There Have Been Chinese Australians Since 1818, But Have We Ever (Truly) Belonged?
For 200 years we've been stuck, somewhere, between the colonists and colonised.
ON MAY 19, 1883, the Queensland Figaro newspaper printed the following verse about the country's "Yellow Agony":
Shoals of pigtails, almond-eyed
Flooding all the country-side,
Skimmed off as their country's scum,
Odorous of opium.
Yellow rascals, cunning, knavish,
Bowed in foul vice-bondage slavish,
They, with Eastern filth imbedded
Form one monster hydra-headed.
Blood-diseased and smallpox-pitted;
Noxious, maid-devouring dragon he!
That's Sim's loathsome Yellow Agony
In 1901, the year of Australia’s federation, our first prime minister, Edmund Barton (he was knighted the following year), stood up in parliament and spoke the words: “The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman. … These races are, in comparison with white race – I think no one wants convincing of this fact – unequal and inferior."
Jump forward nearly a century and you can hear echoes of Barton's xenophobia in Pauline Hanson's maiden speech in federal parliament in 1996: “I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians. Between 1984 and 1995, 40% of all migrants coming into this country were of Asian origin. They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos, and do not assimilate.”
And yet these abrasive quotes tell just one side of the long history of the Chinese in Australia, spanning the era of the “Yellow Peril”, Cold War communist fears, the post-Tiananmen Square wave, and today’s concerns over property and agriculture being gobbled up by foreign interests.
The Chinese are one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in Australia today. The number of Australian residents born in China has doubled over the last 10 years, now making up 2% of the total population (481,800 people), third behind the United Kingdom and New Zealand, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. An additional 2% of Australians identify as having Chinese ancestry.
I grew up in Sydney in the 1980s and 1990s. Most children I knew were known as ABCs – Australian-Born Chinese – however, the grownup Chinese people in our lives were immigrants with accents, weird pickled shit in jars and plastic-lined drawers permanently smelling of Tiger Balm.
The grown-up Chinese people in our lives were immigrants with accents, weird pickled shit in jars and plastic-lined drawers permanently smelling of Tiger Balm.
Today there are strong Chinese communities in urban centres all over Australia, but much of our early history here unfolded in tiny, remote former mining towns.
I knew very little of this pioneering life, so last year I quit my job, packed my car, and headed north. I wanted to find out how and why my Chinese forefathers had ended up in remote, unforgiving territory, in places such as Pine Creek.
In the 1870s, Pine Creek – two hours south of Darwin – was home to thousands of Chinese miners who flocked here to dig and pan for gold. Now just 380 people call it home – barely enough to fill a Sydney commuter train. Of those, only three are Chinese.
I've come to meet Eddie Ah Toy, an old fella whose contact I'd been given through another "old Chinese family" in Darwin. He suggests I drive up to his family's now defunct general store. It's easy to find, occupying a prime spot on the main street and bearing a large red lettered sign: "Established 1935 Ah Toy's Store".
Eddie is waiting, waving, and opens the barbed wire gate. He wears a rabbit-fur Akubra hat and maroon polo shirt tucked into shorts with schoolboy diligence. We hide in the cool of the store, which is boarded up and empty. Since the Ah Toy store shuttered in 2015 the townsfolk have shopped at the nearby Lazy Lizard, which is also the local tavern, caravan park, and gas station.
Eddie looks like an old Chinese man and sounds like an old Australian man. While I, of all people, should not be struck by such a thing, it is rare for me to meet an ABC in his age bracket.
Eddie is 79. His maternal grandmother, Linoy Wong, was the first in his family to be born in Australia. He is hazy on the details – it was some time in the 1890s in Box Creek, Northern Territory. She was born, lived, and died on these soils without a word of English ever falling from her lips. Such was the strength and insularity of those Chinese communities, plonked in the arse end of nowhere.
By the 1840s the supply of convicts from the British motherland had slowed to a trickle, and to meet demand for cheap labour the colonies looked to China.
Boatloads of Chinese workers, mainly from Guangdong (formerly Kwangtung) and Fujian (Fukien), began arriving on Australian shores. Most were indentured labourers who had been lured with largely bullshit tales of excellent work conditions and mounds of money to be made. They spent their first year paying off the price of passage. They were known as “Coolies” (Kuli in Chinese), which roughly translated to "bitter labour".
Most were indentured labourers ... known as “Coolies” (Kuli in Chinese), which roughly translated to "bitter labour".
In the Top End, the country's northernmost region, Chinese immigration commenced in the 1870s. A Chinese man could walk off a boat; be received by a Chinese labour agent in Palmerston (now called Darwin), NT, or Cooktown, Queensland; and be directed to Chinese lodging.
After loading up on equipment at Chinese-run shops he’d be ready to make his fortune.
A decade later the estimated 4,000 Chinese people living in Darwin outnumbered Europeans 6 to 1, with the city known as "the Orient in the Outback".
