Chinese Whispers in New South Wales

By Wilton, Janis | History Today, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Chinese Whispers in New South Wales


Wilton, Janis, History Today


Janis Wilton records the stories of 19th century Chinese immigrants and their descendants, and explores their relationship with `White Australia'.

Australia's past and present is dotted and, at times, swamped by the expression of racist sentiments and by an ethnocentric fear of cultural difference. In the mid-1990s it is surfacing in the bigoted and ignorant statements of a small number of right-wing politicians whose foremost spokesperson has been Pauline Hanson, who in early 1996 became the newly elected federal parliament member for the seat of Oxley. (She was dubbed `the Oxley moron' by one local newspaper.) Their words plug in to a long tradition of racism in this country, one which the media delights in focusing on. It is also a tradition which historians over the past two to three decades have spent time and intellectual effort to dissect, analyse and explain.

More recently, there have been attempts to move beyond racism to examine the histories and contributions of Australia's indigenous peoples and ethnic `communities. This has entailed moving away from traditional documentary sources, government archives and newspapers to work from within indigenous and ethnic communities, with their participation, using recorded memories, family photographs and memorabilia, personal and business papers. In the light of this work, different perspectives and emphases are emerging that proclaim positive aspects of cultural diversity.

The history of the Chinese contribution to Australia provides a case study. First lured to the country to work as shepherds, cooks and farm labourers in the early part of the nineteenth century, the number of Chinese expanded rapidly with the discovery of gold from the 1850s. Their presence and success frightened other Australians. They were vilified for their work practices, living conditions, leisure pursuits and their potential for destroying the `purity' of white Australia. As one parochial newspaper editorial declared in 1857:

Without dwelling upon the injuries the

Chinese do to a gold field -- the peculiar

vices they introduce to the country -- the

dreaded, withering leprosy that in

instances has accompanied their path -- I

would protest against the introduction

of them from their being a race

having low mental and bodily powers

and half-savage habits, utterly unfit for

assimilating with a nation of such a

boasted degree of civilisation as our

own. And I would ask, will the idol-mongers

promote our Christianity? will

the almond-eyed yellow-skins improve

our race? will the habits and viciousness

of the Celestial empire advance

Australia? Not very likely ...

Such racist attitudes were sufficiently powerful to provide the basis for a bevy of later nineteenth-century colonial legislation directed at controlling the flow of Chinese into the country. This legislation found its ultimate expression in what became colloquially known as the `White Australia Policy'. Its cornerstone was the Immigration Restriction Act which was passed in 1901 as one of the first enactments of the newly federated nation. The intention of the Act was to limit, as much as possible, the immigration and settlement of non-Europeans in Australia. The device used was the arbitrary imposition on intending immigrants of a dictation test in any European language.

The result of the legislation combined with the drying up of gold and tin deposits and with the intention of many Chinese immigrants that they should ultimately return home, witnessed a dramatic fall in their number in Australia. Despite the pressures, some Chinese continued to settle, bringing with them customs and networks which shaped their lifestyles and their ability to negotiate the hostile legislation and attitudes which frequently confronted them. …

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