2013 Language, A Key to Survival

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朱瑞生 (Zhu Rui-sheng), 广肇英语 (English through the Vernaculars of the Canton and Shiuhing Prefectures), c1857-c1862. Photograph: Chinese Museum

This project started with Chinese Museum staff playing around with a very old Cantonese-English phrsebook held by the Museum. The aim was to use the Chinese transliteration to say the English phrases in the book. Once we were done chuckling, we realised there was a lot we could learn from this book.

Partnering with Culture Victoria, we were successful in obtaining funding to undertake some further research into the phrasebook and its provenance. The webstory, ‘Language: A Key to Survival, Cantonese English Phrasebooks in Australia’, was developed for the Culture Victoria website as a result.

Research involved understanding the history of Cantonese-English phrasebooks and dictionaries, discovering others in different collections, working out the dialects of the Chinese transliterations, mapping and visiting the goldrush towns mentioned, talking with elders of the Chinese community, local historical societies, other museums, family historians and other scholars. We created a couple of videos, including interviews with elders of the Chinese community, and professionally photographed the phrasebook.

I enjoyed working with Emily Cheah Ah-Qune who assisted with research on the project and also partnering with other organisations and experts but what I enjoyed most was learning more about Cantonese dialects and how they have changed over time.

Project role: Project manager, Editor, Researcher
Created: 2013
Awards: Winner best ‘Interpretation, Learning and Audience Engagement’, Museums & Galleries National Awards, 2014

Website: Language, A Key to Survival: Cantonese English Phrasebooks in Australia, Culture Victoria website

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