History of Chinese Australians

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Chinese immigrants arriving in Melbourne's Chinatown, located on Little Bourke Street, 1866

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 people 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 large numbers of Chinese made their way to Australia. This migration shaped and influenced Australian policy for over a hundred years. Despite these attitudes and restrictions many people with Chinese heritage have left their mark on Australian History.

Earliest Chinese contact with Australia: pre-1848[edit]

Some historians have theorised that Northern Indigenous Australians may even have had dealings with Chinese traders or come across Chinese goods particularly through trepanging. 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.[1] The Bigge Report attributed the high level of tea drinking to 'the existence of an intercourse with China from the foundation of the Colony ...'[2] 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.[3] Another way ethnic Chinese made it to Australia was from the new British possessions of Penang and Singapore.

Indentured labour: 1848 to 1853[edit]

Individuals such as Macarthur's employees were part of the varied mix that was early Sydney Town. It was the increasing demand for cheap 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 for private landowners and the Australian Agricultural Company.[4] These workers mainly 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.[5] 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.

Between 1848 and 1853, over 3,000 Chinese workers on contracts arrived via the Port of Sydney for employment in the NSW (then including Victoria and Queensland) 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, marrying and founding families that are now rediscovering their Chinese ancestry. 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.[6]

Gold Rush: 1850s and 1860s[edit]

The Anglo-Chinese unequal treaties signed after the First (1839–1842) and Second Opium Wars (1856–1860) had an effect on Chinese in Australia. The opening of ports such as Amoy as treaty ports facilitated the practice of importing indentured labour. As well the British were conscious of jeopardising the stipulation that British subjects be allowed to reside in the newly opened treaty ports in China and they made this stipulation reciprocal. So as to avoid antagonising the ruling Qing dynasty the British government often resisted the Australian colonies when they attempted to exclude Chinese peoples.

The 1850s and 1860s 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 came to Australia for the gold rush were from Guangdong province. The Californian Gold Rush had been the first gold fields, later translated as 'old gold mountain', to the Chinese of Guangdong. The Australian rush was called thus the new goldfields or 'new gold mountain'. While it is often said these men were leaving such conditions as 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. Such issues impacted many parts of China while the movement to California and the Australian colonies was restricted to a handful of counties in relative proximity to the new British port of Hong Kong.

The average voyage from Canton via Hong Kong to Sydney and Melbourne took about 3 months. It was a profitable exercise for the ship masters and the more Chinese passengers they could fit on board the more money they could make from the passage fares. These fares were often paid through a system of debt to clan leaders and/or to agents who accompanied them on the ship. Such methods of travel were known as credit-tickets. 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. From 1853 to 1855 thousands of Chinese disembarked in Melbourne and headed for the goldfields.

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 colonies with the vast majority being men, estimations of Australia's population of that time mean that one out of every nine men were Chinese.[7] On the goldfields in Bendigo in 1861 there were 5367 Chinese men and only one woman.

Chinese Restriction Act & The Walk from Robe[edit]

The arrivals of large numbers of Chinese into the only recently created Colony of Victoria caused great alarm among its politicians and gold seekers. In the Victorian parliament it was 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..' But the real issue was fear of completion on the goldfields and in 1855 the Victorian parliament passed a Chinese Restriction Act in an effort to restrict Chinese immigration.[8] These restrictions, including a £10 poll tax on Chinese and a limit to Chinese passengers per tonnage of shipping, caused a reduction in ship owner's profitability and leading to an increase in the already high fares. This Act did limit the numbers of Chinese arriving in Victorian ports, as 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, the numbers of Chinese on the Victorian goldfields continued to increase. The Chinese were instead travelling to South Australia, and between 1855 and 1857 thousands of Chinese landed in the Port of Adelaide and in Robe, South Australia. The small town of Robe's population quickly doubled as it developed into a port of call for Chinese continuing onto the Victorian goldfields. While many others disembarked in Sydney and began to enter the NSW goldfields of the central districts. After arrival in South Australia, the large number probably in the thousands of Chinese miners then walked the long overland route to the Victorian goldfields. Initially, parties of Chinese men would often pay for local guides to take them to the goldfields, with some unscrupulous guides abandoning the Chinese in the bush in order to return to Robe and get the money from another group. However, as more and more Chinese undertook this journey it became a more organised exercise.

Experience on the Goldfields[edit]

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'.[9] 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 in NSW. There was also unrest around Ararat when a party of Chinese men were the first to discover gold there and kept the find quiet.

In answer to these problems the parliaments of Victoria and NSW had differing approaches. Victoria installed Chinese protectors modelled on a similar effort in Singapore in 1855. However, the Chinese miners resented the extra £1 per annum residency tax this system required and strong resistance meant it had lapsed by 1861.[10] After this the Victorian system was similar to that in NSW were Gold Commissioners in charge of the goldfields handled all disputes. In general this meant segregation to minimise the chances of conflict though again in reality many Chinese people lived where they choose.

Thus in most of the goldfields of Victoria and NSW Chinese people were lived is so called "camps". The camps soon consisted of buildings similar to others but were the forerunners to later Chinatowns in many places. 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 and Chinese languages were present on the goldfields.

These camps were their own little communities. 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.

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.[11]

Chinese Burials on the goldfields[edit]

White Hills Cemetery Chinese Section

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.

