Chinese at the Australian Goldfields

At the time that news about the Australian goldrush reached China in 1853, the country had been suffering from years of war and famine. In order to raise money for the fare to Australia, a man would take a loan from a local trader, agreeing to make regular repayments. His wife and children stayed behind, and worked for the trader if the man was unable to repay the money he had borrowed. To reach Melbourne, it was a journey of several months by ship in cramped conditions.

A village in China

When the Chinese arrived at the goldfields, they stayed together in large teams with a head man in charge. Groups were allocated duties such as mining, cooking, or growing vegetables for the team. They worked hard and lived simply, especially as they sent money home to feed their families and repay their fare. Much of the alluvial gold was running out and the Chinese miners re-worked claims that had been abandoned and collected gold that had been missed. They preferred not to go deep underground for fear of offending the mountain gods. They also saw other opportunities to make money, and worked at other jobs around the diggings, such as washing clothes, selling vegetables they'd grown, selling cooked food or herbal medicines and so on.

There was ignorance about Chinese customs and culture, and the Chinese seemed very strange and different to the European diggers. The people at the diggings were suspicious of them and resentful of their methods of mining . The appearance of the Chinese, with their pigtails and unfamiliar clothes, their habit of going barefoot and of carrying loads balanced from two bamboo poles, their religion, all made them the target of a great deal of racism and prejudice. The Chinese were generally very hardworking and honest, and were quiet and law abiding. Local Chinese societies came into being, to advise newly arrived Chinese about how to fit in.

In an attempt to limit the number of Chinese at the goldfields, a law was passed in 1885 that any Chinese person entering Victoria would pay ten pounds tax, and one pound for a protection fee, the right to mine and live in the colony. No one entering Victoria from any other country had to pay this tax. However, this did not reduce the numbers of Chinese. They landed in South Australia and walked several hundred kilometres to reach the Victorian goldfields.

Some Chinese returned home after the gold rush, but many stayed here. They found jobs, set up market gardens, restaurants or laundries. They brought their families to Australia. Gradually the Chinese became the accepted and respected group in Australian society that they are today.

The inside of a Chinese temple

If you use any part of this in your own work, acknowledge this source in your bibliography like this:
Sydenham, S. & Thomas, R. Chinese at the Australian Golfdfields [Online]

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Updated 14 March 2011