Earliest arrivals – 1788 to 1848
From the very beginning of the colony, links with China were established when several ships of the First Fleet, after dropping off their convict load, sailing for Canton to pick up goods for the return to England. The Bigge Report attributed the high level of tea drinking to ‘the existence of an intercourse with China from the foundation of the Colony …’ That the ships carrying such cargo had Chinese crew members is likely and that some of the crew and possibly passengers embarked at the port of Sydney is probable. Certainly by 1818, Mak Sai Ying or John Shying had arrived and after a period farming became, in 1829, the publican of The Lion in Parramatta. John Macarthur employed three Chinese people on his properties in the 1820s and the records may well have neglected others.
Indentured Labour – 1848 to 1853
Individuals such as Macarthur’s employees were part of the varied mix that was early Sydney Town. It was the increasing demand for labour after transportation ceased in the 1840s that led to much larger numbers of Chinese people arriving as indentured labourers to work as shepherds and irrigation experts for private landowners and the Australian Agricultural Company. These workers seemingly all came from Fujian province via the port then known as Amoy (Xiamen) and some may have been brought involuntarily as kidnapping or the ‘sale of pigs’ as it was called, was common.
Between 1848 and 1853, over 3,000 Chinese workers on contracts arrived via the Port of Sydney for employment in the NSW countryside. Resistance to this cheap labour occurred as soon as it arrived and like such protests later in the century was heavily mixed with racism. Little is known of the habits of such men or their relations with other NSW residents except for those that appear in the records of the courts and asylums. Some stayed for the term of their contracts and then left for home, but there is evidence that others spent the rest of their lives in NSW. A Gulgong resident who died at age 105 in 1911 had been in NSW since 1841 while in 1871 the ‘Keeper of Lunacy’ still required the Amoy dialect from his interpreters.
Gold Rushes – 1853 to 1877
Attempts at importing contracted labour ended with the discovery of gold as those contracted at minimal wages could and did simply head for the diggings. Large numbers of Chinese people were working on the Victorian goldfields and fewer on the smaller NSW fields in the mid 1850s, when major gold finds in NSW and the passing of more restrictive anti-Chinese legislation in Victoria resulted in thousands of miners moving across the border in 1859. Many more Chinese goldseekers came by ship through Twofold Bay and Sydney and onto the various diggings. Fish curing, stores and dormitories in places such as the Rocks, soon developed to support the miners on the fields as well as on their way to the diggings and to China. The presence of numerous Chinese on the diggings led to anti-Chinese agitation, including violent clashes such a those on Lambing Flat, the immediate result of which was the passing of an Act in 1861 designed to reduce the number of Chinese people entering the colony.
From miners to artisans – 1877 to 1901
The last gold rush in the eastern colonies of Australia occurred in 1873 in the far north of Queensland at the Palmer River and by 1877 there were 20,000 Chinese there. After the ending of this Queensland rush people either returned to China or dispersed, including a significant number coming into NSW either immediately or in subsequent years. This openness of the land borders and the rise in Chinese numbers after a period of decline again raised anti-Chinese fears in NSW resulting in restrictive Acts in 1881 and 1888.
Gold was always a risky endeavour and very soon after arrival Chinese people began trying other ways of earning a living. People opened stores and became merchants and hawkers, while a fishing and fish curing industry operating north and south of Sydney supplied dried fish in the 1860s and 1870s to Chinese people throughout NSW as well as Sydney and Melbourne. By the 1890s Chinese people were represented in a wide variety of occupations including scrub cutters, interpreters, cooks, tobacco farmers, market gardeners, cabinet-makers, storekeepers and drapers, though by this time the fishing industry seems to have disappeared, and at the same time Sydney’s proportion of the Chinese residents of NSW had steadily increased.
Domiciles & ABCs – 1901 to 1936
By Federation, Chinese people in NSW were a significant group, running numerous stores, an import trade, societies and several Chinese language newspapers. They were also part of an international community involved in political events in China such as sending delegates to a Peking Parliament or making donations at times of natural disaster. The 1888 restrictions had not had a great impact on total numbers and a continued inflow from Queensland mitigated even this. The passing of the Immigration Restriction Act in 1901, however, froze the Chinese communities of the late 19th century into a slow decline.
Continued discrimination, both legal and social, reduced the occupational range of Chinese people until market gardening, always a major occupation, became far and away the representative role of ‘John Chinaman’. It was as gardeners that most pre-1901 ‘domiciles’ visited their villages and established families throughout the first 30 years or so of the 20th century, relying on the minority of merchants to assist them to negotiate with the Immigration Restriction Act bureaucracy. Only the rise of a new generation of Australian-born Chinese people, combined with new migrants that the merchants and others sponsored, both legally and illegally, prevented the Chinese population of NSW disappearing entirely.
War & Refugees – 1936 to 1949
By the war period numbers had nevertheless fallen greatly and Australian-born people of Chinese background began to predominate over China-born people for the first time. Numbers increased rapidly again when refugees began to enter Australia as the result of Japan’s war in China and the Pacific. Some were Chinese crew members who refused to return to Japanese-held areas and others were residents of the many Pacific islands evacuated in the face of the Japanese advance. Still others included those with Australian birth who were able to leave Hong Kong and the villages on the approach of the Japanese. At the same time the anti-Japanese War helped inspire the development of organisations focused on China rather than the districts of origin and aimed at making Australia aware of the danger of Japan and the need to assist China.