Keir Reeves Full Interview
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In this extended audio interview Professor Keir Reeves, Director of the Collaborative Research Centre in Australian History at Federation University Australia talks to producer Lucinda Horrocks.
Keir talks about why he is personally drawn to the story of the Chinese on the Goldfields, the significance of his old home town of Castlemaine to the Chinese story, the global issues driving Chinese and European gold seekers to 19th century Victoria, instances of conflict and harmony on the goldfields, what life was like for the Chinese in Victorian goldfields towns, some of his favourite Chinese identities, the importance of exploring biographies in history and why certain stories about history are told in different eras.
The interview took place on the 5th May 2017 in the Store Room of the Gold Museum, Sovereign Hill Museums Association, Ballarat, Victoria.
Lucinda: Tell me first about why you are personally interested in the story on the Chinese on the Goldfields?
Keir: Good question. There's a number of reasons that I've been thinking about. I thought I'd get asked something like this. There's a number of reasons. First of all, when I was young, we used to go to a place not far from here called Castlemaine. My great uncle [Tom] was the principal of the high school. He was married to a woman called Zeta and they had four daughters. When I was very little we went to the Campbell’s Creek cemetery to bury Zeta. I was six years old, I twigged the time that she was actually Chinese Australian.
For many years people thought that my family, the Cavanagh family, had been in the district forever. In fact they had but they had been there by virtue of Zeta's - the Govey or Ah Gooey family's connection to Castlemaine and the area. In fact, my side of the family's connection with Castlemaine only begins in the 1950s when Tom went along to become a teacher at the high school. That was sort of always kicking around in the back of my mind and then later we moved to Castlemaine and I spent my teenage years there. One thing that I'll never forget is that there was a fellow that was running ... A European guy was running the Chinese restaurant and he left and people in town were a little bit up in arms because they weren't sure if the Chinese family could run the Chinese restaurant.
This was the 1980s in Australia, country Australia anyway. Just little things like that were always kicking around in the back of my mind and one thing led to another and in 2001 I was fortunate enough to start doing a fairly major research project called the Mt Alexander Diggings Project with folk from Melbourne Uni, Alan Mayne and others and La Trobe Uni some archaeologists lead by Susan Lawrence. My job was to write a history of the Chinese on the diggings. It was a great few years and I worked with people like the heritage archaeologist David Bannear and the Chinese Museum, the Museum of Chinese Australian History in Melbourne.
All those sort of themes that I'd been thinking about or had been introduced to as a younger person was sort of up front and what I found myself doing was uncovering a hidden history. Not to put too fine point on it but the question begged if one in nine people in Colonial Victoria in the late 1850s came from Southern China and arguably one in four men in some goldfields communities came from Southern China, where were they in the history of the region or indeed the Victorian history. It was very much that sort of history. It was a bit of a reappraisal of what happened on the goldfields and asked those bigger questions like who is a pioneer, these sort of things.
Lucinda: How extraordinary that you had all of these formative experiences in Castlemaine because that area turns out to be really significant -
Keir: Yes it does. It is very significant. There is this tendency in goldfields communities to claim that boosterism of our town did it best, whether it's Castlemaine, Ballarat, Bendigo, Ararat, that sort of thing but in this case Castlemaine is unusual because it had so many Chinese gold seekers and they were there for such a long time and they weren't a faded community. The story goes that the Chinese came along, they searched for gold, they went into other occupations and then they either left or returned to Southern China or faded into small communities in place like Bendigo or China Town in Melbourne or the South Melbourne temple. We're talking about something a little bit more complicated than that I think.
Lucinda: What is the story?
Keir: I think what happens is 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 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. I think there's two things. There's the material self-interest. If you're going gold seeking, as David Goodman put it, then you're there to make money. We're also talking about the 1850s, a time where there'd been a whole spate of failed revolutions in Europe. A time of significant 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, what's known as Jack was as good as his master. That must have appealed to some people. You could have come out here, you could have won your fortune 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 the 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. Ethnic strife and just a time of incredible upheaval in China. A lot of people would have taken the opportunity, mostly men ... nearly all men in fact, to come out and win their fortune, have some autonomy and escape a very uncertain situation back home.
Lucinda: When we're talking about the journeys that the Chinese migrants took to the goldfields, we're not actually talking about the whole of China are we? We're talking about quite specific regions that tended to send their as you say mainly young men?
