Adaptation and organization: the history and heritage of the Chinese in the Riverina and western New South Wales, Australia.

Author:McGowan, Barry
Position:5A Paper

(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.



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.

In the Riverina and western NSW, several thousand Chinese men were employed in land clearing (scrub cutting and ringbarking), market gardening, and ancillary activities. The land was used for wheat growing and pastoral activities, in particular, sheep grazing. Some guidance to the number of Chinese people in the Riverina and Western NSW is provided by an 1883 report (subsequently referred to as the Brennan report) on Chinese camps prepared by Martin Brennan, the NSW sub-inspector of police, and Quong Tart, who was at that time NSW's leading Chinese entrepreneur and one of the colony's most respected citizens. Also important is an 1878 NSW Parliamentary paper on Chinese residents in country towns. (6)

In the Brennan report, the Chinese population in the five largest towns (Narrandera, Wagga Wagga, Deniliquin, Hay, and Albury) in the Riverina district was 869, which suggests that the total Chinese population in the Riverina and adjacent districts was well over 1,000. In the 1878 paper, there were a total of 1,100 residents in the Riverina and adjacent districts, of whom 571 were living in the five above-mentioned Riverina towns. (7) If it were assumed that the overall Chinese population increased at about the same rate as that for the five largest Riverina towns, there would have been a Chinese population in the Riverina and adjacent districts of about 1,600 in 1883.

But this is an understatement for the region as a whole, for by the mid to late 1880s, the scrub cutting and ringbarking frontier and the Chinese population moved sharply northwards. The catalyst was a boom in copper mining commencing in the early 1880s, followed by gold mining in the 1890s. Most of these new towns either did not exist at the time of the 1878 report or were excluded from the report. A comparison with the better-known Cairns District in North Queensland is useful. It had a peak population of about 2,550 at the time of Federation in 1901. (8) If the Chinese residents in the Riverina and western NSW towns excluded in the 1878 report were included, the total Chinese population would be comparable. These numbers may appear small by Californian measures, but in Australia they are significant and representative of an important and prolonged pattern of internal migration. In the early 1880s, in some towns, every second man was Chinese. Chan has made a similar point concerning the representation of the Chinese in the Californian town and country labor force. (9)


I turn now to the question of race relations. The most serious incident identified to date is a riot between the Chinese and Europeans in Hillston in 1895, on Chinese New Year's Day. On that day, a number of Europeans visited Chong Lee's market garden. They were well treated at Chong Lee's, but some of the more inebriated went into the garden and began pulling fruit from the trees. No notice was taken of the protestations of the Chinese, and a fight ensued. The Europeans were driven from the gardens, and both parties were joined by more of their compatriots and clashed on the bridge. About thirty Chinese and twenty Europeans were involved in the brawl. One Chinese man was killed and three severely wounded. Ten Europeans were brought to trial, but they were all acquitted of manslaughter. At a subsequent trial, one European was sentenced to two years imprisonment for starting the brawl, but one other culprit, possibly a "phantom" made up by the other defendants, was...

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