Life for Chinese labourers in Australia before the 1850s. Image from National Museum of Australia 

The history of Chinese Australians provides a unique chapter in the history of Australia. The earliest contact with Australia appears of searching the Australian coastline for sandalwood and sea cucumbers. During Australian Gold Rush, large number of Australians made their way to Australia.

Before the 1850s, Chinese labourers faced harsh conditions and physical hardship in Australia. While in Australia, Chinese labourers would walk along a winding country road in search of work and cleared bushland for farming.

According to 2011 census Chinese ancestry make up four percent of Australian population. Mak Sai Ying is the earliest known Chinese immigrant to arrive in Sydney.

Chinese settlement plays an important part in the unique heritage of New South Wales. Themes which cross our mind when we talk about the Chinese settlement include:

  • Migration: cultural and social background from the villages of South China
  • Social Institutions and Commerce: organisation, support and business relations of Chinese people
  • Law, order and labour: White Australia Policy and Chinese people’s response role in shaping the pattern of Chinese settlement
  • Agriculture and Mining: significant contribution of Chinese people
  • Leisure: two things associated with Chinese – opium and gambling
  • Persons: diversity of lives led by Chinese people

Ships of First Fleet were dropping off convicts in Australia and sailing to China to pick up goods to take it to Britain. Early musters and census shows Chinese migration was a great solution to the labour shortage in New South Wales. Records show that about 18 Chinese settlers had immigrated to Australia before 1848.

The earliest known Chinese immigrant to arrive in Parramatta is reported to have been Mak Sai Ying. Born in Guangzhou (Canton) in 1798, he arrived as a free settler in New South Wales in 1818 and purchased land at Parramatta. In 1829 Mak Sai Ying (or John Shying as he later became known) was granted the licence for The Lion, a public house at Parramatta. He returned to China in 1832, but was back in Sydney five years later. Some of his children became furniture makers, and his descendants became cabinet-makers and undertakers in Sydney.

John Macarthur, a prominent landowner employed three Chinese workers including Mai Sai Ying on his properties in the 1820s. Chinese migrants came to Australia in small numbers in the early nineteenth century to work as cooks, labourers, market gardeners and cabinet makers.

The first group of Chinese labour who arrived in 1848 was 100 adults and 20 boys to work in various farms within New South Wales. With the discovery of gold in early 1851, Chinese immigration numbers increased to 17000 by 1855. By 1861 there was a group of 26 Chinese men settled in Parramatta, one of the largest groups of Chinese outside the goldfields. During the nineteenth century Chinese, South Sea Islanders and Indians were the main non-European groups to arrive in the Tweed. In 1861 Chinese made up three percent of the colonial population. This dropped to one percent by 1891, by which time gold had petered out and many Chinese miners had returned home.

In 1891, The Royal Commission presented a report to New South Wales Parliament about the Chinese gambling and opium smoking of Chinese persons living near St. George and market gardens in suburbs.

In 1901 the new Federal Parliament introduced the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 which initiated legislation shaped Australia’s immigration policy until World War II and resulted in a decline in the Chinese population and restrictions on Chinese entry to Australia. This White Australia Policy, aimed at excluding non-Europeans from Australia.

As per the reports in 1913 from Inspectors of Nuisances to the Town Clerk, most of the councils had an inspector who kept the log book of the reports made by the residents regarding the offensive smell, dilapidated buildings, illegal construction and living conditions of Chinese market gardeners.

The post-war migration program introduced by the Federal Government in 1945 brought a large influx of British and European migrants to boost Australia’s population and provide a workforce for industrial development. It was not until the 1960s that the White Australia Policy was finally dismantled and Asians once again began to be accepted as migrants.

The post-war period brought many Chinese people to Australia. During this period, “Chinese market gardener” image of Chinese people was replaced by “Chinese Cafes”.

Earliest arrivals 1788 to 1848: From the very beginning of the colony, links with China were established when several ships of the First Fleet, after dropping off their convict load, sailing for Canton to pick up goods for the 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’. 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. In 1818, Mak Sai Ying ( aka John Shying) arrived in Australia and after a period farming bought a land in Parramatta. John Macarthur employed three Chinese people on his properties in the 1820s.

Indentured Labour 1848 to 1853: Macarthur employed  Mai Sai Ying as carpenter. Increasing demand for labour welcomed a large numbers of Chinese people in Australia. After arriving as indentured labourers, they were working as shepherds and irrigation experts for private landowners and the Australian Agricultural Company.

