History of Chinese Australians
The history of Chinese Australians provides a unique chapter in the history of Australia. The country has a long history of contact with China, some of which may even predate Captain Cook's arrival in the 18th century. Chinese peoples are now considered to be the oldest continuous immigrants to Australia outside of those from Great Britain. However it was during the Australian Gold Rushes that vast numbers of Chinese made their way to Australia. This migration shaped and influenced Australian policy for over a hundred years. Racist fears about Chinese migration was one of the driving factors behind the Australian Federation. Despite these attitudes and restrictions many people with Chinese heritage have left their mark on Australian History.
- 1 Earliest Chinese contact with Australia: pre-1848
- 2 Indentured labour: 1848 to 1853
- 3 Gold Rush: 1853 to 1877
- 4 From miners to artisans: 1877 to 1901
- 5 Implementation of the White Australia Policy: 1901 to 1911
- 6 War, refugees and the Republic era: 1912 to 1949
- 7 Cafes to Citizens: 1949 to 1973
- 8 Re-migration and multiculturalism: 1973 to present
- 9 See also
- 10 References
Earliest Chinese contact with Australia: pre-1848
Some historians have theorized that Northern Indigenous Australians may even have had dealings with Chinese traders or come across Chinese goods particularly through trepanging. Gavin Menzies put forward the idea that Chinese fleets from the Ming dynasty may have found Australia but his views are widely disputed. Sir Joseph Banks was of the opinion that any British colony in Australia could be populated by 'useful inhabitants from China'. The first official undisputed link between China and Australia comes from the very beginning of the colony of New South Wales. The First Fleet ships, Scarborough, Charlotte and Lady Penrhyn, after dropping off their convict load, sailed for Canton to buy tea and other goods to sell on their return to England. The Bigge Report attributed the high level of tea drinking to 'the existence of an intercourse with China from the foundation of the Colony …' Many British East India Company ships used Australia as a port of call on their trips to and from buying tea from China. That the ships carrying such cargo had Chinese crew members is likely and that some of the crew and possibly passengers embarked at the port of Sydney is probable. Certainly by 1818, Mak Sai Ying (also known as John Shying) had arrived and after a period of farming became, in 1829, the publican of The Lion in Parramatta. John Macarthur, a prominent pastoralist, employed three Chinese people on his properties in the 1820s and records may well have neglected others. Another way ethnic Chinese made it to Australia was from the new British possessions of Malaysia and Singapore.
Indentured labour: 1848 to 1853
Individuals such as Macarthur’s employees were part of the varied mix that was early Sydney Town. It was the increasing demand for labour after convict transportation ceased in the 1840s that led to much larger numbers of Chinese men arriving as indentured labourers, to work as shepherds and irrigation experts for private landowners and the Australian Agricultural Company. These workers seemingly all came from Fujian Province via the port then known as Amoy (now Xiamen) and some may have been brought involuntarily, as kidnapping or the 'sale of pigs', as it was called, was common. Indentured labourers had been successful in other areas as an alternative to the slave trade and many ships and crews who had previous experience in the Atlantic slave trade came to transport indentured Chinese labourers and then later Chinese miners.
The Anglo-Chinese unequal treaties signed after the First (1839–1842) and Second Opium Wars (1856–1860) also had their effect on Chinese in Australia and facilitated the practice of indentured labour. The British were conscious of not jeopardising the stipulation that British subjects be allowed to reside in the newly opened treaty ports in China. They made this stipulation reciprocal. So to avoid antagonizing the ruling Qing dynasty the British government didn't allow the Australian colonies to completely exclude Chinese peoples.
Between 1848 and 1853, over 3,000 Chinese workers on contracts arrived via the Port of Sydney for employment in the NSW countryside. Resistance to this cheap labour occurred as soon as it arrived, and, like such protests later in the century, was heavily mixed with racism. Little is known of the habits of such men or their relations with other NSW residents except for those that appear in the records of the courts and mental asylums. Some stayed for the term of their contracts and then left for home, but there is evidence that others spent the rest of their lives in NSW. A Gulgong resident who died at age 105 in 1911 had been in NSW since 1841 while in 1871 the Keeper of Lunacy still required the Amoy dialect from his interpreters.