Over east at the Palmer River goldfields in Queensland, there were reportedly 18,000 Chinese miners, with Chinese immigrants making up 20–30% of the population of major towns across northern Queensland.
In China, Australia was dubbed New Gold Mountain, rivalling the Old Gold Mountain of the goldfields in California.
Eddie Ah Toy's paternal grandfather wound up in Pine Creek not as a miner, but as one of 3,000 Chinese workers employed to construct a railway line linking to the town to Palmerston. Those old folks were tough. With no forklifts to do the heavy lifting, the foundations of pioneer-era towns were forged in back-breaking fashion: Lift this, grind that, plant here, hammer there. Eventually he married a Chinese woman, Eddie's grandmother, and together they had 10 children in Pine Creek.
Eddie drives us past a block of land that was once the Chinatown cemetery. According to historian Glenice Yee, while many Chinese returned to their homelands after their working stint, "just as many died a lonely death in the new land, often from starvation and sickness, totally disillusioned". For them, aspirations of fabulous fugui ("riches and honour") were nothing but yellow specks of "fool's gold" in their palms.
I visited a lot of cemeteries across the Top End, most of them partitioned by race and religion: Catholic, Anglican, Jewish, Muslim, Aboriginal, and, of course, Chinese. Each bury their dead differently.
In the Cooktown cemetery, where more than 300 Chinese people were buried, an austere grey stone shrine was erected more than a century ago and reads in Chinese characters: "Respect the dead as if they are still present".
Here in Pine Creek the gravestones are not only engraved with the person's name and the year they died, but the Chinese province and village from which they hailed. But according to Eddie there aren't any bones in the cemetery. "You know how the Chinese would bury [the dead] there and they would exhume the bones and take them back to China?"
"I think that's probably how they smuggled the gold back," says Eddie. "Smuggle the gold back in the jars with the bones."
In Pine Creek’s "Chinatown" all that remains is the concrete foundation of a small temple (“joss house”) and a remarkably well-preserved pig oven. Eddie says the oven was cemented together with mortar, made by crushing up the termite mounds that are so ubiquitous here in the Top End. Inside, when immigrants would gather for a Chinese New Year or Mid Autumn Festival, a trussed pig – marinated in garlic, ginger, and soy sauce – would be roasted for several hours until oily beads of fat dripped from its crispy skin.
EVIDENCE of Chinese presence is all around Australia. I've driven over many Chinaman Creeks, where in colonial times Chinese people lived nearby or ran market gardens.
At Cooktown’s Saturday markets I come across a man selling plastic binders full of antique Chinese coins. Up here retirees scan the beaches with metal detectors, unearthing peanut-sized gold nuggets, lost jewellery, and archaeological knick-knacks. For a few dollars I buy a late-1700s Qing Dynasty coin, made of iron with a square cut out.
When I hear the word "segregation" I think immediately of the United States or South Africa – of "whites-only" drinking taps and designated bus seats. But Australia, too, had a locally grown strain of segregation, with colour bars in hospital wards, movie theatres, pubs, swimming pools, and entire sections of town.
In the case of the Chinese it could sometimes be hard to pinpoint just how much of this can be attributed to their own clannishness, but according to historian Glenice Yee in Through Chinese Eyes these bald facts remain: During colonial times the Chinese were not permitted to join unions or work in the public service, and were denied membership to elite social and sporting groups.
The Chinese did not waver in the face of such discrimination. Instead, in a land they viewed as strange and savage, they vowed to exploit whatever opportunity that came their way.
The Europeans regarded the Chinese as mere "opportunists and sojourners", Yee writes. The British Consular Service’s Dundas Crawford described coolies – or “pigs”, as they were also known – arriving in Cooktown in 1877 thus: “They pass through the town in batches of six to 10 … each coolie carrying his own bamboo pole brought from China ... never expressing surprise or any other emotion, never mixing together, and never stopping.”
A member of Queensland's Legislative Council, William Henry Yaldwyn, condemned the Chinese as a "parasite" at the root of the state's "young and vigorous forest tree".
As that oriental worker colony ballooned tenfold, so did the unease. Objections included the rising cost of living; their inability to speak English; their willingness to work for low wages and live frugally; and the feeling too much money was being sent back to China.
A member of Queensland's Legislative Council, William Henry Yaldwyn, condemned the Chinese as a "parasite" at the root of the state's "young and vigorous forest tree".
Such literary knifings were normal and make it clear to me that, well, they simply didn't like us.
The Chinese showed little emotion, which aroused suspicion. They were tirelessly obedient and unsettling in their uniformity. They were hardworking, stoic, and dependable, and while they were admired for their industry and ingenuity in business, they were not a race of people you could ever really like.
The warm welcome formerly issued by the colonies for cheap Chinese labour had turned ice-cold.
