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The Chinese in Australia

Where did many of the Chinese come from?

View Forgotten Faces: Chinese and the Law (Canton) in a larger map

What was it like for the Chinese on the goldfields?

Detail from an image from the 'Australasian Sketcher', (vol. 8 no. 99, 5 June 1880) depicting lfe on board ship to the goldfields. The extravagant Chinese shown here are contrasted to sober Europeans elsewhere in the picture.

Detail from an image from the ‘Australasian Sketcher’, (vol. 8 no. 99, 5 June 1880) depicting life on board ship to the goldfields. The extravagant Chinese shown here are contrasted to sober Europeans elsewhere in the picture.

The ‘Golden Age’ in Australian history brought thousands of Chinese gold-seekers from the thirteen counties near Canton to the goldfields. The Chinese named them ‘Tsin Chin Shan’ meaning the Land of the New Gold Mountain.

These Chinese people were generally described as being sober, peace-loving, kindly, industrious and careful with their money and possessions. A considerable number of them however acquired what were seen as bad habits and tastes, such as opium smoking and gambling, and many practised idol and ancestor worship.

They brought with them a blend of beliefs including ideas from Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. As a result, many joss-houses or temples were built by immigrant Chinese on the goldfields and in Melbourne at this time.

Like other nationalities, small numbers of Chinese began to arrive in Victoria in 1853. However, unlike others, from the middle of 1854 they came in large organised groups who generally did not mix with the mining population. They stayed in their own separate camps. Usually the Chinese did not join a major rush or establish themselves on a currently popular mining area. Instead they worked slowly and patiently through the mullock heaps of tailings (left over rock and earth from mines) already washed out by the Europeans. The returns were not great, but they appear to have been steady.

View Forgotten Faces: Chinese and the Law (Australia) in a larger map

In the early days of Chinese settlement in Victoria the centre of the Chinese community was on the goldfields, particularly Avoca, Creswick, Castlemaine, Ballarat, Maryborough, Beechworth and Bendigo (previously called Sandhurst). Later many Chinese moved to Melbourne although Chinese communities still exist in some of these towns and cities today. If you visit these places you can often find a Chinese section in the local cemetery.

Most of the early Chinese immigrants wanted to return to the land of their ancestors and later many did. Others were forced to return because of the various immigration policies operating during this period. For example, entry taxes and the tonnage system on Chinese immigrants slowed the inflow of Chinese to Australia especially later in the nineteenth century.

The Chinese practice of sending gold back to China indicated their intention of eventually returning home. However, it also created dissatisfaction and jealousy among the European diggers. In 1857, 205,464 ounces of gold were shipped to Canton. Although the Chinese kept to themselves and were generally hard-working and law-abiding, their presence caused resentment amongst the Europeans, especially as Chinese numbers increased. By the middle of 1854 there were 4,000 Chinese immigrants on the Australian goldfields, this increased to 10,000 early in 1855 and 17,000 by the middle of the year.

The European objections to the Chinese were both racist and economic.The criticisms included:
  • the Chinese muddied water that was needed for washing gold;
  • they went through the left over mining rubble or tailings which Europeans needed to fall back upon in times of   hardship;
  • suspicion of Chinese dress, customs, religion and their vices, both real and imagined;
  • like the Aborigines, the Chinese were considered racially inferior, for the Europeans confused cultural differences with their own ideas of superiority. This was a very important point of view at this time.

Racial hostility led to riots on the Buckland goldfields in Victoria in 1857, at Lambing Flat in New South Wales in 1861 and the Palmer goldfields in Queensland in 1877.

Resentment of the Chinese and periodic attacks upon them placed pressure upon governments to restrict Chinese entry.

Early attempts to restrict the entry of the Chinese

The idea of a White Australia can be traced back to 1841 when the New South Wales Immigration Committee opposed the introduction of coolie labour by pastoralists who needed cheap labour. The Committee believed it would lower the living standards of white men.

The foundations of the White Australia Policy were laid on the goldfields where the arrival of many Chinese diggers caused alarm, fear, mistrust, and misunderstanding in the European mining community. Chinese immigration to the gold-fields played an important part in developing a fear of the ‘yellow hordes’ which was an important part of the Australian outlook for many decades to come.

