In 1888 several boats carrying Chinese immigrants sailed through Sydney Heads into a crisis that would shape the nation. 

Chinese people had been arriving in Sydney for over 30 years, but by 1888 growing ill-will towards them turned into open hostility. The flashpoint came when immigrants aboard the SS Afghan, Menmuir and Guthrie were detained and deported under harsh new immigration laws hastily rushed through Parliament. 

The ‘Afghan incident’ was catalysed by greed, fear and prejudice - the threat of cheap Chinese labour, compounded by prejudices demonising the Chinese and their way of life. It was a critical moment in the history of the Chinese in Australia, paving the way for the White Australia policy and the exclusion of Asian immigrants for the next 80 years. 

Celestial City explores the causes and consequences of this nation-defining crisis through the stories of Sydney’s Chinese people who were there before, during and after this crucial moment in our history.

It celebrates the diversity of experiences and successes within the Chinese community by recognising the perseverance and achievement of individuals and families and the legacy this has given Sydney with such a strong and vibrant Chinese community today.

NICOLA TEFFER - Exhibition curator

Dr Nicola Teffer is an art historian and curator who specialises in 19th-century Australian social history and photography. She was the 2012 State Library of New South Wales Nancy Keesing Fellow, and won the University of Technology Sydney’s Chancellor’s Award for her doctoral thesis in 2001. As well as Celestial City: Sydney’s Chinese Story, Nicola has curated a number of exhibitions for the Historic Houses Trust and the City of Sydney, including No Ordinary Man: Sydney’s Quong Tart; Coffee Customs; Recollecting Rowe Street; and Spanning the Decades. She has lectured in art history at the universities of New South Wales and Sydney and her work has been published in a number of academic journals.

The team

Project manager: Georgia Connolly
Exhibitions officers: Kate Bruxner, Veronica Kooyman
Exhibition design: Matthew Guzowski
Graphic design: Bruce Smythe
Collections: Bronwyn McKenzie
Editor: Sarah Fitzherbert
Permissions: Alice Livingstone
Marketing: Ron Cuadra
Media: Lara Dawson
Programs: Sam Sweedman, Kate Ford, Emma Shrapnel
Translations: Jennifer Mok


Sydney Living Museums and the curator would like to thank the following lenders for sharing their collections for this exhibition: Albury Library Museum, Ashfield & District Historical Society, Chinese Heritage Association of Australia, City of Sydney Archives, Toni Johnston of Mode Indigo Antiques, Lois McEvoy, Grenfell Historical Society and Museum, Museum of the Riverina, National Archives of Australia, National Library of Australia, Desmond Ong, Palerang Council, Brad Powe, Powerhouse Museum, National Parks and Wildlife Services Quarantine Station, Peter Robinson, State Library of New South Wales, Society of Australian Genealogists, State Records NSW, Byron Tart, Josh Quong Tart, Unions NSW.

29 March 2014 - 12 October 2014


Free after general admission

Next Open Thursday 30 June 2022

10AM - 5PM

Exhibition brochures

Celestial City brochure: English language version
Celestial City brochure: Chinese language version

Chinese on the goldfields

Washing tailings (detail)
Washing tailings (detail), artist & date unknown, Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia

Join members of the Gold Trails re-enactment group for this illustrated talk on an important episode in Australia’s history, the riots on the goldfields at Lambing Flat.

Secrets of the Willow Pattern

Jug with willow pattern
Jug with willow pattern, c1840, Sydney Living Museums. Photo courtesy Country Threads Magazine

Through storytelling and puzzles, this wonderful kids workshop will allow your child to discover the secrets and folklore of the instantly recognisable Willow Pattern, a ceramic pattern inspired by traditional Chinese designs.

Our Chinese Garden Tour

Market gardeners Dexter (left) and Fred (right) tend to the garden
Market gardeners Dexter (left) and Fred (right) tend to the garden Photo Kate Ford for Sydney Living Museums

Join this short tour of our Chinese Market Garden on the forecourt of Museum of Sydney to discover what we are growing and the important role Chinese market gardeners have had in feeding our city.

Introduction to Chinese medicine

Purple-podded pea
Purple-podded pea. Photo © James Horan

Curious about Chinese medicine? This talk is the perfect introduction to this ancient and fascinating science. Demonstrations on the applications of Chinese medicine are included.


Education programs

Celestial City: Stage 3 education program

Promotional image for exhibition with black and white photograph of Chinese man over a blue background.
Tin Lee certificate of domicile (detail). National Archives of Australia: ST84/1, 1903/261-270

During a guided tour of the exhibition Celestial City: Sydney’s Chinese Story, students will learn why Chinese people migrated to Australia during the 19th century, and about their experiences of living in, and contributing to, Sydney and NSW.

Celestial City: Stage 5 education program

Promotional image for exhibition with black and white photograph of Chinese man over a blue background.
Tin Lee certificate of domicile (detail). National Archives of Australia: ST84/1, 1903/261-270

During a guided tour of the exhibition Celestial City: Sydney’s Chinese Story, students will learn about the experiences of Chinese people in Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Related News

Celestial city exhibition project manager Georgia Connolly, curator Nicola Teffer and Oliver Frankel smile at the camera  during the awards night


SLM projects acknowledged at Imagine awardsTuesday 18 November 2014

Celestial City won the category for Museum Projects (11+ paid staff). This is a great achievement and wonderful recognition for this fascinating exhibition that celebrated the strong and vibrant history...

This is a digitally produced image of a blue rectangle with the words Celestial City Sydney's Chinese Story written and a translation in Chinese characters above. There is also a pale blue cloud motif on the left side fading across the graphic

New online

A Celestial DesignTuesday 12 August 2014

Ever wondered how a designer develops and delivers an exhibition? SLM's senior graphic designer Bruce Smythe reveals the inspiration behind Celestial City's design concepts and 'supergraphics'.

A girl puts the Willow Pattern puzzle together

School holidays

Plate Activity Proves a Smash!Monday 4 August 2014

During the winter school holidays, young visitors to the Museum Of Sydney were entertained with a 30 minute program inspired by the Celestial City exhibition.When looking for inspiration...

Exhibition view featuring objects in showcases and colourful Shanghai lanterns overhead


A designer's taskTuesday 8 July 2014

Ever wondered how an exhibition is put together? Come behind-the-scenes and meet Matthew Guzowski as he shares his experiences, influences and tells it like it is in the world of exhibition design.

Computer drafting showing proposed layout of showcases, objects and images for Celestial City exhibition

New online

The registrar's challengeWednesday 18 June 2014

Meet Bronwyn McKenzie, loans registrar with Sydney Living Museums - a diverse and challenging role that requires working on several temporary and travelling exhibition projects at once.