Keir: Yes you are. You're talking about, predominantly Southern China. Not exclusively, but predominantly and coming from certain districts or regions. Some people call it the Pearl River Delta region around, it's around Zhuhai, Guandong, these parts of the world. Some would have left from Hong Kong as well. It was a fairly serious movement of people. Initially they came to Victoria directly or Sydney and made their way to the diggings and then in time, what's known as the Great White Walls were built I guess through a legislative framework and that's through the imposition of two taxes. One is the residence tax where you have to pay to be a resident in the colonies of Victoria and New South Wales, the states, and the second is the poll tax which is a very dramatic and arbitrary way of raising a levy against a certain group of people and of course this was the Chinese.
South Australia, perhaps because it was the free state. It didn't have a poll tax. In time, and this is sort of the popular story and people have been recreating the route and retracing the steps quite beautifully in fact as a reminder of what these people experienced. In time it became apparent that the most convenient port to drop the Chinese gold seekers at was Guichen Bay, which is not far from Robe in South Australia down near the Coonawarra, perhaps better known for it's crayfish now days than it's Chinese gold seekers. They would literally hop off. They would disembark the ship and would walk these incredible distances across the south eastern part of South Australia and then across through western Victoria.
Today you can see a nice little historical legacy, I guess an ecological footprint, in some of the market gardens and botanical gardens were first laid out with or buy Chinese itinerants who were making their way to what they would have known as Dai Gum San, which was New Gold Mountain. It was Central Victoria, it might have been Ballarat, Bendigo. I'm not sure if it was a whole region or one place. They were coming to this part of the world and of course, Gum San was California. It was the original gold mountain. These people are part of a much broader global pattern of movement, gold seeking. They share the same motivations and I suspect they didn't have a lot of options. It would take a certain amount of desperation or need to want to walk all the way across western Victoria. For those who know the area we're talking about, hundreds and hundreds of kilometres through all sorts of terrain. Some of it's lovely but some of it's quite hard and difficult and uncertain.
Lucinda: It's even changed now in our contemporary experience of it. I've heard that it was difficult to get across some areas because of swamp lands and all sorts of things and now that's all drained.
Keir: Everyone's draining the swamp now.
Lucinda: Yeah they're draining the swamp.
Keir: Absolutely we're looking at a very inhospitable landscape and I don't imagine walking through marsh lands. I guess it would have been not unlike walking through the Koo-Wee-Rup swamp ... That's what the barrier was with Gippsland. Its the same sort of thing. Quite big natural barriers it would have been very difficult to navigate the terrain.
Lucinda: When you said that your research you uncovered hidden history, what was it about the Chinese experience, the Chinese gold seekers in the gold rush that historians hadn't been focusing on?
Keir: Great question. A couple of things I think. Maybe Victoria's fascination with mining history as a foundation story, which I suspect it is. It’s a touch stone for our state’s history that perhaps our convicts are for New South Wales and other parts of the country or Tasmania. I suspect that for a long time was caught up in wealth creation, industry, trade unions, those sort of more obvious discussions about what the legacies of the gold rush era was. Also the massive and rapid rate of city formation. The gold builds Melbourne. Ballarat and Bendigo are obviously cities to look at that have been extremely wealthy. Perhaps people's historical gaze went in other directions.
That's the more positive and understandable side of it. And the other side of it is that maybe there just wasn't an interest in it for very long time and perhaps by the 1980s where there was a move away from a discussion about Victoria emerging as an amazing success story. Or if you have a different political stripe as a more radical tradition: Eureka. You might be interested in [that] rather than the amount of gold won. By the 1980s it became apparent that there are a number of different historical interpretations, a number of different stories and perhaps people, like say Morag Loh and other, started to turn their gaze towards other communities and migrant communities and recover histories such as the Chinese on the Victorian goldfields or indeed through colonial Victoria.
Lucinda: If we cast our eyes and our mind back to the 1850s, 1860s, diggings in Castlemaine or in Ballarat or in Bendigo or in any of those gold rush towns, what would a Chinese camp be like? What would it sound like, what would it look like?