On 7 July 1854 in the Legislative Council of New South Wales, Henry Parkes moved that the introduction of a coloured or an inferior race would have bad results. He argued that labour would be degraded, not only before the eyes of the working classes of Europe, but also amongst Australians. The morals of society would be seriously endangered. But Parkes was unable to suggest how to avoid these evils.

In June 1855, the Legislative Council of Victoria imposed an entry tax on all Chinese coming to Victoria. The master of a ship was required to pay a poll-tax of £10 for every Chinese immigrant on his ship. In addition each ship was limited to carrying one Chinese immigrant for each ten tons of their registered tonnage. The legislation also established an apartheid-like protectorate system. All Chinese would have to register, live within designated areas on the goldfields and pay an annual residence tax of £1. The protectorates were never fully implemented. Where they were introduced, they appear to have benefited the Chinese in one unplanned way at least. They reduced violence against them in those areas.

The entry tax succeeded in slowing the arrival of Chinese immigrants into Victoria by sea. However, the masters of ships discovered that the way around the Act was to land the Chinese at Port Adelaide and Robe in South Australia. From there they made their way overland to the Victorian goldfields traveling in stages of about 32 kilometres a day. The journey to the Bendigo goldfields from Adelaide (800 kilometres) would have taken approximately 25 days, from Robe (416 kilometres) approximately 13 days. Some in Adelaide thought that this would lead to trouble. They thought that joss houses would be built near Christian churches, which would be filled by crowds of worshippers, bowing before idols of wood and stone. Such behaviour, they argued, would be repulsive to Christians and would affect children’s minds.

By the second half of 1855 travelers on the overland route from Adelaide via Encounter Bay to the goldfields of Ballarat, Bendigo or the Ovens Valley saw processions of six hundred to seven hundred men moving ‘at the Chinaman’s trot’. They usually walked in single file, each one carrying a pole and two baskets over his shoulders, talking to his mate in front in a sing-song tone. On their heads they had circular hats, like the top of a haystack, nearly a yard in diameter. The Europeans noticed that the young Chinese always respected their parents and older people. For example, the young did not sit down until the older men said they could.

In 1857 nearly eleven thousand Chinese walked from Robe to the Victorian goldfields. Between 1856 and 1858, 16,500 Chinese landed at Robe. By 1857 there were 23,623 Chinese on the goldfields of Victoria, and a total of 25,424 in the colony at large. The Aborigines of the south east now had to cope with another invader of their land.

Although in 1857 the South Australian government passed similar entry restrictions to the Victorian legislation, the Chinese were still able to come in through New South Wales. During 1859 the number of Chinese in Victoria passed 40,000 and made up nearly 20 per cent of the adult males in the colony.

Alarmed by the flood of Chinese, on 4 June 1857 John Pascoe Fawkner asked the Legislative Council of Victoria to appoint a select committee to prepare a bill to control the number of Chinese settling in the colony. Fawkner argued that he wanted to prevent the goldfields of Australia from becoming the property of the Emperor of China and of the Mongolian hordes of Asia. Fawkner had been told the Chinese had been teaching the youth of Victoria to smoke opium, and had been chasing girls as young as ten years of age on the goldfields. Other moralisers fanned the flames of prejudice. Rumours flew around Melbourne that simple-minded men were shivering and quaking at the prospect of being outnumbered in the not too distant future by hordes of yellow men!

There had been moderate voices too. Caroline Chisholm, who in the decade before the discovery of gold had been described as a ‘second Moses in bonnet and shawl’, reminded her contemporaries that there would be no rest until man was recognised as man, without distinction of ‘colour or clime’. If Europeans went on humiliating and insulting the Chinese, she argued, one day there would be a ‘sweeping calamity’.

The Chinese also contributed to this plea to be calm and reasonable. In a petition to the ‘Honourable the Speaker and Members of the Legislative Assembly sitting on Chinese business’ in 1857, they told how glad they had been to come to the goldfields. They had heard the English were good and kind to everybody. Now they had heard the Assembly was going to put a tax of £1 a month on them, and they were so sorry they did not know what to do. Digging was very difficult, and it was hard to earn a living. If they paid £1 a month, they argued, they could not get enough gold to buy food to eat. They asked the members not to proceed with their proposal.