Gold Rush: 1853 to 1877
In the 1850s and 1860s they saw the largest pre-federation migration of Chinese to Australia, with numbers peaking around the 40,000 mark. These numbers were only reached again after the abolition of the White Australia policy in 1973. Gold was found at several places in Australia in 1851 but significant Chinese migration to join the diggers only began late in 1853.
Most of the people who were lured to Australia by the gold rush were from the Guangdong province. The Californian Gold Rush had been called 'gold mountain' by the Chinese of Guangdong. The Australian rush was called 'new gold mountain' and it was seen as a closer and possibly richer alternative to America. The conditions these men were leaving included overpopulation, the declining power of the Qing Dynasty, the devastation of the Taiping Rebellion, the local Canton Hakka-Punti clan wars and the detrimental effects the opium trade was having on society.
The average voyage from Canton to Melbourne took about 3 months. It became a profitable exercise for the ship masters. The more Chinese passengers they could fit on board the more money they could make from the fare of passage. These fares were often paid through a system of debt to clan leaders and/or to the ship masters themselves. However, some Chinese were able to pay their own way. These were often the wealthier city born men who were coming to Australia to be merchants or work in an industry other than gold mining. The majority of travelers seems to have been the indentured peasant men. From 1853 to 1855 thousands of Chinese disembarked in Melbourne.
It is important to note that very, very few Chinese women came to Australia in this period. In 1861 Australia had at least 38,000 Chinese in the country with the vast majority of those being men, estimations of Australia's population of that time mean that one out of every nine men were Chinese. On the goldfields in Bendigo in 1861 there were 5367 Chinese men and only one woman.
Immigration Restriction Act & The Walk from Robe
The large influx of Chinese to the colony caused great alarm among the politicians and the miners in Victoria. There was a lot of agitation amongst the miners at this time to begin with. The Red Ribbon Rebellion and the Eureka Stockade were in 1853 and 1854 respectively and the arrival of so many Chinese added to the tension. Chinese men were seen as yet another problem by both miners and government. Some in parliament argued that it was a security risk to have so many Chinese in the colony who were '...fanatically loyal to a despotic foreign emperor who could order them to rise up at any moment..' This was a great example of the ignorance of the times as the origins of these men in Southern China were hotbeds of anti-Qing revolt and sentiment and judging by the work translating tombstones in Australian cemeteries by Dr Kok Hu Jin, some of the Chinese who came to Australia were followers of Hong Xiuquan and the Heavenly Kingdom. The belief the Chinese men were a security risk may not have been very accurate yet it fuelled Victorian policy nonetheless.
The Royal Commission after the Eureka stockade also looked into the Chinese situation as another one of the miner's grievances. In 1855 the Victorian parliament passed the Immigration Restriction Act in an effort to restrict Chinese immigration. This forced Chinese arrivals in Victorian ports to pay a £10 head tax. It also mandated that there could only be a certain amount of Chinese travelers per tonnage of shipping. This put a dent in the ship masters coffers. Cost of passage was already high. This Act did appear to limit the numbers of Chinese arriving in Victorian ports. Official Victorian records show over 10,000 Chinese arriving in Victoria between 1853 and 1855 but only a few hundred in the next two years. However, numbers of Chinese on the Victorian goldfields continued to swell through overland routes. To avoid this Act, many ships travelled to South Australia. Between 1855 and 1857 thousands of Chinese landed in the Port of Adelaide and the port town of Robe, South Australia. In fact thanks to these migrants the town of Robe's population doubled overnight and it developed into the main port of call for Chinese arriving in Australia. It was then a long overland route to the Victorian goldfields.
It is unknown exactly how many Chinese made it to the goldfields in this way but estimates are usually in the thousands. Parties of Chinese men would often pay for local guides to take them to the goldfields. Sometimes, these guides would abandon the Chinese in the bush in order to return to Robe and get the money from another group and do the same thing. However, as more and more Chinese undertook this journey it became an easier more organized exercise and chances for these sort of hustles diminished. Along the way Chinese sojourners established wells and paths through the bush. Many Chinese marks and developments can still be found along this route today.
Experience on the Goldfields
After finally arriving on the goldfields the hardships the Chinese faced continued. There was a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment amongst the European miners. In July 1854 in the Bendigo Advertiser it was reported that William Denovan called for an uprising for the purpose of 'the driving of the Chinese population off the Bendigo goldfield'. A riot was averted by the local police commissioner. However, This sort of sentiment was widespread throughout the Australian gold rushes. In 1857 this sentiment caused the Buckland Riot and in 1860-1861 the Lambing Flat riots, which are both sad chapters of Australian history. There was also unrest around Ararat, Victoria when a party of Chinese men were the first to discover gold there and kept the find quiet.
