On our first trip by train to Yarraville, I thought I’d spotted a religious statue down by the Maribyrnong River between South Kensington and Footscray Stations. However, it was too dark to be sure and frankly, in the excitement of meeting friends at the Sun Cinema, I forgot all about it. Last week, however, when V and I took the train out that way again, it was afternoon, and we both happened to look out the window at the same time. We could clearly make out the backs of a very tall, golden Matsu (Mazu 媽祖 ) statue and of a nearby temple with dragons on the roofline, very like the ones we had seen in Taiwan.
‘I thought for a moment we were on the train to Gaoxiong,’ V remarked later.
The presence of the Heavenly Queen (as she is known locally) and her temple complex, was of course an open secret for anyone who regularly rode the Williamstown, Werribee or Geelong line trains, or who frequented the shared pedestrian and bicycle pathway along the Maribyrnong River. The statue itself was made of stainless steel in Nanjing, shipped to Melbourne in April 2008, and was finally erected, section by section, in November of the same year. Painted gold and many meters tall, she soon became the focus of a Facebook appreciation group (now no longer active?), at least two articles in the Age and posts by other bloggers. The temple society also set up a website which detailed the legend of the folk deity Matsu and outlined the stages of the building works—still in progress.
Today I set out on a personal pilgrimage to the see the statue and temple at close quarters. It seemed important while I was planning an extended stay in Taiwan for study purposes later in the year to pay my respects to this beloved folk deity. I made a small hand drawn map and hoped that I would be able to cross the Maribyrnong and under the railway line at points close to the statue.
Emerging from the South Kensington Station I found that Childers Street and later on Hopkins Street featured bewildering juxtapositions of industrial areas, gentrified new apartment blocks and parks and wetlands featuring native revegetation works. But soon I could make out the backs of Matsu and her temple from across the Maribyrnong and the railway line. When I reached the walking path along the river, I discovered the waterway was traversed by multiple bridges, one of which did indeed accommodate pedestrians. The water had a sharp, salty tang, very different from the muddy odour of our local Merri Creek. I was reminded that the port and the bay were not so very far away.
Finding my way under the railway line and into an area of wetlands, I discovered the statue was set on a little island in a pond that sadly looked rather plagued by algae. The site had been home over the years to at least two noxious industries: a tannery and a glue factory, and I wondered how toxic the area still was. There were a few hardy native waterfowl around, including some swamp hens, and quite a lot of effort had been made by the Council or perhaps Parks Victoria to plant groves of trees and other native vegetation along the path and in the vicinity of the temple. Matsu herself looked dignified, powerful, but also somehow very friendly. Quite appropriately for a sea goddess, she faced the river and directed her serene gaze in the direction of the bay.
As I turned my attention to the temple, it became clear that there was a great deal of work yet to be done. The complex had building materials spread out all around it and it was cordoned off by a wire mesh fence. There was a small construction office and amenities outside the fence on the left side. No one was at work, though, as it was Anzac Day. I look forward to the day that visitors will be able to go inside and light incense and make offerings. This temple is only the second one dedicated to Matsu in Australia: the other is in Sydney.
I continued to walk along the shared pathway, past the moorings of river cruise vessels, in the direction of Footscray Station. I looked back from time to time towards the complex.
By the time I reached a disused railway siding, the goddess was no longer in sight. I determined, though, that today would not be my last visit to this impressive religious complex.