Asian Studies Program

Chinese Australia

Zheng Ri, Zheng Jiale and Zheng Tieqiao

Translated, adapted and compiled by
John Fitzgerald, Asian Studies, La Trobe University

Second generation Australian, Zheng Jiale, in 1999. Huang Jianda, Zheng Jiale zhuan [The Biography of Zheng Jiale] (Shijiazhuang: Huashan wenyi chubanshe, 1999).

In August 1901, Zheng Ri left his home town of Longdu, in Xiangshan County (now Zhongshan City) in Guangdong Province to try his luck in Australia. Many others had done the same before him. Around this time, however, the new Commonwealth Government had passed an Immigration Restriction Act that was intended to prevent twenty-one year old Zheng Ri - and indeed all other Chinese immigrants - from entering Australia.

To qualify for admission, Zheng Ri bought an Australian re-entry permit, technically a Certificate of Exemption from the Dictation Test, from a fellow villager in China. He borrowed money to cover the cost of his voyage by contracting with a firm in Hong Kong.

He disembarked in Brisbane after a slow voyage out, and immediately made his way to Towoomba where he carried an introduction to a local market-gardener. His employer put him to work planting, watering, weeding, harvesting and selling vegetables. Australia (or "Gold Mountain" as he called it) did not quite live up to Zheng Ri's expectations. "This backbreaking toil was no different from the work we had done as peasants back home," he later recalled. "For all this I earned just one pound a week."

After spending five weeks in the vegetable gardens of Towoomba, Zheng set off in search of other employment.  His next job offered little relief. Zheng found work clearing land for sheep and cattle properties in outback Queensland. In the company of a team of Chinese labourers he ring-barked giant gums, felled smaller trees, and rooted out scrub, to clear a vast acreage of land over a period of eight months. Once the property was cleared, in July 1902, he found himself unemployed along with thirty or so fellow Chinese loggers. 

Over the next three years he traveled around northern and central Queensland working as a farm hand, cabinet maker, general labourer and vegetable gardener, before settling down to work in a Brisbane factory. By 1909, after saving enough money to cover his debts and his fare, Zheng Ri returned home briefly to find himself a wife.

After marrying a local girl in his home village, Zheng returned to Australia. There he remained on and off for another thirty-five years, travelling up and down the east coast, and finding work on isolated farms, in outback towns, and in the larger cities of Brisbane and Sydney. Although his financial situation showed little improvement - at one point he suffered a serious industrial accident that put him out of commission for some time -  he managed to make several visits home over the period. Then, in 1935, he went back to his village with the intention of staying for good.

Zheng Ri (right front) and his son Jiale (second from left at back) on the eve of returning to Australia in 1935. Huang Jianda, Zheng Jiale zhuan [The Biography of Zheng Jiale] (Shijiazhuang: Huashan wenyi chubanshe, 1999).

Before long back home, however, he discovered that things were little better in Longdu village. At this time the village was largely populated by women and girls who were dependent on the financial remittances sent back by their sons, husbands, and fathers who were working abroad. So the following year he returned to Sydney once again, this time accompanied by his second son, Jiale. Father and son lived in a small room in a Sydney boarding house before Zheng Ri returned to his village for the last time at the close of the war with Japan in 1946.

The second generation of Zhengs settled down in Australia. Jiale had initially joined his father by entering the country as a student, one of the few legitimate ways for Chinese to enter Australia at the time. In this he was assisted by sponsorship from an established Sydney Chinese businessman. Unfortunately, his guarantor withdrew sponsorship midway through the boy's term of study. Jiale then faced deportation. Fortunately, father and son found another local guarantor in time to prevent Jiale's forced return to China.

The lad grew to maturity in Australia, where he became a prominent member of Sydney's Chinese community, especially through his work with labour unions and with the Chinese Youth League (the Qiaoqingshe), in Sydney's Dixon Street. In 1999, Jiale became the subject of the first biography of an Australian Chinese ever to be published in China - a book by Huang Jianda entitled Zheng Jiale zhuan [A Biography of Zheng Jiale], which was published by the Huashan Wenyi Publishing House in Shijiazhuang, in Hebei Province.

Jiale Zheng welcoming the Chinese ping pong team on behalf of the Chinese Youth League in the early 1970s. Huang Jianda, Zheng Jiale zhuan [The Biography of Zheng Jiale] (Shijiazhuang: Huashan wenyi chubanshe, 1999).

Jiale married in the 1960s and in 1968 bore a child of his own. The young boy was called Tieqiao ("iron bridge"), partly as a mark of respect for the famous landmark of his adopted city, Sydney, but also as an expression of hope that the third generation of Zheng's would manage to bridge the gulf that separated Australia from their home village in Guangdong, to which his grandfather had returned after the war. In later years, when grandfather Zheng Ri reflected back on his time as a labourer in Australia, he could recall little but hardship - recall times, for example,  when he would fall into bed at the end of the day "without even washing my feet." Thinking of his final return to his home village in 1946, he found comfort in the knowledge that he was, as the old saying went, " a falling leaf returning to its roots" (luoye guigen).

Not so his grandson, Tieqiao (Iron-Bridge). Having been born, raised and educated in Australia, Tieqiao could hardly return to his roots in Longdu. Instead, he turned to Guangdong to find his roots. When he went back to his father's and grandfather's village, in 1986, what Tieqiao discovered was not just a village but a homeland. In that year Tieqiao visited his ancestral village for the first time in the company of a group of Chinese Australian students.  The experience was overwhelming. "I feel very moved," he told relatives in Longdu. "Very much as though I have become Chinese." Still he returned to Australia - as a Chinese Australian.


Zhongshan ren zai aozhou[Zhongshan people in Australia], Zhongshan wenzhi [Records of Zhongshan] No. 24 (Guangzhou: Zhengxie guangdongsheng zhongshanshi weiyuanhui wenshi weihuanhui, 1992), pp.75-7 and 175-6.

Huang Jianda, Zheng Jiale zhuan [The Biography of Zheng Jiale] (Shijiazhuang: Huashan wenyi chubanshe, 1999).

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Last Updated: 27 February, 2009