The Chinese Diaspora in 19th Century Tasmania.
In the 19th century the fledgling Australian Nation, then a collection of Colonies of the British Empire, began to spread inland from the tenuous enclaves they established around the coast, and a great new epoch of frontier exploration began. The discovery of huge gold deposits in the east, to be followed by even larger reefs in the west, heralded a great influx of fortune seekers from around the world, and with them came the Chinese.
A perceptive and industrious people, many soon saw that providing labour and other goods and services to the miners and the camps, villages and towns that soon mushroomed in the goldfields, would be a certain path to prosperity and a regular remittance of income to their families at home. The uncertain nature of gold mining and the vain hope of ‘stubbing a toe on a golden nugget’ in an age when great fortunes were won and lost, was not for those who could see a different pathway to success.
In the small southern island state of Tasmania, Chinese miners were important in tin mining from the 1870’s, bringing valuable expertise to securing this rich commodity, highly prized for its non-corrosive properties and its usefulness in manufactured ‘tins’ for the preservation of food. Literally hundreds of mines were established, ranging in size from the large workings at places like Derby and Anchor Mine, to the many smaller, transient mine sites that were worked by small groups of men or single operators. Over the past decade, on the Trail of the Tin Dragon, a number of sites have been discovered in the State’s North East, revealing the lives of Chinese miners.
The 30-year history of one particular mining camp has been slowly revealing its secrets following recent excavations. Records show that Chinese miner Hen Kee held a lease on the mine, which was worked by him and others from 1892 to 1923. The composite Chinese-European alluvial tin mine has revealed dump sites containing domestic refuse. Items from the Chinese era show soy sauce vessels, ginger jars, whisky bottles, and highly decorated coloured ceramics. A forge has also been unearthed, which is significant in that it shows the transition from Chinese-only mining to an exclusively European operation. They are known to have been in large numbers on the tin fields of the district in the late decades of the 19th century where they dominated tin mining and outnumbered Europeans by up to 10 to 1. They contributed labour for the tin fields and were accepted as hard-working men who lived well in the community.
Most Chinese worked on leases held by Chinese businessmen such as the Argus and Garibaldi mines. Others worked alone on small leases working the creeks with the use of hand-dug water races. The climate in North East Tasmania means that long periods without rain could be expected. When there was no water available the miners improved their water races, worked in their market gardens or walked to the nearest Chinese settlement for sociable entertainment, including majong and fantan. The preservation of a joss house in the Launceston museum demonstrates the Chinese were just one of many significant groups of immigrants who brought with them their beliefs, customs and foods.
Alas, not all aspiring immigrants were successful. Many disappeared in the swirling mists of the opium pipe, also falling victim to gambling losses and failing to support their families in their homeland, but most dreamed of returning one day to China. Life was often difficult for Chinese people seeking to earn their living in a predominantly European community and so it was in many parts of the world. Quiet perseverance became the hallmark of those who achieved prosperity and successfully made this country their new home. They became recognised as the best gardeners of fresh produce as market gardens sprang up around almost every town. As meticulous launderers of the heavy and intricate European costumes of the day, their services were favoured for the best results.
Many enterprising Chinese became import/export merchants providing their loyal customers with many commodities considered essential in these far-flung European colonies of the South. They earned the respect of the communities they served and as The Mercury Newspaper observed when Mr Henry Chung died in 1941, the city of Hobart mourned his passing; “City traffic was stopped to allow his cortege to pass while people lined the streets to pay respect to this much-loved Chinese elder. The family even received a note of condolence from the governor, Sir Ernest Clark. A keen, energetic business man, Mr Henry was well-known for his kindness and charity. He was president of the Tasmanian branch of the Kuo Min Tang (Chinese Nationalist Party), and gained complete mastery of the English language by diligence and perseverance.” Chinese immigrants have earned their place in Australian society but unfortunately, in today’s modern world, many younger Chinese people who are no longer influenced by the discipline and influence of their forebears, behave badly and do themselves no credit.
Nineteenth century Australia offered great opportunity for those who offered to work hard for a new life and today, as has always been the case, our rich natural resources are being mined and carried away from these shores to the enrichment of others. Everything changes and everything stays the same.