Adaptation and Organization: The History and Heritage of the Chinese in the Riverina and Western New South Wales, Australia

By McGowan, Barry | Chinese America: History and Perspectives, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

Adaptation and Organization: The History and Heritage of the Chinese in the Riverina and Western New South Wales, Australia


McGowan, Barry, Chinese America: History and Perspectives


(Original Title: Adaptation and Organization: The History and Heritage of the Chinese in Western New South Wales, Australia)

The most significant study of the rural Chinese in Australia is Cathie May's Topsawyers: The Chinese in Cairns, 1870 to 1920, published in 1986. Likewise, the most important American study is Sucheng Chan's This Bitter Sweet Soil. The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860-1910, also published in 1986. (1) In Australia, later studies have included work by Rod Lancashire, Maxine Darnell, and Warwick Frost. Lancashire has written on the Chinese in the vineyards of northeast Victoria, Darnell has discussed the use of indentured Chinese laborers in New South Wales prior to and immediately following the gold rushes, and Frost has provided a critique of past and present studies of Chinese farming in Australia. Frost remarked that the broadest agricultural histories made no mention of any Chinese contribution at all. Australian historian Ian Jack has also commented upon a similar neglect in the area of historical archaeology. (2)

More recently in 2004, Janis Wilton wrote a very well-illustrated and well-researched account of the material culture and archival evidence for the Chinese in regional rural New South Wales, and two compendiums of Chinese-Australian studies were published. (3) The focus of the latter two publications was strongly oriented toward urban and goldfield studies, but some contributions included accounts of Chinese market gardening activities in Australia. A feature of all three publications was the departure by most authors from the now well-trodden paths of victimization, discrimination, and violence on the goldfields toward a more nuanced view of the Chinese in Australia, with an emphasis on agency and participation. (4) A heritage study of the Chinese in central-west New South Wales has a publication date of 2006.

My objective is to discuss the significance of Chinese migration and settlement in the Riverina and western New South Wales (Figures 1 and 2) and to draw comparisons with California and some other regions in Australia. There is an important caveat to the Californian comparison. Chan's work focuses almost exclusively on agricultural workers. The main farming industries in the Riverina and western New South Wales (NSW) at the turn of the nineteenth century were pastoralism (sheep farming) and wheat farming. My discussion focuses on the Chinese involvement in land clearing and in ancillary activities such as market gardening and the heritage and technological significance of the gardens. Large-scale irrigation industries were to become increasingly important in the Riverina in the early twentieth century and beyond, but by then the Chinese population had fallen significantly The role of the Chinese in these industries is still under review, but it was clearly nowhere as significant as in California. There are now very few descendants of the Chinese left in the region. Many of the towns in which they lived have succumbed to the passage of time and today are not even names on a map. It is in this context that the physical evidence is significant.

[FIGURES 1-2 OMITTED]

STATISTICS

First, the statistical evidence for the Chinese in rural and regional Australia must be reviewed. By the time of Australian Federation in 1901, the Chinese experience in the two most populous colonies/states, Victoria and NSW, was still predominantly rural and regional. In the third largest colony/state, Queensland, it was emphatically so. Statistics on occupations are equally illustrative and emphasize strongly the shift over time from gold mining to rural, pastoral, and other activities. By 1901, the percentage of Chinese in Victoria and NSW who were working in market gardening was far higher than in gold and tin mining. (5) The numbers involved in pastoral work were much smaller by comparison, but this under-enumeration can be attributed partly to the dual occupation status of many Chinese and deficiencies in the Census recordings. …

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