In answer to these problems the parliament of Victoria installed Chinese protectors in 1855. It was the task of these officers to organize the Chinese and liaise between them and local authorities. It was a system of segregation but one in which the subject of the segregation, the Chinese, were often appreciative of. The first three protectorates were in Ballarat, Bendigo and Beechworth. Places without these protectors and an organized hierarchy were the places where anti-Chinese sentiment boiled over into riots and violence in Bucklands and Lambing Flats. So in this sense the policy could be regarded as a success. However, the Chinese resented the extra ₤1 per annum residency tax this system required. It seemed to the Chinese just like a continuation of the mining licenses policy.
Around most of the goldfields of Victoria the Chinese were organized into these camps. The camps were the forerunners to later Chinatowns in many places. In the Bendigo protectorate there were seven different camps for the Chinese in the area and six in Ballarat. The organization of these camps was often done around clan, or dialect differences where this was applicable. While most of the men were from the Guangdong province, several different dialects of the Chinese language were present on the goldfields.
These camps were their own little communities. The parties of men who left China did so as organized groups, with specific roles spelled out, including barber, scribe, herbalist, etc. Once they arrived on the goldfields, they were able to take up these roles. There is evidence that the Chinese even used their own currency in these places. To the Europeans these were notorious and exotic places. At the same time in China, opium addiction was rampant, some of the men brought this addiction with them to the goldfields. Two of the most common finds by modern fossickers in the area of Chinese camps are Chinese coins and Opium pipes. However, the records of local health groups and hospitals show only low numbers of Chinese were ever treated for their opium addictions.
Amongst the defining moments on the goldfields, the Red Ribbon Rebellion, the Eureka Stockade, the Chinese in Bendigo had what could be described as a defining moment for the Chinese in Australia. In 1857 over 3,000 Chinese men met on the site of what is now Bendigo's Rosalind Park. This meeting was to contest and denounce the many discriminatory laws the Victorian government had enacted. A petition was sent to Melbourne with around 5,000 names on it. It has later been found that some of those names are actually fake names or joke names.
After the Gold rushes in Victoria, some Chinese moved into the other colonies to follow gold rushes there. New South Wales and Queensland hadn't followed Victoria in establishing Chinese related legislation. This could be seen as a cause for the Lambing Flats Riots and then later the same problems were found on the Palmer River goldfields in the late 1870s where Chinese miners vastly outnumbered Europeans.
Chinese Burials on the goldfields
As soon as the Chinese started arriving in Australia, they started dying here. Many wanted their remains to be sent back to China for spiritual and traditional reasons. Many families went to great lengths to see this achieved. Others however, were buried in Australia. Cemeteries around the country contain Chinese graves. To accommodate the Chinese funeral rituals that involve burning. Cemeteries around Australia allowed the construction of chimneys. These chimneys can still be found in cemeteries around the country today. Often the people in charge of the cemeteries were devout Christians, people who had an aversion to what they saw as pagan rituals. This meant that no such chimneys were built until the 1860s after several grass fires had burnt through Australian cemeteries.
The Chinese section of the White Hills cemetery in Bendigo is possibly the most important example remaining in Australia of Chinese graves in their original state. Many other cemeteries have been redeveloped and the heritage and cultural diversity of their Chinese sections has been lost.
From miners to artisans: 1877 to 1901
After the Victorian and NSW gold rushes of the 1850s and 1860s the numbers of Chinese in those colonies declined significantly. Colonies of Australia occurred in 1873 in the far north of Queensland at the Palmer River, after the discovery of gold there was another rush and by 1877 there were 20,000 Chinese there. The conditions and problems there were both similar to those in Victoria but also conditions were more extreme. The Chinese and European miners also had to deal with attacks from hostile Australian Aboriginal tribes. After the ending of this Queensland rush, people either returned to China or dispersed. Many Chinese stayed in Queensland and worked hard to establish much of the northern banana trade.
