SBS > Gold > Immigration and Population > Fear of the Chinese

Fear of the Chinese

European miners listed many reasons for disliking the Chinese but an anti Chinese sentiment existed in Australia and Europe long before the gold rush. It was borne of a European belief in superiority over other races and a fear that cheap Chinese labourers were taking European jobs.

Taking Australian gold out of Australia

Almost all the Chinese who came to Australia, came as sojourners with the intention of returning home to their families laden with riches. Although many European diggers had the same intention, the Chinese were criticised for not investing their gold in Australia, but stashing it away to take home to China.

The Chinese came not for their own sake but because they felt compelled to seek a better future for their families who remained at home in China. It was a time of grinding poverty, lawlessness and oppression in many parts of China, particularly in the districts of Canton (Kwangtung Province) from which many Chinese came.

Cultural differences

Chinese Rites At The Graves Of Their Countrymen by Robert Bruce
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Distinct cultural differences challenged European precepts of acceptable behaviour and were cause for further discrimination. Religious practices of the Chinese such as Taoist or Buddhist devotional acts confirmed to many Europeans minds that the Chinese were heathens and idol worshippers.

Chinese lotteries
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

The Chinese were particularly despised for introducing the habit of opium smoking and novel forms of gambling such as fan tan to Victoria. In 1867, a census of Chinese settlements in regional Victoria carried out by the Reverend William Young of Ballarat, himself part Hokkien Chinese, recorded at least 50 Chinese gambling houses and 80 opium shops in 9 centres across regional Victoria. He also estimated that 1 in 2 Chinese gambled regularly and that at least 4 out of 10 Chinese used opium regularly.

Chinese opium-smokers
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

The social evils of opium, as they were described, were increasingly documented during this period, a time when alcohol was also widely used by European diggers. The Census of Chinese settlements in Victoria states:

"The graver evil effects of opium smoking upon the Chinese are, the great wasting of their pecuniary means, and the ruining of their constitutions; the lighter evils are, the rendering of them indolent and useless members of society. In this colony, the Chinese smoke opium to excess. Four Chinese out of every ten are addicted to opium smoking.

The Chinese usually worked as a group, instead of mixing with the general population of the gold fields. A Chinese person’s identity was secondary to the identity and needs of their family and ancestral lineage. The financial means to travel to and survive in Australia was often paid for by the individual’s clan. On arrival in Australia, others from the same clan would usually work and live together under the banner of their association or society. This was done as much for mutual protection as for assistance. This segregation led to the European diggers learning very little about the Chinese culture and many felt the Chinese were an amorphous horde who could easily overrun the Europeans of the gold fields.

A distinctive look

The dress and physical features and mannerisms of the Chinese immediately set them apart from the other diggers. Most Chinese men wore their hair in the form of a queue or pigtail, which together with their distinctive clothes and method of travelling often drew derision from Europeans.

Flemington Melbourne by Samuel Charles Brees
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Polish digger Seweryn Korzelinski described the Chinese miners as "small in stature, with small eyes and long plaits of hair, made even longer by a piece of string with a tassel tied at the end of it. They are very funny to watch when they walk overland, for they usually travel in large groups of a hundred or so, one behind the other in a long line like wild geese. They don’t walk normally but take short steps and appear to be running very slowly. Each one carries a long pole over his shoulder with baskets of victuals hanging at both ends."

Portrait of a Chinese Gentlemen
Courtesy of Dennis O'Hoy
Golden Dragon Museum Showing Face Exhibition

In a world dominated by European ideology, this distinctive look was exploited by Europeans to feed their sense of racial superiority. Some Chinese reacted, often at the encouragement or insistence of their clan association, by adopting colonial European dress and manners. Others remained resolutely Chinese in appearance.

Competition for gold, jobs and women

Opposition to the Chinese was often greatest among the European diggers and working men who felt that their chances of finding gold, jobs and women to marry were threatened.

Kong Meng Co.
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Opposition to the Chinese mining claims and prospecting was widespread and it is well documented that the Chinese, who did not usually contest their status on the fields, were generally left to work over areas that European miners had already worked. They often found rich sums of gold on these leftover claims by working more meticulously which angered the European diggers even more.

Market Gardens
Courtesy of Dennis O'Hoy
Golden Dragon Museum Showing Face Exhibition

As farming and other industries in the emerging towns developed during and in the wake of gold prospecting, European men sometimes felt threatened by competition for jobs. In areas of employment where Europeans and Chinese had similar skills such as carpentry, steps were taken to protect the European tradesmen from cheap Chinese labour. Labour laws were introduced that required all furniture made by Chinese hands to be stamped "Asian Labour Only". However the Chinese were generally left undisturbed to pursue what were considered traditional Chinese jobs such as market gardening and herbalism.

Another source of friction between European and Chinese miners was their competition for the affection of the much smaller number of women. Both during and after the gold rush period, a significant number of Chinese men had relationships, both formal and informal, with European women. Some women were frequent visitors to the Chinese camps from their earliest days on the goldfields. Relationships that developed between Chinese miners and European women were often short lived, though in some cases they resulted in marriage.


Golden Dragon Museum

Text adapted from the Showing Face: Chinese identity in regional Victoria from the 1850s to Federation exhibition booklet, courtesy of The Golden Dragon Museum.
All images from the Showing Face exhibition, on at the Melbourne Immigration Museum from 13 June to 16 September 2001.


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