Steampunk in Oamaru

By Insider – Suzanne Peri-Chapman

I guess we have to start this blog with a definition of Steampunk…tomorrow as it used to be.


What is steampunk?
In three short words, steampunk is Victorian science fiction. Here “Victorian” is not meant to indicate a specific culture, but rather references a time period and an aesthetic: the industrialized 19th century. Historically, this period saw the development of many key aspects of the modern world (mechanized manufacturing, extensive urbanization, telecommunications, office life and mass-transit), and steampunk uses this existing technology and structure to imagine an even more advanced 19th century, often complete with Victorian-inspired wonders like steam-powered aircraft and mechanical computers.


I believe that Steampunk is more than just brass and watchparts. It’s finding a way to combine the past and the future in an aesthetic pleasing yet still punkish way. It’s living a life that looks old-fashioned, yet speaks to the future. It’s taking the detritus of our modern technological society and remaking it into useful things.

Ok so – Steampunk, in Oamaru?? Yes, my friends. Oamaru, a town in the South Island of New Zealand, north of Dunedin, has a wonderful Old Town section, built in Victorian times. Unfortunately it is named now on various signs as the Victorian Precinct. “Precinct” is much too urban council for what this part of town is…how about renaming it The Victorian Assemblage – much more evocative.

This Victorian part of town is quite extraordinary, preserved without being tarted up, and it has a semi-abandoned feel which makes it all the more mysterious. Being Victorian, it is perfectly suited to Steampunk, hence the Steampunk HQ there. I arrived there after driving north from Dunedin (an hour and a half, for those planning a trip). I did do a brief detour to see the Moeraki Boulders, large spherical rocks on a beach at Moeraki – from their website (yes, the boulders have their own website): These boulders are grey-coloured septarian concretions which have been exposed through shoreline erosion from black mudstone coastal cliffs that back the beach. They originally formed in ancient sea floor sediments during the early Paleocene some 60 million years ago. Worth a look.

Back to the Steampunk…I drove along Itchen Street, and there before me was the Steampunk HQ. You might think it’s just an

old building with a train in front of it, but no – it’s so much more. You have to stop, walk around and look at the detail. You can’t miss the train – it’s a sculptural installation with the train engine angled up to the sky, which for a mere $2 donation, makes loud, spooky train-passing-through-the-mists-of-time noises, puffs out steam, and shoots out flame. I really wish I could have been there at night, when it also lights up. It’s all in the detail with Steampunk…over the door to the HQ, a skull with monocle, on the side of the building a steel fly, on the side of the train an explosion hole, through which you can see the other-worldly driver.  Adding to the other-worldly feel was a vintage train going away from me, past the Steampunk HQ building, on its last trip of the day.

I must have arrived at the Victorian Assemblage at the tail end of a market day – the bunting was still up, the market stalls open, along with various carvers, woodworking shops and cafes. There were only a few punters wandering around, but the group left there were local Steampunkers – nice people, beautifully dressed in true Steampunk fashion. They were being interviewed by a camera crew about why they were who they were.

A woman with a gorgeously Victorian outfit directed me to their exhibition of Steampunk fashion, in the North Otago Museum. I spent some time in front of the Museum’s Janet Frame permanent exhibition, especially staring at her typewriter. I realised how much more deliberate thought had to go into her work before pressing the typewriter keys, as opposed to anyone writing on a computer – today we can hurl out words to our screens and the rest of the world with abandon; too much so at times.

I found the Steampunk fashion exhibits, and enjoyed the imagination of them very much…if WOW had a Science Fiction or Steampunk category, these costumes would have been right at home. Each outfit had a title, and a back-story, which is something I’d like to see in more fashion shows. Black in Fashion is an exhibition that provides stories with each piece, and makes it so much more fascinating.

Grace Starling, by Jacqui Chaffey, was on the theme of the Ancient Mariner, Grace lived in a lighthouse and had a vest embroidered with shells.

Lady Smell Good, by Sandy Jones-Scott, had some lovely cog detail work, and boots to die for with fur anklets – trust me, it worked.

Ava Steamfeather, by Susan Wardell, featured feathers, leather and lace – again with boots to die for, and a superb feathered hat.

After I’d wandered and wondered for ages, a very late lunch seemed in order, so I stepped into the Star and Garter, a licensed restaurant that used to be the town Tea Rooms, back in the day. Still on Itchen Street, down the road from the Steampunk HQ, it has a back room with a sign that reads “Steampunk (Secret) Club Rooms”. Naturally. The woman in charge of things recommended the Blue Cod fish and chips, with a local Kurow Village Pinot Gris – very local, apparently only 20 minutes down the road. Good recommendations on both counts.

The wall next to me was completely covered with wedding photos, some going back a long way. On closer inspection, it turns out that the Star and Garter Tea Rooms was THE venue for wedding receptions in Oamaru a while ago, and many people seem to not only have had their receptions, but also their anniversaries there. A lovely piece of history – I couldn’t help but wonder what the stories were of those people, after the photos were taken at what may well have been the shiniest, brightest moment of their lives. What happened to them? Fortunately, the Blue Cod and wine arrived at this point, and I was saved from going too far along this line of thought. (Beetroot strips on the salad – SO New Zealand!)

I thoroughly enjoyed my Victorian, Steampunk-ish time in Oamaru, and felt that I had been in another world. I expect if you feel as if you’ve travelled through time, then you have just had the perfect Steampunk experience.


About REAL New Zealand Festival

The REAL New Zealand Festival will celebrate all things New Zealand during Rugby World Cup 2011 – from 9 September to 24 October.
This entry was posted in Arts, Culture & Heritage, Exhibitions, Fashion, Insider - Suzanne Peri-Chapman, Roadtrip. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Steampunk in Oamaru

  1. Pingback: Steampunk in Oamaru | STEAMPUNK HQ

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