In the 1880s there was also a rise in anti-Chinese sentiment in the cities of Melbourne and Sydney. Earlier discontent had been curtailed by the segregationist policies in the rural protectorates and poorly reported in the urban publications. However, as more and more Chinese began moving from the country towns into the cities there was an equal rise in anti-Chinese sentiment. This resulted in another round of restrictive Acts in NSW in 1881 and 1888. It also contributed to a rising drive for Federation of Australia. One of the most compelling arguments for federation amongst the public and politicians of the time was that a united immigration policy would secure the borders of all the Australian colonies. The Chinese 'pest' or 'menace' was the root of these immigration fears.
Mining remained one of the biggest industries for Chinese in Australia but it was becoming more of a risky endeavor as the alluvial fields petered out. Chinese in the country towns either established themselves in other industries there or moved to the cities. Many of those opened stores and became merchants and hawkers. In 1890 in NSW alone there were nearly 800 shops owned and run by the Chinese. Fishing and fish curing industries were operating in Melbourne and north and south of Sydney in the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s. This provided Chinese people throughout New South Wales and Victoria with valuable seafood. By the 1890s Chinese people in Australia were represented in a wide variety of occupations including scrub cutters, interpreters, cooks, tobacco farmers, launderers, market gardeners, cabinet-makers, storekeepers and drapers, though by this time the Chinese operated fishing industry seems to have disappeared. In this period Sydney and Melbourne's proportion of the Chinese residents of Australia had steadily increased. One prominent Chinese Australian at this time was Mei Quong Tart, who ran a popular tea house in the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney. In Melbourne Lowe Kong Meng and Louis Ah Mouy were two prominent merchants.
During this period, furniture making became one of the largest industries for Chinese in Melbourne. At the height of this industry in Melbourne there were 175 firms, producing and selling Chinese made furniture. However, the Chinese success in this industry didn't last. Furniture makers of European descent petitioned the government, saying Chinese furniture makers were hurting their livelihoods. The governments of Victoria and New South Wales passed the Factories and Shops Act that targeted Chinese working in that industry. At the same time Victoria had a massive economic downturn in the 1890s. Because of the combination of these issues, soon after the turn of the century, there were no more Chinese employed in this industry.
Implementation of the White Australia Policy: 1901 to 1911
By the time of Australian Federation, there were around 29,000 ethnic Chinese in Australia: Chinese people in the capital cities of Sydney and Melbourne, were a significant group, running numerous stores, an import trade, societies and several Chinese language newspapers. There were also many Chinese still working in the north of Queensland in the banana trade. Tin mining in Tasmania was also a venture that lured Chinese workers to the state. They were also part of an international community involved in political events in China such as sending delegates to a Peking Parliament or making donations at times of natural disaster. There were many Chinese Australians who supported the Xinhai Revolution and Sun Yat-sen. The passing of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, however, froze the Chinese communities of the late 19th century into a slow decline. Thanks to Australian Chinese newspapers like the Tung Wah Times and the Chinese Times which were distributed to Chinese communities all over Australia and thanks to the many clan societies, the Chinese Australians were a rather united group. In spite of the geographical distances. This can be seen by the colourful debates that went on within the community over the future of China. Some in Australia and notably the Tung Wah Times believed China should keep a monarchy and they supported reform. Others believed China needed a republic and they supported Sun Yat-sen. Chinese regalia travelled around the country to be used by communities for Chinese new year and local events. In May 1901, to celebrate the sitting of the first federal parliament, Chinese people paraded two dragons through the streets.
Continued discrimination, both legal and social, reduced the occupational range of Chinese people until market gardening, always a major occupation, became far and away the representative role of 'John Chinaman'. It was as gardeners that most pre-1901 now granted status as 'domiciles' under the 1901Act, visited their villages and established families throughout the first 30 years or so of the 20th century, relying on the minority of merchants to assist them to negotiate with the Immigration Restriction Act bureaucracy. Only the rise of a new generation of Australian-born Chinese people, combined with new migrants that the merchants and others sponsored, both legally and illegally, prevented the Chinese populations in Australia from disappearing entirely.
