There’s an air of intrigue around this Chinese shopfront, painted by surrealist artist, Eric Thake, in Melbourne during World War II.

Painting predominantly in green colous of Chinese shopfront. Number 113 is painted next to the door, and sign over shop reads 'Quong Hie Shing. Impirter and exporter'. There are also signs advertising fireworks, and pictures of colourful lollipops and statuettes in window
Chinese shop, Lt. Bourke Street (Lilly Buk). Oil painting by Eric Thake; H2006.146/1

The painting, one of two owned by the Library, offers us a fascinating glimpse of life in the city’s Chinese quarter, at a time when the area was in decline. Fruit and vegetable wholesalers, once a mainstay of Little Bourke Street, had moved to Queen Victoria Market. Factories too, had moved away. [1]

Faded black and white photo of Chinese shopfronts in Little Bourke Street. You can see the Chinese msision on the corner.
Chinese shopfronts in Little Bourke street, 1937, with Chinese mission on the corner; H2016.405/12

By the time these paintings were created in 1942, the Chinese quarter had
shrunk to the blocks around Swanston and Russell streets, and many of its itinerant workers had gone. It was precisely this obscure, forgotten quality that appealed to Thake, who worked in the city as a commercial artist:

My interest in shop windows and their contents springs from the end of
WWI when I first started work … not the fashionable shops of Melbourne
but those old dusty ones … in those days [on] the outer edge of the city…[2]

Armed with a sketchbook, Thake would wander the city’s streets and laneways during his lunchbreak, because ‘you can never tell when an idea will present itself, and very often ideas turn up in the most unlikely [of] places.’ [3]

Typed excerpt from Sands & McDougall directory showing listings of residences in Little Bourke Street, including the two Chinese shops at numbers 113 and 115
The two Chinese shopfronts painted by Eric Thake, as they appeared in the Sands & McDougall directory, in 1945

Eric Thake had a knack for finding the unfamiliar in the familiar, and so
it was with these Chinese shopfronts, oddly devoid of human life, although
there are signs of humanity everywhere: in the ‘no peanuts’ sign above the window ledge; the freshly cut watermelon stacked by the door. There is an air of recent departure in these pictures, as if the occupants have dropped everything and left.

Colourful painting of Chinese shopfront featuring red shop sign that reads 'Wing Hing Loong.' Merchandise are displayed in window, including freshly cut watermelon, and a sign reads 'Fireworks sold here.' The number 115 is over the door.
Chinese shop, Lt. Bourke Street (Lilly Buk). Oil painting by Eric Thake; H2006.146/1

When World War II was finally over, the Argus reported: ‘Melbourne will not be entirely without fireworks on V-P Day, for one shop was discovered in the fast disappearing Chinese section of the city with a few crackers.’ (14 August 1945)

Perhaps it was one of these two shopfronts that came to the rescue.


[1] Loh, Morag, 2008, ‘Chinese,’ eMelbourne, viewed 3 August 2020

[2] Thake, Eric, ‘Eric Thake correspondence, 1972–1982’, MS 9826, box 3552/2, Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library Victoria

[3] Thake, Eric, ‘On getting some ideas for pictures’, AAA Artist file – Eric Thake, La Trobe Collection, State Library Victoria

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This article has 2 comments

  1. Hi Sarah.

    Thank you for your amazing post. Unfortunately we do not have firework this year due to Covid. Hopefully everything will return to normal next year.


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