Keir: What one would have to qualify this by saying it's over one shoulder we imagine this rather than through the eyes of the Chinese because obviously we weren't there. There is an interesting interpretation of it at the Sovereign Hill across the road a part of the Gold Museum and Sovereign Hill experience. You're looking at largely calico tents, you're looking at temples, a club house. One particular community, the See Yup community, had a number of temples. They had a fantastic one in South Melbourne. They had a number throughout the Victorian goldfields. These would have been the social hub. This is where you would have gone to perhaps gamble, definitely to socialise, to be a place of devotion and it was the hub of everyday life and practice of the Chinese community.
There would have been a number of different commercial enterprises. They tended to live fairly close together and not exclusively but for the most part, they did live with people from China. There were Europeans living in some Chinatowns or some called Chinese quarters in goldfields communities. They had their own distinctive appearance. You can see the last of the legacies of them in places like in Bendigo where the Golden Dragon Museum is. That was a very notable and famous Chinatown. The Chinatown in Ballarat isn't nearly as obvious but there's a lovely memorial to the Chinese community and the Chinese gold seekers, the John Young public sculpture which is around when Chinatown was in Ballarat.
For the most part, the experience would have been one of just illustrious energy. Very busy and people from different parts of Southern China in their own community groups identifying, working together. Perhaps making money or maybe not and hoping to either find their own independence financially or just pay off a debt to get home to China, depending on how they felt about the situation.
Lucinda: What are the common stereotypes or misconceptions that we have about the Chinese in those days?
Keir: There's lots of misconceptions about I think the gold seeking era for a lot of reasons. Some of them are really tricky. People say that every round hole dug in the ground is Chinese and that's not actually true. Structurally, a round hole is far better than a square. You'll find the Cornish miners worked that out very quickly as well, because they're very good. Not every round hole you see is Chinese. 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.
They were near the action if you like, the commercial action. When you look at it, you'll find a more revealing and interesting but ambiguous set of social relations where yes on one hand there's racism, there's poll taxes and very challenging circumstances, but on another, people are making money, they're going into business ventures with European miners. I suspect on one level they're just getting on with it and working their way around some of the injustices they would have encountered in what would have been, I suspect, a very challenging situation. I think that's like a lot of societies. Racism and harmony can exist side by side.
Lucinda: Do you have any favourite characters that you've come across in your research?
Keir: The one thing that I think is really interesting about biography and I will come to a point here. One thing I think is really interesting about biography is that for so long we talk about the Chinese like some generic group of people. We'll have an intimate portrait of Peter Lalor or somebody like that and just by virtue of how much information we know, that leads us to privilege certain people. Part of what I've tried to do and others in writing Chinese Australian history is to tell those personal stories and in a sense recover figures for history that would otherwise be forgotten. In doing so, just provide a bit of a pallet of identities and experiences rather than the Governor, the captain of the camp, a bush ranger and Lola Montez.
They're all great characters, they're really important but it's nice to hear about other stories as well. Those hidden histories that a number of people have discussed. I'm really interested in the obvious characters, someone like Quong Tart who's in New South Wales. He's sort of an amazing figure in many respects with his Scottish lifestyle and accent and living between two worlds, closer to this part of the world. Thinking about James Ah Koy, the court interpreter. On one level he's a businessman, another level, he's the court interpreter. One level he's friends with the Captain John Bull, he's the head of the camp in Castlemaine. They seem to be in on a lottery racket together. I know I'm making him sound like some sort of figure out of Deadwood, Ah Koy is a fascinating character. The other thing's interesting is even today you can go to places and see where folk lived.
In Ah Koy's case, he built a house with his wife Catherine Hornick and they had a family. They lived out in Bowden street in Castlemaine, the house is still there to this day. There are little glimpses of the past that you can still sort of recapture the stories of people like James Ah Koy and Quong Tart and others. There are another group of people that, not many of them, that are the sort of very successful, the stand out type characters and I guess the two that really springs to mind for me, are Louis Ah Mouy who was a very prominent member of the Chinese community in Melbourne, Victoria really during the 19th century. Somebody that had a massive commercial success.
It's argued that he had one of the best relations with O'Shanassy who was the former premier of Victoria. He lived in East Melbourne, which is obviously one of the more rarefied suburbs of the great city and by no means is he anywhere near those stereotypes of an opium addled faded digger who's sort of camped out by the side of some old washed out gold field. Ah Mouy’s always really up front and centre in many things during the 19th century. He's obviously politically connected. He's got investments in banks and he's obviously very connected up country with the various Chinese associations and groups of workers.
