Wild Cathay Boys: Chinese Bushrangers in Australian History and Literature

By Noonan, Rodney | Journal of Australian Studies, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Wild Cathay Boys: Chinese Bushrangers in Australian History and Literature


Noonan, Rodney, Journal of Australian Studies


This essay analyses the representation of Chinese bushrangers in Australian history and literature, and explores the extent to which their construction reflects public debate, particularly in reference to Australian attitudes towards Asia. Central to my discussion are the historical figure Sam Poo and his fictional counterpart Lam Yut Soon. Sam Poo was a minor bushranger who committed a series of robberies on the goldfields near Mudgee in 1865. He achieved notoriety when he fatally shot a local police constable, and then, two weeks later, engaged in a frenzied gun battle with police troopers in an unsuccessful bid to avoid capture. Lam Yut Soon is the hooded bushranger whose heroic deeds are attributed to his handsome Irish-Catholic partner in David Martin's novel The Hero of Too (1965). While depictions of both Poo and Lam need to be understood in the context of Australia's changing relationship with Asia, they should also be measured against the Anglo tradition of the outlaw hero and its specific manifestation in the Australian consciousness.

In his study of the outlaw tradition in Australia, Britain and the United States, Graham Seal has identified ten motifs commonly found in historic and folkloric representations of the outlaw hero: he is simultaneously a friend of the poor, oppressed, forced into outlawry, brave, generous, courteous, disinclined to indulge in unjustified violence, a trickster, betrayed, and immortal in some way.(1) Although gender is not featured in this list, it is an overriding condition of the legend that the outlaw hero in the Anglophone tradition be male.(2) Several of these points require further elaboration, especially those that relate to Poo or Lam. Bravery is essential at the time of death and, ideally, the bushranger should go down with guns blazing in a defiant last stand. If captured, he should be hanged after uttering some resonant last words. Violence should never be gratuitous or premeditated; it is justifiable in self-defence but not under other circumstances. Courtesy is a legacy of the image of the gentleman robber in romantic fiction and almost always takes the form of chivalry.

Most significant of all is the notion of oppression. In his chapter on bushranging in The Australian Legend, Russel Ward links popular support for the bushrangers with a shared sense of socio-economic oppression.(3) However, the bushrangers and support figures he cites are all men of English or Irish heritage -- in other words, they are drawn from the dominant social order. And yet members of this same group were themselves persecuting the Chinese on the goldfields. Although interrogating different forms of oppression falls outside the scope of this discussion, it should be noted that the image of the white male bushranger that has currency today glosses inconsistencies between levels of social privilege and experiences of oppression. If we accept bushranging as a response to oppression, then we must recognise the status of bushrangers who did not belong to the dominant social order and were therefore doubly marginalised, whether they were female, Jewish, Aboriginal or, in the case of Sam Poo and Lam Yut Soon, Chinese.

During his lifetime, newspapers exhibited little interest in Poo's Chineseness. His crimes, capture, trials and hanging were framed by the law and order debate dominating social and political discussions at the time. Foremost among contentious issues was the introduction of the Felons Apprehension Act (1865), which raised questions concerning the extent to which civil liberties should be suspended to restore social stability.(4) Poo was incorporated into this debate in media reports and immediately linked in the public imagination with the wider bushranging outbreak -specifically by Ben Hall's gang who had killed a police trooper two weeks before Poo shot Constable Ward.(5) In all the reports, Poo was repeatedly depicted as a threat to law and order, and, in fact, the single overt reference to his Chineseness was framed with the bushranging debate in mind. …

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