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. Beechworth Cemetery, which opened in 1857, is significant for the way in which it incorporates a Chinese section into the original cemetery plan.[12] 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[edit]

Chinese market gardener, ca. 1893

After the Victorian and NSW gold rushes of the 1850s and 1860s the numbers of Chinese in those colonies declined significantly. 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. 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.[13]

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.

Published in 1888 this cartoon depicts the anti-Chinese sentiment that was one of the driving forces behind the push for federation.

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.[14] 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 government of Victoria but not New South Wales passed a Factories and Shops Act that targeted Chinese working in that industry.

Implementation of the White Australia Policy: 1901 to 1911[edit]

Chinese Australians took part in parades to celebrate Federation in Melbourne 1901

By the time of Australian Federation, there were around 29,000 ethnic Chinese in Australia:[15] 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 brought 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. The first Chinese-language novel to be published in Australia (and possibly anywhere in the West), The Poison of Polygamy, appeared in Melbourne's Chinese Times in 1909-10 and while it makes only a passing mention of the White Australia Policy, has much to say on the political situation in China, and other cultural and political topics relating to the modernisation of China.[16]

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 1901 Act, 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[edit]

Sydney's Chinatown

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.[14] Others, however, supported Sun Yat-sen. Some Chinese Australians even returned to China to fight for the KMT both before the Xinhai Revolution and afterward 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.[17] 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.[18] 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 managed 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 organizations 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 organizations, such as the Chinese Youth League, survive to this day.

Cafes to Citizens: 1949 to 1973[edit]

Number of permanent settlers arriving in Australia from mainland China since 1991 (monthly)

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[edit]

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 massacre of 1989, the then Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, allowed students from mainland China then resident 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.[19]

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.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Dictionary of Sydney, The First Fleet, https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/first_fleet
  2. ^ 'Bigge Report, Remarks on Distillation, 28/1/1821.
  3. ^ Shirley Fitzgerald, Red Tape, Gold Scissors, State Library of NSW Press, Sydney, 1997, pp. 13-18.
  4. ^ Darnell, Maxine, Life and labour for indentured Chinese shepherds in New South Wales, 1847-55: [Paper in special issue: Active Voices, Hidden Histories: The Chinese in Colonial Australia.] Journal of Australian Colonial History, Vol. 6, 2004, pp.137-158.
  5. ^ Michael Williams, Chinese Settlement in NSW,p.4, https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/resources/heritagebranch/heritage/chinesehistory.pdf
  6. ^ Michael Williams, Chinese Settlement in NSW,p.5, https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/resources/heritagebranch/heritage/chinesehistory.pdf
  7. ^ Australian Bureau of Statistics, Table 8.3 Population(a), sex and country of birth, Qld, Census years, 1861 - 1891, https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/mf/3105.0.65.001
  8. ^ "Brief History of the Chinese in Australia". Asian Studies Program. La Trobe University. Retrieved 25 September 2013.
  9. ^ Bendigo Advertiser, 1854
  10. ^ Anna Kyi‘“The most determined, sustained diggers’ resistance campaign”: Chinese protests against the Victorian Government's anti-Chinese legislation 1855-1862’, Provenance: The Journal of Public Record Office Victoria, issue no. 8, 2009. ISSN 1832-2522, https://prov.vic.gov.au/explore-collection/provenance-journal/provenance-2009/most-determined-sustained-diggers-resistance
  11. ^ Clarke, Francis Gordon (2002). The History of Australia. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 68. ISBN 0-313-31498-5. Retrieved 6 September 2013.
  12. ^ https://www.beechworthcemetery.com.au/cemetery-layout.html
  13. ^ Kirkman, Noreen, ‘Chinese Miners on the Palmer’, Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, vol. 13, no. 2, 1987, pp.49-62.
  14. ^ a b Harvest of Endurance. National Museum of Australia. Retrieved 10 October 2013.
  15. ^ Price, Charles. 'Asian and Pacific Island Peoples of Australia' in Fawcett, James T and Cariño, Benjamin V. Pacific Bridges: The New Immigration From Asia and the Pacific Islands. New York: Centre for Migration Studies (1987), p. 176
  16. ^ Wong Shee Ping (author) ; Ely Finch (translator). The Poison of Polygamy : A Social Novel. Sydney: Sydney University Press. ISBN 9781743326022. OCLC 1101172962.
  17. ^ http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article49488405?searchTerm=Australian Chinese KMT Fighting&searchLimits=l-australian=y
  18. ^ Alastair Kennedy. Chinese Anzacs, Australians of Chinese Descent in the Defence Forces 1885-1919. National Library of Australia. 2012. 978 0 646 59087 5. pg 13
  19. ^ Abstracts Archived 5 December 2010 at the Wayback Machine Hugo Graeme: "Recent trends in Chinese migration to Australia", Paul Jones (University of Melbourne): "New Pathways or Old Trajectories? The Chinese Diaspora in Australia, 1985 to 2005". Papers presented at workshop on Chinese in the Pacific: Where to Now? The Australian National University, Canberra, 2007.
  20. ^ "Migration: permanent additions to Australia's population". 4102.0 – Australian Social Trends, 2007. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 7 August 2007. Retrieved 30 May 2008.

External links[edit]