Asian Studies Program

Chinese Australia


Today, Ballarat's Chinese community is small and the physical traces of its history are threadbare. A piece of facade from an old loss House hangs incongruously on the wall of McDonald's Restaurant at Bakery Hill. A reconstructed 'Chinese Village' stands at Sovereign Hill. Only the cemeteries, with their many rows of weathered Chinese gravestones, hint at the vital and prosperous Chinese community of nineteenth century Ballarat. In the mid-nineteenth century over twenty percent of all males in the Ballarat district were Chinese. They outnumbered every other ethnic group except the English.[1] By 1901 their numbers had dwindled to 645[2] and those numbers continued to decline, until by the mid- twentieth century the Chinese presence was negligible.

The discovery of gold in the Ballarat districts during the 1850s attracted prospectors from all over the world. In the South of China political upheaval, including the Taiping Rebellion (1851 to 1866), and over-population of an area prone to natural disasters meant poverty was widespread.[3] News of the 'New Gold Mountain' spread quickly to this receptive audience, stirring as much interest as it did in Europe.
The Chinese arrivals to Victoria peaked in the mid 1850s, after which increasing taxation and harsh discriminatory treatment caused a gradual decline in immigration. 11,493 Chinese are recorded as having arrived in Victoria by sea in 1855,[4] but racial tension on the goldfields prompted the government to introduce measures to limit their numbers. The Chinese were an easily identifiable target. They arrived in large groups, kept to themselves, worked methodically in teams, and were often rewarded for their perseverance in areas the Europeans had already worked. Their numbers rose dramatically at a time when surface gold was becoming scarce.

Under public pressure, in 1855 the Victorian Legislative Council passed an Act to Make Provision for Certain Immigrants decreeing all Chinese would pay ten pounds on entering the port of Melbourne. This restriction was circumvented by ships landing the Chinese at Guichen Bay (Robe) in South Australia. The Chinese then undertook the arduous overland trek to the Victorian goldfields. By 1857 the overland route from South Australia was well established. In that year only 816 Chinese were recorded as having arrived in Victoria by sea but 14,616 entered via the overland route.[5]

In addition to the levies imposed on all miners, the Chinese miners had to pay one pound per annum Protection Fee and, from January 1858, an additional pound every two months for a ticket of residence. By 1860 this system of taxation seemed discriminatory to some Europeans. The editor of The Ballarat Star noted that:

In these colonies John Chinaman heads the list of very much governed and very much taxed citizens. … The poor wretches come here and we have wrung all we could out of them in the shape of "residence fees" and "protection tickets." [6]

But for every note of sympathy for the Chinese there were many more demands for increased regulation:

If these heathens who come here to pollute our blood and debauch our young children are not put under severe regulations we may reckon on an epidemic sooner or later that may be as deadly as the leprosy.[7]

The legal system also worked against the Chinese miner. In July 1857 Europeans attacked the Chinese camp at Buckland River and drove the Chinese from their settlement. At least three Chinese bodies were later recovered from the river. The Coroner's Court found that the deaths had been caused by 'exposure to the cold and wet while labouring under debility consequent upon disease.' This verdict meant no rioter would be charged with an offence.[8] Under the Protectorate system operating at Ballarat the Chinese were less subject to violence but in outlying districts they were often susceptible to claim-jumping and physical aggression. After the Smythes Creek Chinese camp was looted and burned in February, 1858, the Coroner's Court at Smythes Creek refused to cite the person responsible for the murder of a Chinese or to recommend legal action against the rioters.[9]

In time, the effects of discriminatory taxation, the persistent racial tensions and the scaling down of gold mining in the Bal1arat district discouraged further Chinese immigration. The majority of Chinese left, so that by the turn of the century less than a thousand remained in Ballarat. The members of one party leaving Ballarat in September, 1864, each paid five pounds for the passage to Hongkong and took back sums ranging from seventy to a hundred pounds.[10]

Many were not so lucky. Conditions in their home province of Guandong were still unstable and prospects for returning miners were bleak. In addition, many had used future gold earnings as collateral to buy their passages to Australia. As the prospect of these gold earnings dimmed, the option of returning home became remote. Miners unable to return to their homeland were stranded far from the land of their ancestors, where they would wish to be buried, and isolated in a community which held them for the most part in disdain. Some committed suicide. Some became apathetic and destitute. But others worked hard to make a place for themselves in the larger community of Ballarat.

