not forgotten.

Lest we forget.

Is it so hard to understand why people might spend the energy to collect money in cake stalls, fundraisers and submissions to the government–to build a monument?

When they didn’t quite have enough money in the beginning they approached the local business community and suddenly found themselves roaming even further afield. Chasing down promising opportunities.

The word got around. The Melbourne Chinese community wanted to support the project. So relationships began to form. Between the people of Ararat and surrounds and the people of Guangdong, China. Henry wound up travelling thousands of miles.

Not searching for money anymore. Enough of that came in to build the most magnificent monument you will see outside a capital city in Australia. The Gum San Chinese Heritage Centre is as epic as the story it records. Now Henry had other promises to fulfill. And he wanted to make sure promises were kept. When people start giving to a cause, they want to see results. So Henry was making sure the promised things were delivered.

A tapestry of promises. “If you do that I will do this.” By the Nineties there were thousands of people involved in Henry’s project. From all around the world.

By the time I wandered into the Museum with my sons as a tourist in the Nineties, the building although new was imbued with all this promise-keeping and care-taking. Most big buildings have a cold, concrete feel about them. This one is a lot warmer. All this history soaked into its stones and tiles. Seeping up from the mine shafts underneath and in from the surrounding community. Filled with objects, artworks, sculptures, books and media. Everything donated by someone who cared.

And at the door, most days you will be greeted by Joy, Heather, Henry and others who are the Ararat Caretakers. They, more than anyone else, inspired me to create the Mei Ling story.

Henry (seven from the left in the top row) welcoming the pilgrims on their walk June 2017.