HEATHER Ahpee has spent the past 40 years explaining the origin adopted her married surname, and how to spell it.
"My (late) husband (Robert) was third-generation Australian, but his great grandfather was Chinese and his great grandmother was half-Chinese," says Heather, a long-time resident of Ararat, in southwest Victoria.
Despite the perpetual questions, it is a heritage she’s proudly adopted and immersed herself in, with particular serendipity as an Ararat local.
It was around 2001 that Heather – because of her surname – was asked to be a volunteer at Ararat’s newly opened Gum San Heritage Centre, an elaborate $5 million museum that celebrates the creation of Ararat by Chinese miners.
So passionate did she become about Chinese heritage she is now the centre co-ordinator, with five trips to ChinaVictoria’s strong connections with the Asian tiger.
"The whole of Chinese culture is just so fascinating, you can’t help but get hooked," she says.
"But in terms of Ararat, the town wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t discovered what became the richest ever shallow alluvial gold field, in 1857." under her belt as a key player in developing
When we think of the Chinese and Victoria’s gold rush, Bendigo is the obvious frontrunner.
Ararat, though, Heather says, is worthy of a strong claim, even though it’s often referred to as "the forgotten rush".
Drive past Gum San – Chinese for "gold mountain" – and you’d easily confuse it for a monastery.
A statue of philosopher Confucius stands at the entrance, while incense wafts through the Chinese-style corridors. Since it was built in 2001, the heritage centre has received numerous donations and loans from China, as well as from Victorians, all of which recount that nation’s history and culture and its ties with Ararat.
These include a rare silk jacket dyed with yam juice and the iron-rich silt from a Chinese stream, as well as Satsuma vases from the 1860s.
Heather's favourite is a pair of 7.5cm silk foot binding shoes. "Foot binding is horrific but fascinating," she says.
"Women’s feet were bound as infants under two and most had 12.5cm shoes, but a few were able to wear these 7.5cm ones. They only stopped making these shoes in 1996 because there are still people alive with bound feet – the practice was stopped in the mid-30s."
She says compared to Ballarat and Bendigo, the Chinese population in the 1800s was about 5 per cent, whereas in Ararat it was up to 50 per cent. Although unlike modern-day Ararat, Ballarat and Bendigo still have a strong Chinese population.
Ararat was also one of the most democratic goldfields in Australia, as polls and taxes based on race were abolished after Chinese protests.
Heather says not only would the town not exist if it weren’t for their gold diggings – nor would Victoria.
"The timing of the Chinese gold find was important to Victoria as in 1857 the state was suffering a major recession and because the gold was so intense and rich here it saved Victoria from bankruptcy," she says.
"Prior to them finding gold here, which was pure luck of course, there were just squatters on this land."