Of these, a small proportion married European women and gradually assimilated into the community. Initially, European women who married Chinese men were reviled by the community and their children were shunned as "a fermenting monstrosity," "a more or less chaotic compound," "a blot on creation," or "a sin against nature."[11] Over successive generations, however, families such as the Tongways became an accepted part of the community.[12]

Some Chinese established themselves as respected members of the business community. Chinese herbalists were frequently consulted by the Europeans in preference to European doctors.[13] Wong Ah Lepp managed the prosperous Golden Point Hotel and Lee Gow ran a store on Main Road. Market gardeners plied their route back and forth from field to market. Chinese benevolent societies donated the proceeds from their fairs and theatres to Ballarat Hospital, and Chinese Christians passed Sunday in worship like their European brethren.[14]

Yet the transition was never easy. Chinese men migrated without their women. In 1857 there were 25,424 Chinese men in Victoria but only three Chinese women. By 1871 the number of Chinese women had grown to thirty one.[15] By custom it was considered improper for Chinese women to accompany their men. In addition, the Chinese government discouraged women leaving the country as a measure to force the emigrant home, or at least to support his extended family from abroad.[16] By the time the restrictions on female emigration from China were lifted it was too late for the ageing Chinese miners to bring their women to Australia. These men settled into an isolated existence among a community of Chinese men and remained, in the words of one historian,

as male isolates, chained together by the combined circumstances of class, ethnic choice, cultural and economic necessity , a diminished minority , dislocated, often ethnically demoralized, denigrated and misunderstood by the European Society.[17]

Even the names of the miners, the last link to their lineage, were distorted in colonial bureaucratic records. Chinese names consist of a family name first and one or two given names. Europeans spelt the name phonetically and often assumed the first name to be the given name. Parts of the name were sometimes dropped and replace by "Ah," a common Cantonese diminutive that denotes nobody in particular .The records we have collected here show that the Chinese community of Ballarat did, however, retain its identity in death.

In the 1850s and 1860s the most common cause of death was mining accidents. Next came other scourges of the Chinese mining community, including phthisis (1ung disease or "miners' disease"), suicide, leprosy, opium poisoning, and the normal causes of death of an ageing population. When funds were available for a grave, friends or countrymen erected a gravestone with the miner's name in its Chinese form and the place where his ancestors were buried; the place where, if the miner had his desire, his body would ultimately be taken. For some the wish was fulfilled, and many bodies were removed to China by agents employed from a fund set up for this purpose. Stories of the process of disinternment have been retold through generations.

The agent began to pack up the bones in many pieces of calico… the left side taken first, the foot, leg, ribs, hand being marked as each part was wrapped up… The entire skeleton was… topped off with the skull and deposited reverently inside one of the carpet bags.[18]

Those whose wishes were not fulfilled still lie in the cemeteries of Ballarat.

There are two cemeteries in Ballarat, the Old Cemetery near Lake Wendouree and the New Cemetery on the northern outskirts of the present city .The New Cemetery holds the majority of Chinese graves, over a thousand in all, and the Old Cemetery holds four hundred. Although called 'Old' and 'New', the Old Cemetery was still in use well into the twentieth century, although from 1869 most Chinese burials took place in the Chinese section of the New Cemetery. Until the Chinese population all but disappeared from Ballarat in the early twentieth century, the Chinese section of the cemeteries was a ritual focus for those who remained:

At Golden Point, at the Red Hill, at Canadian, at Eureka, at Little Bendigo, preparations began for the ceremony of Hang Tung, 'the Feeding of the Dead'... Sacrifice was begun by offering the food, which was placed at the foot of the grave. joss sticks were lit, each person holding three of these fragrant thin reeds… The food was gathered up again and spread out on another grave, and so matters proceeded.[19]

Standing on the North East corner of the Chinese section of the New Cemetery. In the background is the furnace and the alter. Photo: Linda Brumley

Now, however, the cemeteries are deserted and the gravestones are falling into disrepair. This book seeks to preserve the fading information encoded on these gravestones and, by linking it to European records, to recover the identities of the Chinese miners who made up a large part of the Bal1arat community in the mid-nineteenth century.

Problems and Proceedures


[1] Weston Bate, Lucky City: The First Generation at Ballarat, 1851-1901 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1978), p.50.

[2] Kathryn Cronin, Colonial Casualties: Chinese in Early Victoria (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1982), p.139.

[3] Barbara Cooper, "The Chinese in Ballarat." Melbourne: M.A. Thesis, Monash University, 1992, pp.6-7.

[4] Cronin, Colonial Casualties, p.135.

[5] ibid.

[6] Ballarat Star, 20 August 1860.

[7] Ballarat Star, 20 August 1866.

[8] Cronin, Colonial Casualties, p.50.

[9] Kathryn Cronin, "Chinese in Colonial Victoria." Melbourne: Ph D Thesis, Monash University, 1977, p.52.

[10] Lionel Welsh, Vermilion and Gold: Vignettes of Chinese life in Ballarat (Sandy Bay: Banyan Press, 1984), p.6.

[11] Cronin, Colonial Casualties, p.68.

[12] Yvonne Horsefield, "Focus on a Ballarat Chinese Family History." Geelong: M.A. Thesis, Deakin University , 1987, p8.

[13] Welsh, Vermilion and Gold, p.42.

[14] ibid.

[15] Cronin, Colonial Casualties, p.136.

[16] Cooper, "Chinese in Ballarat", p.8.

[17] Horsfield, "Focus", p.8.

[18] Welsh, Vermilion and Gold, p.19.

[19] ibid., p.16.