Documentary Story: Many Roads
Many Roads: Stories of the Chinese on the Goldfields of Victoria, documentary film, Jary Nemo (director), Lucinda Horrocks and Jary Nemo (producers), Wind & Sky Productions, 2017.Contributors
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This short documentary explores the story of Chinese people in the Victorian gold rush, uncovering the routes the Chinese took to seek gold, the lives they lived and the sort of people they were.
Cash Brown, Curator | Conservator, Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka: There were already Chinese in Australia, prior to the gold rush. So, some of them came out freely. They came as early as 1820, they were gardeners in Western Sydney and out in Parramatta and all sorts of just different individuals - diaspora in Australia, people come from everywhere.
Then you had a situation where when the convicts, when convict transportation ceased, that there was a short fall in cheap, free labour. And so, indentured labourers were actually sent out from China. That was a system that had already been established with sending miners to places like Borneo, in the early part of the 19th Century. So, it was already an established kind of thing.
So, when the gold rushes hit, then more indentured labourers were sent out as a result of that. But, also a lot of free men, people that came out self-funded and that kind of thing.
Anita Jack, General Manager, Golden Dragon Museum: The primary journey was to come to the gold rush but that was made hard by the landing tax, the 10 pound poll tax, to actually come in through Melbourne and to walk up into the gold fields. So, their journeys were from a distance. They travelled from Sydney, Robe, and Adelaide, and then walked here to the gold fields. So, it would have been very difficult. The terrain would have been harsh. Their supplies would have been low. They would have really relied on each other to support one another and to carry, not only their provisions but each other here to the gold fields.
Heather Ah Pee, Former Co-Ordinator, Gum San Chinese Heritage Centre: I know when they got to Robe they expected the gold to be right there, just over the hill. Of course, it was four, five hundred kilometres away. But, I don't think they really had much clue as to what they were coming up against at all.
Anita Jack: So in 1854, the campsites would have been, I imagine, fairly large at that time. A lot of men of range of ages, young and 20s, all, I guess, talking in their own village dialect.
Heather Ah Pee: It would have been very noisy. Chinese, because they live so close together, they tend to shout rather loudly. Especially from the South. Often, when you're in places like Guanzhou and you hear people speaking Cantonese, you think they're really angry but they're not. They're just loud.
Anita Jack: They would have worked really hard. During the day it would have been dusty. Would have been cold in winter. Would have been boiling hot in summer. I imagine sitting down to their meal time would have been a huge bond, would be like a brotherhood. They would've dealt with quite a lot of hardship, a lot of discrimination, and together very closely, you know. It would have been their temporary home, but at the same time a home that was welcoming. There would have been inside feuds too, I'm sure, like any family there's always a disagreement or two. But it would have been a place of comfort for them, for sure.
Heather Ah Pee: One of the problems that the Chinese encountered was that the Europeans were quite jealous of them because the Chinese were very organised. They would have their whole group organised. Some would be miners, but some would be the butcher, some would be the gardener, some would do the washing, someone else would do the cooking. So, for the Europeans, they'd have to come in from their day of mining and get the wood for their fire, and cook their meal, and maybe do their washing, but they mostly did that on Sundays because they didn't have to mine on Sundays. Whereas, the Chinese were so organised that the miners came in and everything was done for them. This was one of the things that caused a lot of the friction because the Chinese were getting more gold because they were able to work longer hours because all of their other things were taken care of.
Anita Jack: A lot of anti-Chinese legislations and laws were put into place to really limit the amount of opportunities for the Chinese to find gold, and a lot of taxes as well. And that was one way of enforcing legally, I guess, discrimination upon the Chinese and limiting what they could actually do here in the gold fields.
Professor Keir Reeves, Director, Collaborative Research Centre in Australian History, Federation University Australia: Initially, they came to Victoria directly or Sydney and then went by their way to the diggings and then in time what's known as the Great White Walls are built, I guess, through a legislative framework and that's through the imposition of two taxes. One is the residents tax, where you have to pay to be a resident in the colonies, Victoria, New South Wales, the states, and the second is the poll tax, which is a very dramatic and pretty arbitrary way of raising a levy against a certain group of people, and of course this was the Chinese.
Cash Brown: There was sort of a view of, "Ah, yes, it was just a bunch of sad Chinese labourers and miners coming out and that they had a really hard time and we were rotten to them and then they picked over tailings and went home," isn't really anywhere near the full story, or it's a part of it. And then when we just hear about things like the riots at Lambing Flat or the Clunes riot, and the Buckland River riots, and things like that. There's just such a big focus on those stories and yet, just by looking at those alone, which is often what happens, it doesn't allow for the richness of the contributions that the Chinese eventually made to Australian culture.
Keir Reeves: There is a stereotype that they all smoked opium and lived on the edge of the community and were hopeless victims, not the case at all. Often Chinatowns were in the middle of town, near the action if you like, the commercial action and when you look at it you find a more revealing and interesting but ambiguous sort of social relations where, yes, on the one hand there is racism, there's poll taxes, and there's very challenging circumstances. But on the other hand people are making money. They're going into business ventures with European miners and I suspect on one level, they're just getting on with it and working their way around some of the injustices they would've encountered in what would have been, I suspect, a very challenging situation.
I think it’s like a lot of societies, that racism and harmony can exist side-by-side.
Cash Brown: Of course, luck is like luck anywhere in the goldfields. If you haven't struck it rich, or if your group hasn't made a lot of money, you haven't got enough money to go home. Or you might not want to go home. You might actually think this is actually better than going back to the drought or the starvation or the Opium Wars and all the horrible things that were going on in southern China at that time.
So, how those decisions were actually made by individuals, we can only speculate on that a lot of the time. A lot of those men actually did stay and marry, and married European women, and established businesses and families, but using their transferrable skills that they already had.
We have to remember it's an incredible sophisticated culture that they've come from. And, that they have skills and their adaptability and ability to survive in this incredibly bizarre and harsh land is remarkable.
Keir Reeves: The Chinese involvement in the Victorian rushes or indeed the Australian rushes, needs to be seen as part of a bigger pattern of the movement of the people. And, my suspicion is that people's motivations to go looking for gold in the mid-19th Century, are largely the same wherever they're from. And I think there are two things, there is the material self interest. If you look ... If you've gone gold seeking, as David Goodman put it, then you're there to make money, but also we're talking about in the 1850s, a time where there'd been a whole spate of failed revolutions in Europe. A time of incredible upheaval in certain parts of the world.
And, also the impress of the industrial revolution, was the reality of working there would have been quite overwhelming for a lot of people. The chance to have your own autonomy, that's known as "Jack was a good as his master," that must have appealed to some people. It would have been you would come out here, you could've won your future and obviously had a very different life than working in the mills of the British midlands for the rest of your life.
Likewise, for the Chinese. We're talking about the Opium Wars in prelude to the gold rushes, and then a really, very major civil war, perhaps one of the most bloody things that happened in human history. Millions and millions of people are dying. Ethic strife and just a time of incredible upheaval in China. A lot of people would've taken the opportunity to come out and win their fortune, have some autonomy, and escape a very uncertain situation back home.