Dreams of jade and gold
Dreams of jade and gold
Chinese families in Australia's history
Museum Of Chinese Australian History
From the 1840s onwards, Chinese people have come to Australia inspired by dreams of happiness, longevity and prosperity -of 'jade and gold' in a new and strange land. For most of that time, Chinese people in Australia have been male. Most of them were temporary sojourners who came to earn money for their families back in the village -most did not intend to settle in Australia. Whether they stayed for three years on the goldfields, or three decades as market gardeners, they eventually returned to their Chinese homes. Few saw the merit of having wives and children here. However, they were not without family in Australia.
Chinese sojourners were not individual immigrants without family ties in Australia. Typically, rural villages in China were made up of just a few clans -in some villages, only one or two. Sojourners were usually sent overseas by their clan elders, the clan having borrowed the money to pay the fare to Australia. During the goldrushes, dozens, even hundreds of men from the same clans would travel to Australia, and work here together. After the goldrush , when maybe only one or two people would leave at a time for the New Gold Mountain, there were usually members of the clan in Australia whom they were going to meet. It was common for younger brothers, nephews, and sons to follow their elder brothers, uncles and fathers.
In Australia, the family and clan networks usually set up businesses together, whether they were gold-mining teams, shops, furniture factories or market gardens. They worked together, socialised together, and supported each other's businesses by married here. It was common for such a man to decide to marry after being in Australia being customers, forming business alliances or lending money. Wherever a sizeable group of Chinese lived in a city or a town, there would be one or more shops run by members of each of the clans. They sold Chinese goods imported from canton or Hong Kong, and were patronised by the other members of the clan. There was usually room for a few benches, tables and chairs, so that clan members could drop in for tea and a chat. Store managers provided other services, too. They wrote letters back to China for their customers, looked after their money as an unofficial bank, remitted money back to China on their and acted as interpreters in dealing with Australian officialdom. On a Sunday in Melbourne's Chinatown in the 1920s, for instance, all the members of a clan would gather in the back room of the shop for a shared meal. For some it was the only time they would see each other during the week, they had been out in the suburbs growing vegetables or working in their factories.
Most of these men had wives in China. The wives either had had children before the husband left for Australia, or he would return every few years for a short while and more children would be conceived. In later years one or more adult sons would join the father. Sometimes this pattern of chain migration continued across several generations. The next generation would be born and raised in the village, but would live their working lives in Australia. Almost all returned to China to retire.
This pattern of male sojourning pre-dated Australia's restrictive immigration laws, but was reinforced by them. The Immigration Act (1901-1958) used a dictation test to limit the number of Chinese who were allowed into the country. At first, wives were allowed to accompany those men who were permitted to enter, but in 1903wives were barred altogether. This policy was relaxed in 1905 when Chinese residents of 'good standing and character' were allowed to bring their wives, but only for a temporary period of six to twelve months every three to five years. These were attempts to prevent children from being born in Australia. From 1904 it was easier for children to come, but only as students. Individual men were allowed entry (from 1912) if they were traders, or (from 1934) if they were to be assistants for Chinese-Australians who ran businesses of a certain turnover.
Despite the predominance of male sojourning, a small proportion of Chinese men in nineteenth-century Australia brought their wives and children to live with them, or for many years. His clan in China would arrange a bride, a proxy marriage between the families would occur in China, and the bride would then leave for Australia. Often the husband was in his forties before he could support a wife and children in Australia, and often the bride was in her teens. As the nineteenth century progressed, more Chinese families started this way. In 1857 there were only three Chinese women recorded in the Victorian census, for example, compared with 25,000 men. By 1891 there were six hundred women to 9,000 men.
As Australian-born children of these families grew to adulthood, their parents would seek brides and grooms on their behalf amongst other Chinese families in Australia. There were few Chinese in each town or city, so it was often hard to find a match locally. However, business and clan ties were strong within the total Chinese population around the colonies, so partners could be matched as far apart as Perth and Sydney, or Darwin and Launceston. As this practice was repeated over many generations, it is now common for descendants of many old Chinese-Australian families to be related to most of the other old families.
Some Chinese parents in Australia preferred to find spouses for their children in China. In colonial days, spouses could more easily come to Australia. After federation, it was a lot harder, especially for women. A few Chinese brides adopted the name and Australian birth certificate of Chinese children who had been born in Australia but had returned to China while still young and died. Women who came with these false identities had to maintain them for the rest of their lives in Australia. The majority of post-1905 Chinese brides of Chinese-Australian sons were never able to settle here. Even though in later decades the period of temporary stay for wives was increased to one, three and then to five years families were put under great stress. Some children were born in China or Hong Kong. Some were born in Australia. Families like this were split for decades, until immigration laws were relaxed. It was not until 1966 that the Holt government allowed Chinese men to bring their wives and children to Australia permanently.
In the nineteenth century, many of the Chinese men who wanted wives in Australia married or lived de facto with non-Chinese women. A few of the wealthier Chinese merchants and professionals, such as Quong Tart in Sydney or Lowe Kong Meng in Melbourne, married Australian or English women from the middle classes, but most of the mixed partnerships were amongst market gardening or labouring classes. At least 500 European-Chinese partnerships are estimated to have occurred before 1900.
Despite repeated waves of racism and official discrimination from the 1840s to the 1970s, a sizeable number of families of Chinese background have put down roots in this country. By the 1940s, there were several hundred Chinese-Australian families where both parents were of Chinese background. There were even more Australians perhaps in the thousands -where only father, grandfather or great-grandfather had come from China. The number of such families is harder to determine because many descendants feared racism, and hid their Chinese ancestry.
In 1973 the Whitlam government abolished racist provisions in immigration laws. Since then, the number of ethnic Chinese migrants has increased dramatically. They have come primarily as family groups -not as sojourners, but as permanent immigrants. They come not only from China and Hong Kong, but also from Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia, as well as from further afield. The Chinese are now a highly visible and generally accepted part of the Australian community of cultures. It is now more possible than at any time in Australia's past to publicly acknowledge with pride one's Chinese culture and ancestry. With this renewed pride more and more Australians with hidden Chinese pasts are retrieving their family memories. As they do this, there will be increased recognition of the breadth and richness of the contributions of Chinese Australian families and their descendants to Australian history.