Several states introduced harsh anti-Chinese taxes and legislation, and placed heavy duties on rice. Anti-Chinese leagues were formed in Queensland towns including Croydon, and occasionally riots and mob violence broke out.
WITH federation in 1901 came the confidence to create, once and for all, an Australia populated by good, Anglo-Celtic stock ("a snow white Australia, if you will. Let it be pure and spotless," suggested one Labor Party member), free of Pacific Islanders, "Orientals", and blackfellas. In the words of writer Timothy Kendall, "Federation sought to indigenise whiteness".
"It is not the bad qualities, but the good qualities of these alien races that make them so dangerous to us. It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance and low standard of living that make them such competitors."
As immigrants, the Chinese have been complicit with whitefellas insofar as they are people living on lands without rightful consent. Yet during colonial times Chinese Australians were somewhat bonded to Indigenous Australians by their mutual subjugation to a ruling racial class, and policies that were cruel, humiliating, and stained with violence.
The centerpiece of the White Australia Policy was the Commonwealth Immigration Act. Attorney general and future prime minister Alfred Deakin said of the Japanese and Chinese nationals the act would help to keep out: "It is not the bad qualities, but the good qualities of these alien races that make them so dangerous to us. It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance and low standard of living that make them such competitors."
But the act that eventually passed took a more subtle approach, mindful of the potential of offending British subjects and allies. It gave the government the right to deny entry to any "prohibited immigrant”. The Chinese stopped arriving in towns such as Pine Creek.
One evening I have dinner with the three surviving Pine Creek Chinese Australians: Eddie, his daughter Amanda, and her son Blaise. Amanda says Blaise is planning to study at a university in Brisbane and that his siblings already live there. They doubt he'll return to Pine Creek to live.
THE Chinese often had more success than the Europeans in working with the wet and dry extremes of Australia's tropical north, turning scrub into flowering gardens. They were often a town's chief provider of fruit and vegetables.
At Croydon's Visitor Centre a display quotes a 1904 newspaper. It states that while Europeans were inclined to "cultivate a large area and wait for rain", the secret of Chinese success was to only cultivate what could be watered with hand-carried buckets.
How many European-Australians had to put aside their racial prejudices when the larder cupboard was empty and along came a Chinese seller pushing a cart filled to the brim with eggs, mandarins, bananas, potatoes, and corn?
Resistance seemed nigh-on impossible, as the independent MP for Capricornia, Alexander Paterson, discovered, telling the parliament in 1901 his own horror story of coming home to find a Chinaman standing at the back gate with his vegetable cart.
He chastised those in his house responsible, only to be told: "It is all very well for you to talk in that strain, but we live six miles [10km] from town, and how on Earth we are to get vegetables from anyone excepting a Chinaman I cannot tell."
Paterson insisted their business be transferred to a European, and a German seller was found. It was an arrangement Paterson was "perfectly satisfied" with, and he only found out later that the German bought his vegetables from a Chinaman.
New generations of first- and second-born Chinese Australians assimilated, trading the Manchu Queue hairstyle for short back and sides.
Slowly, Chinese businesses in Darwin began to move outside of their ethnic ghetto and into the "white" areas of town. New generations of Chinese Australians assimilated, trading the Manchu Queue hairstyle for short back and sides; eschewing comfortable Chinese dress for heavy khaki pants and laced boots; speaking in English.
Streets were being named after prominent Chinese Australians: Visit Darwin and you might drive down Lorna Lim Terrace, Alec Fong Lim Drive, Yuen Place, or Cheong Crescent, named after Ah Toy's grandfather Cheong Ah Yu.
In 1966, the first Chinese-Australian mayor was elected in Darwin: the much-loved Harry Chan. He died after just three years in office, but his bust still stands in Northern Territory's Parliament House. The current lord mayor is Chinese-Australian Katrina Fong Lim, whose father also served in the role.
THE social, political, and legal discrimination against the Chinese and other non-European-Australians continued to dissipate until 1973, when the final shovel of dirt was patted on to the grave of the White Australia Policy and the seeds of a policy of multiculturalism planted in its place.
It was the same year my sweet, pretty, 17-year-old mother, clutching one large suitcase, landed on a Melbourne tarmac after an eight-hour flight from Malaysia. I was born 10 years later.
As a nation, we continue to live with the ramifications of the White Australia Policy. The overwhelming majority of Australians claim some European ancestry and this impacts the language we speak and the food we eat, our government policies, legal system and cultural institutions.
But one thing is clear: The policy failed to make the country completely "white". Chinese Australians have been living here for a very long time. No, we didn't come out on the First Fleet, but the first Chinese settler in Australia is believed to be Guangzhou man Mak Sai Ying (also known as John Shying) in 1818, just 30 years after.
And if you were to sketch a portrait of the "Australian Pioneer", it would just as likely be a Chinese man in a straw coolie hat as it would be a European man in an Akubra slouch hat.