Academic journal article Hecate

Across the Threshold: White Women and Chinese Hawkers in the White Colonial Imaginary

Academic journal article Hecate

Across the Threshold: White Women and Chinese Hawkers in the White Colonial Imaginary

Article excerpt

One of the best-known images of the Chinese in colonial Australia was created by Livingstone Hopkins (Hop), the Bulletin's chief cartoonist from 1883 to 1913, and it captured White Australia's image of the life of the Chinese man in the colonies. The drawing, from 1886, shows a lone Chinese hawker walking through the Rocks in Sydney. Dressed in typical Australian workingman's clothes, balancing baskets laden with goods on a pole over his shoulder, he was representative of the 'typical' Chinese man in Australia. We cannot see his face, but we know he is Chinese from his baskets and his isolation--he is alone, plying his trade without companion or friend. (1)

The Chinese population in colonial Australia was primarily male. Few Chinese women accompanied their men to the 'New Gold Mountain' in their pursuit of gold and work, and typically it was thought that Chinese men lived an isolated and lonely life, like Hop's hawker in the Rocks, or that they 'stuck together' and had only limited interaction with White colonists. If we look deeper, however, we see that Chinese men were interacting and mixing with the wider population in their work and social lives. Hop's lonely hawker went into the White community every day, selling his wares door-to-door, meeting and communicating with his White customers, many of them women. He might even have gone home at night to a wife, an Australian woman perhaps, and their children.

This paper explores representations of the relationships between Chinese hawkers and their White female customers in colonial Australia. It has emerged from a wider study examining mixed Chinese-White families in New South Wales in the colonial period, (2) and in particular the question of how White women met and formed relationships--business, platonic or sexual--with Chinese men. A significant number of accounts and representations of interactions between Chinese men and White women that I found in the colonial papers were of hawkers and their customers, suggesting that this was one of the primary ways Chinese men and White women encountered each other. The representations also provide a window on how interactions across racial and gender boundaries were perceived by White male colonists.


Anne McClintock has written that the Victorian middle class was preoccupied with boundaries--indeed, was paranoid about boundary order. Central to this was the fear of contagion (blood contiguity, ambiguity and metissage) which threatened 'white male and imperial potency'. Sexual surveillance was integral to the maintenance of social order, particularly in the colonies:

The politics of contagion justified a politics of exclusion and gave social sanction to the middle class fixation with boundary sanitation, in particular the sanitation of sexual boundaries. Body boundaries were felt to be dangerously permeable and demanding continual purification, so that sexuality, in particular women's sexuality, was cordoned off as the central transmitter of racial and hence cultural contagion. (3)

In colonial Australia, both Chinese men and White women were groups whose social space was tightly controlled by such boundaries.

Legal, social and community demarcation lines created by White Australians clearly excluded Chinese from a place within the imagined Australian community. Chinese were excluded and discriminated against by colonial anti-Chinese legislation and then by the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, the backbone of the White Australia Policy. In New South Wales after 1888 they were no longer able to be naturalised, and Chinese workers were excluded from workingmen's unions and most of them from the political process. It was only the wealthy, the Westernised, or the converted Christians who were allowed a provisional place in White society. The Chinese were widely vilified by racist White Australians. Chinese men were accused of gross 'immorality' (homosexuality, paedophilia, fornication, seduction), opiumaddiction, and a large number of violations of business and work practices. …

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