Nothing could calm the madness in the diggers. At the Buckland River in North East Victoria early in July 1857 riots followed a rumour about the unnatural behaviour of a Chinese man. The rumour was seen as final proof that the Chinese were monsters in human shape, who practised abominations and made lewd gestures towards women and children.

On 4 July 1857, a meeting was summoned at the Buckland where the leaders of the meeting called on their fellow diggers to take the law into their own hands and drive the Chinese out of the Australian bush. Men on horseback armed with bludgeons and whips tore at the Chinese. Some 500 tents and stores were destroyed. The Chinese population, estimated at 2400, were all driven off the Buckland. If it were not for armed English miners who protected the Chinese from the mob as they rushed a single log that bridged the river, many might have died.

Twelve men were arrested. Four received sentences of 9 months gaol, one for rioting, the others for unlawful assembly. No charges of theft were proven.

The evidence of the European wife of Ah Leen, who had been badly beaten by the mob, was not believed on the grounds that any white woman who would marry a Chinese showed a character of poor morals and people would not place any confidence in her.

The anti-Chinese sentiment continued. In Beechworth the white diggers formed an Anti-Chinese League in 1857. Their aim was to get the Chinese expelled from the colony. The League disowned the rowdy, ruffians who had used brute physical force on the Buckland. Their first objective was to stop the influx of the Chinese into the colony. Petition after petition was submitted to the Legislative Assembly but without success.

Scaremongers also spread stories that the time was not far distant when the Chinese would outnumber the British and the Germans in South Australia. Some also argued that South Australia had a moral obligation to the well-being of the inhabitants of Victoria. The legislators finally acted. They argued that it was absolutely necessary to restrict Chinese entry into the country by legal means. Otherwise brutal warfare might rage and society would be shaken to its foundations. To preserve the European predominance over their territory, the South Australian government passed through Parliament an act, modeled on the Victorian act. Within months the streets of Robe which had streamed with Chinese were almost deserted.

(Adapted from Chinese and the Law by Brian Barrow Deputy Chief Magistrate, 2001. Published by The Golden Dragon Museum, Bridge Street, Bendigo.)

To find  out more about the Chinese on the goldfields  visit There are notes for primary and secondary students on the Sovereign Hill website. You may find this information useful in trying to understand later attitudes towards the Chinese prisoners and their crimes as introduced in this exhibition and website.



VPRS 1189 P0 Unit 482

In this petition from Melbourne Chinese residents you can see the name of John Alloo, well-known as an interpreter and as an early restaurateur in Ballarat.

Petitions are written documents that usually ask for a change in a law. If you are presenting a petition in Australia to a council or Parliament then it must be done in a particular way. At the top of the page or at the beginning must be clearly stated what the petition is about. People usually print their names, write their home address, and then sign it. The various pages are put together to form the petition. Some petitions might just have a few names, others will have tens of thousands of names. It is then either posted or given to the appropriate authority.

Governments and councils and others take petitions seriously. They can show that people’s attitudes towards something are changing or that a large number of people are dissatisfied with the way their government is acting.




How did societies help the Chinese in a new land?

Photograph of James Ah Oun, captioned '7911, Ah Wan, March 1898', from VPRS 515/P unit 44, folio 258

James Ah Oun

Arriving in a new land with different customs, language, dress, attitudes to work and dress is difficult for all immigrants. To help them adjust to living in a new land, most Chinese miners joined a society of people from their home districts in China. These societies set rigid rules for them to live by and also helped sick miners. The best known one was the See Yup Society. Membership of the See Yup Society cost 25 shillings per year (the average weekly wage in 1855) plus one shilling per month. The society provided friendship, protection and advice to the new arrivals. The society helped new members by giving them a list of rules to help them settle in quickly and peacefully. They advised them to wear European clothes to avoid offending Europeans with their bare legs. They were to abide by European mining methods and to remain calm and peaceful. If they broke the rules, society officials flogged them.

It is quite likely that some of the men who were old and found themselves in prison did not belong to one of these societies and were therefore not looked after in their old age by a society. They were forced to steal as they had no family or other assistance. James Ah Oun is one such man.

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