Luxury eco-resort brings old quarantine centre back to life - with its Chinese ghost

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 June, 2008, 12:00am


Whatever horrors await the inbound visitor at Sydney's sometimes chaotic international airport pale into insignificance compared with those once endured by shipboard migrants sent to the city's infamous quarantine station.

Between the 1830s and its closure in 1984, more than 13,000 people carrying (or suspected of carrying) infectious diseases were interned in the beautiful yet melancholy place at the mouth of Sydney Harbour.

The unwilling guests stayed for days, weeks or months. Others died and were buried on a hill within sight of the city they never knew.

A few weeks ago the old quarantine station - renamed Q Station - reopened as a luxury A$17 million (HK$127.36 million) eco-resort, complete with conference facilities, restaurant and a soon-to-open 'destination spa'. Today's well-heeled inmates stay in tastefully decorated rooms equipped with queen-size beds, plasma televisions and modern en suite bathrooms.

To their credit, the company running Sydney's newest tourist attraction has not attempted to gloss over the institution's lurid history - quite the reverse. Apart from retaining much of the original infrastructure (including the barrack-like wooden accommodation blocks and grim hospital wing), Q Station runs a graphic re-enactment of camp life in the old laundry, plus spine-tingling 'paranormal' tours.

A museum, located near the wharf where inmates came ashore, uses photographs, historical objects and personal belongings to tell the story of those who passed through the quarantine station - a sunnier, but no less disturbing version of New York's Ellis Island.

Equally moving are the many inscriptions, often the names of ships and their crews, carved into the nearby sandstone cliff. Some record the suffering of Chinese migrants there in the 1880s.

'It is hard to say how much misfortune I have suffered,' wrote one young man to his brother. 'Nobody knows what trouble I am in. I must not complain.'

Like thousands of his compatriots, the unknown carver had travelled to Australia to seek his fortune on the Victorian goldfields. As his inscription records, his ship was put into quarantine after an outbreak of smallpox - a disease that claimed many Chinese victims.

The quarantine station was a cruel introduction to colonial Australia. Inmates were roomed according to their station in life (first class, second class, third class) - apart from 'Asiatics' who camped out under the stars.

Curator Anna Williams says that while first-class passengers were given comfortable rooms, recreational facilities and a posh dining room, the hoi polloi endured fairly primitive living conditions.

'Infected with fleas and cockroaches, the beds were too hard, the food poor and, apart from the insects the only thing that was plentiful were the medical examinations,' wrote a third-class passenger in 1930.

Despite the fine refurbishment of the site, it is difficult not to think about those who suffered and died behind the precinct's secure walls, gates and fences.

David Thompson, who has led many ghost tours around the site, says there are an astonishing number of paranormal sightings. One of the most frequent apparitions is that of a Chinese man in traditional dress.

'He's often seen near where Asian people were accommodated.'