Archaeology of the Chinese Fishing Industry in Colonial Victoria

Article excerpt

Archaeology of the Chinese fishing industry in colonial Victoria

By Alister M. Bowen

Studies in Australasian Historical Archaeology 3.

Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2012

ISBN 9781920899813 (pb). Pp. xiv + 177. AUD 40.

Alister Bowen uses historical archaeological methods to investigate overseas Chinese involvement in Australia's colonial fishing industry, specifically in Victoria. This immigrant industry had previously been unexplored. By analysing the material culture of Victorian Chinese fish-curing sites, along with historical documents such as government literature, newspaper reports, written histories, diaries and oral histories, Bowen provides a description of Chinese fishing activities at a "micro-community level". Historical archaeology works best at the smallest scale, and this very narrow view enables the identification of Chinese social and economic organisation as well as cross-cultural interactions. The significance of this work is that it reveals an unknown element of Australia's colonial past and presents the importance of Chinese involvement in the fishing industry.

Beginning in the 1850s, fish processed at the Chinese fish-curing facilities were shipped to Chinese gold miners in colonial Australia. According to Bowen, the population of Chinese miners in 1861 was 38000, a large and hungry market. While he briefly mentions the export of marine products to China, perhaps deeper research could have been conducted to ascertain the amount of marine products shipped there. It is possible that Chinese fishermen in Australia were engaged in global food exports. For example, in the United States during the same period, Chinese abalone fishermen shipped thousands of tons of cured abalone to a ready market in China.

Cross-cultural interactions and Chinese social structure are examined. The demand for dried fish was so great that Chinese fisher-curers purchased fish from European fishing stations, thereby greatly increasing revenues for both parties. Chinese settlers are frequently portrayed as clannish, with limited contact with the host community. Bowen's description of these mutually beneficial exchanges provides a new and unique perspective to the overseas Chinese experience. …