Chinese Whispers from New South Wales

Janis Wilton records the stories of 19th-century Chinese immigrants and their descendants, and explores their relationship with ‘White Australia’.

Australia’s past and present is dotted and, at times, swamped by the expression of racist sentiments and by an ethnocentric fear of cultural difference. In the mid-1990s it is surfacing in the bigoted and ignorant statements of a small number of right-wing politicians whose foremost spokesperson has been Pauline Hanson, who in early 1996 became the newly elected federal parliament member for the seat of Oxley. (She was dubbed ‘the Oxley moron’ by one local newspaper.) Their words plug in to a long tradition of racism in this country, one which the media delights in focusing on. It is also a tradition which historians over the past two to three decades have spent time and intellectual effort to dissect, analyse and explain.

More recently, there have been attempts to move beyond racism to examine the histories and contributions of Australia’s indigenous peoples and ethnic communities. This has entailed moving away from traditional documentary sources, government archives and newspapers to work from within indigenous and ethnic communities, with their participation, using recorded memories, family photographs and memorabilia, personal and business papers. In the light of this work, different perspectives and emphases are emerging that proclaim positive aspects of cultural diversity.

The history of the Chinese contribution to Australia provides a case study. First lured to the country to work as shepherds, cooks and farm labourers in the early part of the nineteenth century, the number of Chinese expanded rapidly with the discovery of gold from the 1850s. Their presence and success frightened other Australians. They were vilified for their work practices, living conditions, leisure pursuits and their potential for destroying the ‘purity’ of white Australia. As one parochial newspaper editorial declared in 1857:

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