• I went to the outback to find disappearing Chinese-Australian stories (Supplied. )Source: Supplied.
Many a town would not have survived without their Chinese market gardeners, not cattle stations without their Chinese cook, nor rail laid down without Chinese labour.
Monica Tan

30 Sep 2021 - 2:18 PM  UPDATED 13 Oct 2021 - 10:57 AM

Not long ago I passed through the tiny town of Pine Creek in Northern Territory, and on impulse, tried to locate a 19th-centruy Chinese pig oven that I knew was nearby out bush. 

I took the old Stuart Highway and wound up on a lonely bush track that looked vaguely familiar. Then I wandered on foot through thin gum trees and a curtain of tall grass, scanning the land in search of this relic of Chinese gold mining history.

Half an hour of searching later and the oven had stubbornly refused to reveal itself. But I knew it was there somewhere. Because years earlier, on my first trip to Pine Creek, the town's former general store owner Eddie Ah Toy had shown it to me.

Eddie was descended from what they call one of the "old Chinese families" in the NT, his grandfather having emigrated from China to work on the railway line that led to Pine Creek in the late-1800s. As the last remaining Chinese family in town, the Ah Toys had inadvertently become the custodians of Pine Creek's rich Chinese-Australian heritage.

Eddie seemed all too delighted that someone had shown an interest. And I remember being moved by the sight of the pig oven: a large, tin-shaped stone construction, mortared together with crushed up termite mounds.

Such heirlooms serve as portals to another time. Almost as if by putting my hands on these immortal stones, I could reach back through the centuries and touch the hands of some young Chinese man loading up a nice fat pig for Lunar New Year, no doubt a twist of sadness in his heart that he had to celebrate this most important of festivals so far away from home. Altogether over 2,000 Chinese gold miners once lived in this town. 

In 2016 I took a 30,000km solo road trip and collected snippets of Chinese-Australian heritage from across our great Southern land, writing about it in my book Stranger Country

There are places where the Chinese-Australian story is alive and well, courtesy of multi-generational community groups such as the Chung Wah Society in Darwin. In Bendigo, Chinese-Australian heritage is synonymous with Bendigo heritage: a non-Chinese friend of mine fondly recalls playing as a child the part of "dragon legs" in the town's famous Chinese procession in the annual Easter Parade - while in absolute awe of her sister's beautiful friend who nabbed the coveted role of Chinese Princess

Those are the places with museums filled with black-and-white photos showing Chinese-Australians wearing coolie hats in front of dusty corrugated iron shacks or in others, dressed in world war two army greens. In my own Inner Sydney neighbourhood of Ashfield is a bust of much loved 19th-century Chinese-Australian merchant Quong Tart, who ran the first popular tea house in the Queen Victoria Building. 

But mostly such places are the exception and the marginalised position of Chinese-Australia in our national identity fails to match the significance of our contribution: for many a town would not have survived without their Chinese market gardeners, not cattle stations without their Chinese cook, nor rail laid down without the labour of a Chinese coolie.

In part, this is because ours is an interrupted story. One wonders what might have been had Federation in 1901 not ushered in harsh immigration policies, coming down like a hard leather boot on those early sparks of Chinese-Australian life. And so the very survival of our stories depended upon safekeeping by other non-Chinese Australians, from amateur historians in local history societies to venerable academics in the country's most prestigious universities. 

Seeing that Chinese pig oven out there, being swallowed up by bush with nothing but a dilapidated sign reading 'Heritage Site No 8' to denote its significance, not on the tourist maps, not in the guidebooks, was a wake-up call to me. How many anthropological Chinese-Australian sites were unknown, neglected, or vanishing, I wondered. 

The story of Australian colonisation is beautiful and brutal: a bloodstained patchwork quilt of different cultures. But the story has been laundered and starched so many times it's come to resemble a stiff hospital sheet. And that process has failed to give credit to - or, for that matter, place culpability on - Chinese people in the colonisation of these lands. 

All national history writing involves acts of erasure. It is impossible to find a country that has not taken a red pen to its own biography and removed humiliating defeats, gruesome massacres, or the blood, sweat and tears of entire races of peoples. But the beautiful thing about physical heritage sites, such as the pig oven, is that they have the capacity to weather the stormy upheavals and negotiations of contested history, as attention to them waxes and wanes. 

It is impossible to find a country that has not taken a red pen to its own biography and removed humiliating defeats, gruesome massacres, or the blood, sweat and tears of entire races of peoples

It is damn hard work to protect heritage: there are grant applications to fill, bricks to restore, oral accounts to record, and signs to install. And to bring stories to life and capture the public's imagination takes an entire ecosystem of historians, librarians, artists, public curators, and tourism agencies. 

But much like the makers of the upcoming SBS television drama, New Gold Mountain, I belong to a new wave of Chinese-Australian creatives who are patiently sifting through the footnotes of Australian history and carrying on the restoration and revival work of those that came before us. Only time will tell if our work repositions the experiences of our community as central to Australia's origin story. 

And who knows, maybe I'll find that missing pig oven and share it with the rest of you one day. 

New Gold Mountain airs over two big weeks premiering Wednesday 13 October at 9.30pm and continuing on Thursday 14 October, Wednesday 20 October, and Thursday 21 October at 9.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand. Subtitles in Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Arabic, Vietnamese and Korean are available to stream on SBS On Demand after broadcast.

Teachers: head to GOLD, an SBS Learn website unearthing diverse experiences of the gold rush.

Join the conversation #NewGoldMountain

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