War, refugees and the Republic era: 1912 to 1949
The fall of the Qing dynasty was met with mixed emotions by Chinese Australians. Some of the older Chinese born men were supporters of the reform movement and in Sydney Chinese conservatives got together for a dragon flag parade in support of the old regime. Others, however, supported Sun Yat-sen. Some Chinese Australians even returned to China to fight for the KMT both before the Xinhai Revolution and afterwards during the Northern Expedition. The KMT had quite a following in Australia. There were many KMT branches around Australia. During the Second Sino-Japanese War the Darwin branch of the KMT was a valuable source of information for Chinese Australians. Chinese Australians also showed the support for the republic with monetary donations. In 1913 Chinese Australians, Chinese New Zealanders and others in the Chinese diaspora in the Pacific, donated ₤36,000 to China. A letter of thank you to the Chinese Australians from the Finance Minister of the Republic is on display at the Golden Dragon Museum.
World War One presented Chinese Australians with many unique challenges. It is by the outbreak of the war in 1914 it is estimated that there were less than 1000 Chinese Australian men of fighting age. Of these only about 198 men of Chinese ancestry managed to enlist in the AIF. One of these was the famous and decorated sniper Billy Sing. These men manage to enlist in spite of the policy that only those with significant European heritage were allowed to serve. There was actually an instance of institutional hypocrisy, on the one hand some Chinese were told they couldn't enlist but then were made to explain why they didn't enlist later to Billy Hughes' Exemption Courts.
During the inter-war period, Australian-born people of Chinese background began to predominate over Chinese-born people for the first time. Numbers increased rapidly again when refugees began to enter Australia as the result of Japan's war in China and the Pacific. Some were Chinese crew members who refused to return to Japanese-held areas and others were residents of the many Pacific islands evacuated in the face of the Japanese advance. Still others included those with Australian birth who were able to leave Hong Kong and the villages on the approach of the Japanese. At the same time the anti-Japanese War helped inspire the development of organisations focused on China rather than the districts and villages of people's origin only, and aimed at making Australia aware of the danger of Japan and the need to assist China. A few of these organisations, such as the Chinese Youth League, survive to this day.
Cafes to Citizens: 1949 to 1973
In the post-war period, assimilation became the dominant policy and this led to some extension of rights with gradual changes to citizenship laws. At the same time cafes began to replace market gardens as the major source of employment and avenue for bringing in new migrants, both legal and illegal. These changes, combined with the increased number of Australian-born Chinese, the final return of the last of the domiciles who still wished to do so and the arrival of Chinese background students under the Colombo Plan from various parts of Asia, brought about the end of the dominance of south China in the link between China and Australia that had existed for nearly 100 years.
Re-migration and multiculturalism: 1973 to present
The final end of the White Australia Policy saw new arrivals from the Chinese diaspora and for the first time significant numbers from non-Cantonese speaking parts of China. The first wave of arrivals were ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia during the 1970s; this was followed by economic migrants from Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s, whose families often settled in Sydney while the breadwinner returned to Hong Kong to continue earning an income – a significant reversal of the traditional migration pattern.
After the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the then Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, allowed students from mainland China to settle in Australia permanently. Since then, immigrants from mainland China and Taiwan have arrived in increasing numbers. New institutions were established for these arrivals and old ones such as the Chinese Chamber of Commerce revived; Chinese language newspapers were once again published. The equality of citizenship laws and family reunion immigration after 1972 meant that an imbalance of the sexes, once a dominant feature of the Chinese communities in Australia, was not an issue in these later migrations.
Chinese newspapers are published in Australia and three shortwave and longwave radio channels broadcast in Mandarin and Cantonese. The Australian public broadcaster SBS also provides television and radio on weekends. Chinese Australian social websites like Xīn Zújì (新足迹, www.oursteps.com.au) and FREEOZ (www.freeoz.org) also blossomed. Several Chinese Australians have received the Order of Australia award and there are current representatives in both State and Federal parliaments. Chinese immigration has increased continuously from the 1990s and today the Chinese are the third largest group among immigrants. Since the mid-1990s, migration has become less permanent than it used to be, and goes in more than direction, a trend that pertains also to the Chinese. Students and academics are examples of this pattern. In 1990, Chinese settlers rarely returned permanently, but by 2002, the number of Hong Kong settlers leaving Australia for good equalled those arriving during that year.
In 2005-6 China (not including Hong Kong or Macau) was the third major source of permanent migrants to Australia behind the United Kingdom and New Zealand but with more migrants than from India. Between 2000–01 and 2005–06, the number of skilled migrants coming to Australia from China more than tripled, from 3,800 to 12,500 people.
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- Bendigo Advertiser, 1854
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