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SHMA unveils oldest processional dragon

Loong on show in Sturt Street, Ballarat, during 1962. Click here to view video.

Lexie Jeuniewic, Unveiling Ballarat’s ‘hidden’ dragon during Lunar New Year as the oldest of its kind in Australia, ABC Ballarat, 21 January 2023

Locked away inside the bowels of Sovereign Hill‘s old Gold Museum is a creature unlike any other in Australia.

Replete with dazzling silk scales, tiny mirror circles, woolly pom-poms, and kingfisher feathers, the papier-mache beast is equal parts fantasy and craftsmanship.

Named Loong, it is a dragon that has seen more than a century of Ballarat’s rich Chinese history through twinkling red eyes.

Loong is the oldest processional dragon in Australia.(ABC Ballarat: Laura Mayers).

At 126 years old, Loong is the oldest processional dragon in Australia and the third oldest of its kind in the world.

Nearby Bendigo also has a Loong, which has sparked friendly competition between the two regional cities over which is home to the oldest dragon.

But according to the University of Melbourne, Bendigo’s processional dragon made its public debut in 1901 — three years later than its Ballarat brother.

Ordered from southern China

Sovereign Hill Collections and Curatorial head Lauren Bourke said Ballarat’s Loong was born of a community initiative.

“The Chinese community wanted to be able to celebrate with the rest of the community, and empire Queen Victoria’s 60-year reign,” Ms Bourke said.

It was estimated about one in four Ballarat citizens were Chinese at the time, according to the Ballarat and District Genealogical Society.

Once enough money had been raised, an order was placed for a dragon and other processional assemblage — including costumes and a lion — from a factory in southern China.

The dragon had its final outing during Ballarat’s Begonia Festival in the 1960s.(Supplied: Ballarat Historical Collection, Sovereign Hill).

The special package arrived in Melbourne during 1897 and was transferred to Sovereign Hill in Ballarat.

It was not long before Loong roared to life.

Sepia-toned photographs capture the dragon wowing crowds young and old in the heart of Ballarat in the early 20th century.

“Loong’s had a long and amazing life,” Ms Bourke said.

“From 1897 he’s basically taken part in almost all of the really important cultural and community events that have happened here.”

Sovereign Hill’s Lauren Bourke carefully shows Loong’s scales.(ABC Ballarat: Lexie Jeuniewic).

Loong took his final breath in the public sphere in the 1960s during an appearance at the city’s famous Begonia Festival.

He was donated to the Ballarat Historical Society, before being handed to Sovereign Hill in the 1970s, where he has remained since.

Loong has been extensively restored at Sovereign Hill with help from the University of Melbourne.(ABC Ballarat: Lexie Jeuniewic).

Ms Bourke explained it was “especially rare” that Loong was still around.

“Processional dragons were [traditionally] destroyed after they were used,” she said.

“The fact that Loong’s head, tail, and some of his body, has survived is really quite amazing.”

Symbolising community connections

Chinese Australian Cultural Society Ballarat president Charles Zhang said Loong held special significance for the Chinese community.

Ballarat’s history is rich with Chinese culture.(Supplied: Ballarat Historical Collection, Sovereign Hill).

“He represents strength, bravery and walking together. You need to have many, many legs to carry Loong in a march,” Mr Zhang said.

“One person or two, isn’t able to. You must have a whole community walking together.”

Processional dragons are traditionally destroyed after use, which makes Loong rare.(ABC Ballarat: Lexie Jeuniewic).

Loong has undergone extensive conservation work since retirement to restore him to as close to original form as possible.

He was expected to remain in the temperature-controlled climate at Sovereign Hill indefinitely.

Special tours planned

Ms Bourke said Sovereign Hill planned to allow a small number of visitors to “meet” Loong through back-of-house tours of its archives.

The dragon first arrived in Ballarat from southern China during 1897.(ABC Ballarat: Lexie Jeuniewic).

“It’s really important we share the stories that are embedded here in [our] collections,” Ms Bourke said.

“These are stories that connect to real people, to real peoples’ experiences, and many of these objects have relevance to people today.

“We hope more people will be able to see him, connect with him, and grow to love him the way we have.”

Loong is enjoying a long retirement inside Sovereign Hill’s archives.(ABC Ballarat: Lexie Jeuniewic).

Mr Zhang hoped Loong’s history would be protected and preserved for generations to come.

He said events like Lunar New Year were an important reminder for all Australians to learn more about Chinese history and culture.

“When people have more understanding of other cultures, they have less fear,” Mr Zhang said.

“Hopefully this can mean we have less trouble in the world … and a more peaceful society.”