A MAN was locked in an asylum after fighting off attackers with a tomahawk and knife near Dunolly, more than 150 years ago.
Now, a group of modern day creatives are finding fresh inspiration in the work Jong Ah Sing penned during his quixotic attempt to clear his name.
Muckleford's Fayen D'Evie wants to create a contemporary book based on Ah Sing's own account of his incarceration, complete with hand-drawn maps inspired by his illustrations, and a custom-made font based on his unique handwriting and grammar.
The RMIT experimental typography lecturer recently won a $15,000 State Library of Victoria fellowship intended to help regional Victorians respond to pieces in its extensive collections.
The fellowship will help her, Chinese artist Hu Yun and emerging designer Xinyuan Li work on a book and online piece that responds to The Case - the manuscript Ah Sing wrote at a Melbourne asylum in the late 1860s.
"It's an amazing history of what it was like to be a Chinese gold digger at the time," Dr D'Evie said.
"It's pretty wild. He swears throughout the book and goes into all these sordid tales ... that were happening. It brought to life stories that are really absent up here (in central Victoria)."
Chinese miners left few written records of their time on Victoria's goldfields and there has been a push in recent decades to find out more about them.
So an entire account in a Chinese miner's own hand giving first hand accounts of his life is incredibly valuable.
"It's full of stories about his life and the lives of those around him, and he draws these incredible maps of Dunolly and other places that he was at," Dr D'Evie said.
A copy of the forgotten work was passed on to the State Library of Victoria following his death in 1900 and lay in the archives until people started deciphering it a century later.
It now has something of a cult following among historians and artists who try to tease out what exactly Ah Sing might have been trying to say as he invented a form of English grammar based on Cantonese styles of language composition.
So, how did this man come to find himself locked up, 7320 kilometres from his birthplace, and why did he start writing his quixotic book?
Ah Sing had arrived in Victoria in 1855 and had circulated through various goldfields for about 12 years before the fight that changed his life forever.
It might not have happened if not for the death of a black hen.
The story goes that Ah Sing had caught a miner called Sheteen killing his bird, prompting the violent brawl.
Ah Sing struck a fellow miner with a tomahawk, and another with a knife.
Something about Ah Sing left colonial authorities with concerns about his mental health and police ended up escorting him to Melbourne's Yarra Bend Asylum.
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Ah Sing may very well have had a mental illness but he could also have been withdrawing from opium, which was legally available and used by many Chinese miners at the time.
It is also easy to imagine his mental health deteriorating once he was locked up.
"The painful memoir by Ah Sing reveals much about his sense of frustration with .... authorities, perhaps due to his poor skills in English," historian Catharine Coleborne has written.
Ah Sing didn't take his troubles lying down, though, Dr D'Evie said.
"He's audacious and cheeky in how he writes this story. He's got a lot of fight in him," she said.
Dr D'Evie has heard a theory that Ah Sing might have written The Case in the hope of giving it to the Duke of Edenborough, who was preparing to tour Australian colonies.
She is unsure what to make of it or other stories associated with Ah Sing, yet.
"One of the great things about this fellowship is that ... by being able to be there at the State Library for a year, and have access to a librarian dedicated to helping me, I'm hoping to unravel more of the story," Dr D'Evie said.
"Maybe we'll find journals by other people who were around at that time, or other writings by Chinese authors, to try to piece together which bits are myths and what might have actually happened."
Ah Sing's attempts to leave the asylum system were destined for failure.
He died in 1900 after decades of incarceration.
Dr D'Evie doesn't know whether Ah Sing should have been in the asylum. But the typography expert said one thing was obvious about his book
"It points to a creative individual. He's obviously an artist of some kind, and extremely intelligent," she said.
He would not want us to dismiss him as a madman tinkering on a bizarre and misguided attempt to contact an aristocratic celebrity.
Ah Sing would want us to make the effort to understand him in a way he felt authorities had failed to do.
"By giving life to this colorful character, by reinstating him within the artistic history of this region, then maybe it restores some of (his) dignity," Dr D'Evie said.
This story is the latest in the Bendigo Weekly's regular history series, which is entitled WHAT HAPPENED?
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