a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

Search the complete site: ... Sitemap » ... Links to other sites »


Commentary on: Queensland’s Chinese communities »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

In all likelihood, the Chinese knew about Australia well before Europeans arrived. There are suggestions that the northern coast had been visited in the fifteenth century C.E. by ships of the Chinese admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch renowned as a navigator . Later the Chinese demand for trepang or beche de mer (sea cucumber) stimulated visits by local Macassans to collect the delicacy. These voyagers from Sulawesi had regular contact with Indigenous coastal communities of northern Australia. Very old Chinese pottery and other relics have been found along the bays of the north.

The original Chinese presence in Queensland was the result of two pressures – the demand for cheap indentured labour in the nascent agricultural economy, and the lure of gold. Soon after Queensland was established as a colony Chinese labourers represented Queensland’s first experiment with forced labour. They were brought from southern China, and worked in remote parts of the colony as shearers, cooks and labourers. The discovery of gold brought Chinese miners north from the fields of Victoria and NSW, throughout the 1870s. On the Palmer field there were violent attacks by European miners on the Chinese, who had often constructed advanced stonework sluiceways that would guarantee them longer periods to wash for gold. Yet their skill and intelligence were ignored – they were seen by most Whites as a “servile race” for whom there could be no place in an Anglo-Australian Queensland.

As the goldfields began to peter out, the Chinese, nearly all men, moved to the coastal towns and into other industries such as land clearing, furniture-making and market gardening. Wealthier Chinese also ran general stores. Through the last years before Federation they were crucial in establishing the burgeoning banana industry and building the sugar industry of the North. Without them it is unlikely the North would have been opened up as widely or as quickly.

Anti-Chinese feeling grew in Queensland as elsewhere. In 1878 white seamen went on strike against the use of cheap Chinese labour brought in by the shipping lines. In Queensland, where few owned property, legislation in 1885 prohibited them from voting unless they met the property requirement. In 1888 the arrival of the ship “Afghan” carrying over a hundred Chinese precipitated Australia-wide agitation and the election of a government committed to “total exclusion” in Queensland.

At Federation in Cairns Chinese made up over 50% of the male population, but only 1% of the female population. The male:female ratio amongst Chinese was 30:1. Some of the wealthier men either brought their wives over from China, others married local Indigenous and Irish women.

With Federation and the creation of White Australia through the Immigration Restriction Act, the Chinese population initially declined rapidly. There were few Chinese women; even naturalised citizens faced difficulties in returning to Australia from China. Many of the older men returned to China, never coming back. Others merged over time into the Australian community, losing in some cases any sense of their Chinese origins. Throughout the north many of these communities persevered through times where their ethnicity and culture were seen as a stigma. In Brisbane, the Chinese community fell to a few families and almost disappeared.

White Australia ended in the 1970s; a generation of Chinese migration from Singapore and Malaysia came in the wake of the Colombo plan. The Chinese “diaspora” living in South East Asia was drawn to Queensland from Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. A third generation of migration saw Chinese from the Mainland and most recently Taiwan, starting from the mid-1980s and continuing into the present. The great majority of these populations has settled in Brisbane.

By the 1990s Chinese immigration to Queensland, increasingly middle class, had become a regular feature of community change. In 1996 37% of Taiwanese had settled in Queensland (the largest concentration in Australia), but only 10% of people from Hong Kong, and 6.5% from the PRC. The growth of the community in Brisbane and the Gold Coast has been complemented by a much richer engagement with Asia, and an increasing itinerant presence of business people, tourists and international students. Chinese participation in Queensland’s economic, social and cultural life is now well established and the Chinese communities are an important part of Queensland’s vibrant multicultural diversity.