Between 1848 and 1853, over 3,000 Chinese workers on contracts arrived via the Port of Sydney for employment in the New South Wales countryside. Very little is known of the habits of such men or their relations with other New South Wales residents except for those that appear in the records of the courts and 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 New South Wales. A Gulgong resident who died at age 105 in 1911 had been in New South Wales since 1841.

Gold Rushes 1853 to 1877: Large numbers of Chinese people were working on the Victorian goldfields and fewer on the smaller New South Wales fields in the mid 1850s.

From miners to artisans 1877 to 1901: The last gold rush in the eastern colonies of Australia occurred in 1873 in the far north of Queensland at the Palmer River and by 1877 there were 20,000 Chinese there. After the ending of this Queensland rush people either returned to China or moved to other states and began trying other ways of earning a living. People opened stores and became merchants and hawkers. Some Chinese people were operating fish curing industry in north and south of Sydney.

Domiciles 1901 to 1936: By this time, significant numbers of Chinese people were running stores within New South Wales. Chinese language newspapers were also been published in New South Wales.

War and Refugees 1936 to 1949

Cafes to Citizens 1949 to 1958: In the post-war period, cafes began to replace market gardens as the major source of employment and avenue for bringing in new migrants, both legal and illegal.

Re-migration & Multiculturalism 1958 to the present: The final death of the White Australia Policy saw new arrivals from the Chinese. Chinese language newspapers were once again published.

The practice of returning the bones of the dead to rest in the soil of their ancestors was fundamental in Chinese culture and played an important role in the bond with the village. The usual practice was to bury a body for several years then to collect the bones of a number people at once to be ‘returned to China’.

District societies played the dominant role in the return of bones. The return of bones to the actual villages was probably done through the Tung Wah Hospital based in Hong Kong, a role this institution played for Chinese people in many countries It is not known when the first societies were established in New South Wales but the Quang Sing Tong, which was in existence by 1877, was reported to be the oldest. By the 1890s there were at least 10 such societies in Sydney with memberships that reached throughout New South Wales.

Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney reported that 75% of burials in the ‘Old Chinese Section’ of Rookwood Cemetery were, ‘ returned to China’ – 1500 exhumations from 1875 to 1939.  After entire working life spend in New South Wales, returning the bones of the dead to rest in the soil of their ancestors was fundamental in Chinese culture and played an important role in the bond with the village. The last recorded exhumation from this section of the cemetery in 1962.

While the majority of Chinese people in New South Wales were not Christian and minority did convert to Christianity. The motivation for doing so seemed to have been intermarriage and the desire of non-Chinese wife.

Chinese people began to expand themselves into various occupations like fishing and the curing of fish, storekeeping, international trade, fruit and vegetable selling, hawking, drapery, cabinet-making, newspaper publishing, shipping and restaurants.

The first recorded Chinese store was in Campbell St, Sydney in 1858 but by the end of the 19th century, Sydney was the centre of a network of such stores spread throughout New South Wales. Generally the Sydney stores had links and partnerships with those in rural New South Wales.

In 1919, Chinese businessmen in the Eastern States were able to raise £30,000 to invest in China Steelworks.

The earliest Chinese Newspapers, the Chinese Australian Herald was established in 1894 by two Europeans and a Chinese person named Sun Johnson. The Chinese Republican News was founded in 1914 to support the new Republic of China, and the Chinese World News, founded in 1921.

Tobacco growing was an industry that appears to have been pioneered by Chinese farmers in New South Wales and by 1891 there were 464 growers in New South Wales and Victoria, a number that fell to 89 only 10 years later.

Gambling and the smoking of opium, considered the two great vices of Chinese men, were not only much indulged in by Europeans but opium was legal until the early 20th century and was an ample source of income for the New South Wales government.

Rich & Famous: Chinese people such as Arthur Chang opened the first café in Parramatta in 1950s called Arthur’s Café. Mei Quang Tart is well known because of their wealth. Mei Quong Tart had been brought up by a European family and was able to deal equally well with both European and Chinese people.

New South Wales has and continues to have a long and interesting Chinese heritage, from the tea drinking disapproved of by Bigge to the present day descendants of John Shying. This heritage is represented in buildings and items scattered throughout most regions of New South Wales.

Neera Sahni, Research Services Leader, City of Parramatta, Parramatta Heritage Centre, 2017


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