In 1861, a frenzied mob of 3,000 men attacked Chinese miners and drove them off in panic. One of their descendants is waiting for an apology.
Ron Sutton

1 Jul 2011 - 8:37 AM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 9:20 AM

One hundred and 50 years after what would come to be known as the Lambing Flat Riots, Loong Wong is still waiting for an apology.

The stolen generations of Australia's Indigenous people got their apology, he says.

The British children taken from their families and shipped to Australia as orphans got theirs.

Now, Loong Wong says, it is time the Chinese community, virtually driven out of Australia in hatred in the 19th century, received theirs.

"What would be important to the Chinese communities and, also, other (migrant) communities in Australia would be this notion about reconciliation with our past, reconciliation with our histories, reconciliation with the fact that some form of injustice has been perpetrated, and that, as a nation, we can grow up and recognise the fact that certain forms of ... um, bastardry have been committed and that we are going to acknowledge that and that we can actually grow from it and learn from it, and that we can become better and greater beings," he says.

"And I think, in that sense, if you're looking at Lambing Flat as a symbol, as a resonance, as a political and sociocultural symbol, it would probably be of great import if our politicians actually said, "Look, this is a part of our history which we cannot gloss over, we must not gloss over, we must actually deal with it.""

That history fell on June the 30th, 1861.

At the time, an estimated one in three residents of a goldmining camp nestled in Lambing Flat, 160 kilometres north-west of modern-day Canberra, were Chinese.

It was the time of the gold rush, and many of their fellow miners had come from lands as far-flung as Britain, Russia, and Denmark, from France, Germany, the United States.

But they hardly saw each other as fellow miners -- they were competing miners -- and none was exactly getting rich.

On June the 30th, it all boiled over when a frenzied mob that had swelled to as many as three thousand men attacked the Chinese miners' camp and drove them off in panic.

Beaten and robbed, their vaunted ponytails often chopped off, the Chinese miners fled the area, about a thousand of them setting up camp at a sheep station 20 kilometres away.

But hostility in the goldfields -- Lambing Flat was just the worst episode -- would evolve into the SS Afghan crisis of 1888, when hundreds of Chinese emigrants were stopped from disembarking a transport vessel.

The Afghan crisis would quickly evolve into anti-Chinese laws in all the colonies, limiting the Chinese labour force and excluding residents from citizenship.

In 1901, those laws would evolve into the Immigration Restriction Act -- commonly known today as the White Australia Policy.

Historian Sean Brawley, who has written extensively on the White Australia Policy and Asian immigration, says the irony is the issue of just who was the outsider at Lambing Flat.

"The vast majority of the miners were first-generation immigrants who had arrived in the country in a very recent time. And the other interesting thing about a lot of the Chinese is that many of them had arrived in the 1840s under indentured-labour schemes to work in the agricultural industry, notably as shepherds. And so, in some respects, many of the Chinese who were being told that they should leave, in fact, had had a longer tenure in Australia than many of the white miners who were making those claims against them."

Who was in Australia first is a far different story from who remained in Australia after that series of events flowing on from Lambing Flat.

In 1861, the Chinese accounted for about 10 per cent of the population in Australia.

Almost a century later, that percentage was below half a per cent.

In Lambing Flat, renamed Young when it began to be settled as a town in the days shortly after the riots, the Chinese had essentially disappeared.

Today, an old school building turned into the Lambing Flat Folk Museum stands as a silent reminder of a troubled time in the history of the New South Wales town of 12-thousand.

And 80-year-old Joyce Simpson, keeper of the local history, says the reality is Lambing Flat was about desperate miners who fled Europe's poverty envying Chinese success.

"It had a lot of gold, but very small and hard to get. And they wanted the time to do it leisurely. But the Chinese seemed to know how to get it, and they ... they ... the Chinese could go over the European ground after they had been and still extract more."

Confrontations over goldmining had been happening in both New South Wales and Victoria before Lambing Flat exploded in violence.

After that, the violence spread to Queensland and the Northern Territory.

The Chinese approach to goldmining was more collegial and more systematic, and they often found limited success where the white, undertrained miners had failed.

Dr Brawley, the historian out of the University of New South Wales, says they were not as inclined to seek a "eureka moment," a moment of great, sudden, unexpected discovery.

Those differences had brought confrontation in the gold rushes of the United States and Canada as well.

Dr Brawley says it is hard to say whether those directly led to the confrontations in Australia, but he says they were clearly related.

"It is interesting that, often, when we look at some of the anti-Chinese activities, a disproportionate number of them seem to take place on the Fourth of July, and, often, American flags are held aloft by the white mob during these incidents. So there's definitely an American connection. This might have been white American miners bringing their own understanding of the stratification of communities along the lines of race, or it may have, more generally, been that white miners saw that the United States was providing an example of what to do in these situations."

Joyce Simpson is convinced the Lambing Flat Riots, oddly, have a connection as well to the Eureka rebellion, often considered the birth of Australian democracy.

In that rebellion, just seven years earlier, goldminers rose up in protest against the government's miners licence, which essentially taxed them whether or not they found gold.

Ms Simpson says the historic banner reading Roll Up -- No Chinese, which the attacking European miners rallied behind at Lambing Flat, almost certainly came from Eureka.

"Someone, I think, would have made the banner for the Eureka. And it was done on a tent fly -- you know, the canvas of the tent? And they got it here, and they put the No Chinese on it. And then they had two sticks holding it up and one bar at the top. They were in front with that banner. Behind it came a German band. There were all different flags. There was American and Europe and Scotch and English and ... you know. And then, behind that, came the diggers, the miners, that wanted to run them off."

There were guns, Ms Simpson says, but, despite early reports to the contrary, it remains unclear today whether anybody was killed.

It would take the Colombo Plan to bring top Asian students to Australia to study and the end of the White Australia Policy in the 1970s before the Chinese communities began to recover.

Later in the '70s came the flow of refugees from the Vietnam War, including many of Chinese descent.

In 1989, a tearful Prime Minister Bob Hawke allowed more than 40-thousand Chinese students to remain in Australia after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

That began a sharp rise in Australia's Chinese and other Asian populations, which now account for about 40 per cent of Sydney's overall population.

But Loong Wong, the head of Chinese business studies at Perth's Murdoch University, says the communities have never recovered fully from Australia's past.

The suspicion about them, he says, lingers.

It is not quite the same as the 1800s, when Australian newspapers spoke of the Chinese in Australia as these heathens who came here to pollute our blood.

But Dr Wong says, 150 years after the Lambing Flat Riots, in everyday life, a Chinese-Australian still cannot gain full acceptance as, simply, an Australian.

"It's very difficult, for example, if you are a Chinese-Australian, to claim that you are an Australian, because you're always identified as a Chinese first. For example, in debates with Andrew Bolt, you know, from The Herald-Sun, he is a second-generation Dutch-Australian but, in all his comments, he makes reference to the fact that the Asians are taking over the public schools, especially the so-called selective schools in Sydney. Never mind the fact that a lot of these kids are actually born in Australia and may be second- or third-generation Australians. At one discussion in one forum which was organised through the Department of Immigration, I put it to him, "When will these people ever be 'Australians'?""