Another who springs to mind is Lowe Kong Meng who can be seen in some respects as Louis Ah Mouy's counterpart and the interesting story about Kong Meng is that people would apparently send him quite extraordinary things as tribute, given his significance within the community. He's a signatory to a document with a couple of other people, calling for a better deal if you like. Remonstrance of sorts. Later in the 19th century for the Chinese, his attitudes hardened towards them.
These sort of people are fascinating. In Ah Mouy’s case perhaps he had one of the largest probates after the Hentys in 19th century Victoria, very wealthy, very interesting characters. I think it's very important that their stories are told so we don't just talk about ‘the Chinese’.
Lucinda: From the picture that you're painting and others that we've interviewed as well, it's not just gold digging that we're talking about in terms of the activity that Chinese migrants are participating in. There's a spectrum. They're part of the whole community. They're business people, they're market gardeners. What were some of the other ones that you listed?
Keir: Primarily, mining and market gardening but merchants as well. Later, in the furniture trades. There's a whole raft of occupations and I think you make a very good point that we're not just talking about people who come out and dig up massive sections of creek flats to extract gold. They then diversify into a whole range of occupations and for a very long time. Chinese herbalists, apothecaries, formed a very important complement to western medicine for a very long time, in fact, well into the 20th century. The Chinese herbalist was an important part, if you like, of the public health mix in goldfields towns or wherever they were found.
Lucinda: That's fascinated. I'm fascinated about the ongoing legacy. Even though, as you say, those walls start to close in the early 20th century, we've actually still got communities that are in the goldfields towns that are a part of the community, that have just been there like the other migrants.
Keir: Absolutely Lucinda. I think what we're looking at with the benefit of hindsight is a set of two tides if you like crossing and on one level there is this hardening of attitudes. You can see maybe through social Darwinian attitudes of race, of issues of fear of Asia from the European community. Maybe a sojourning mentality from the Chinese gold seekers, they were here to win a fortune and some did just want to go home. But a small and significant section of the gold seekers stayed and had families. They might have met or gathered around a church or a community association in places like Bendigo or in Chinatown in the city of Melbourne. In some cases, they are still going strong well into the 20th century.
This is the first major movement of Chinese people to Victoria. It goes back over 150 years. There are people that can claim roots to these original pioneers that are part of that great wave of people that occurred in Victoria as a result of the Victorian gold rushes.
Lucinda: Why don't we see this aspect of Victoria's history?
Keir: I hasten to say that we haven't seen it for a long time but in the last 25 years or so I think you could say there is a realisation to tell the Chinese story as part of a multicultural history of Victoria and now multiculturalism is a public policy, community harmony, is state and federal policy then telling a multiplicity of experiences from people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds is an important part of the history of Victoria but for a long time it wasn't and it was a story of wool, wheat and these sort of narratives, which is fine, they're good.
Now the historical gaze has turned to telling the histories of other communities in Victoria. Given that the Chinese have such a long and were such a significant part of the community. I'm just speculating here but proportionally, there were holding more Chinese in Victoria in the 1850s than there are today. I think there was about one in nine. I'm not sure if it's quite that amount today. It's a long and enduring association with this part of the world. It's right that their story is told. As I said, that's only really come to light in recent decades.
Lucinda: Where do you think the remnants of this legacy of the Chinese are in the goldfields today? Is it in us, is it in our culture, is it in the landscape? Where do you look and say I can see a direct linkage to 1850s Chinese diggers there?
Keir: Great question. This has been one that's been on my mind for ages. Sorry, you're really going to have to edit this bit out. When we're talking about the Victorian goldfields like anywhere that's experienced alluvial mining and that's within six, seven feet of the surface, some people argue deeper. We're talking about turning the earth upside down. There's an immense impact. We're currently sitting in the store room of a fantastic museum and there's a lot of material culture from various club houses. Ballarat becoming a city of great significance. It basically evolved over it's goldfields. The pressures on the old temple that were obviously too much and they were dropped in the name of progress. Similarly the same thing happened in much of Bendigo but there is a lovely temple there out at White Hills.
These are the sort of places you can see the Chinese legacy in ... The White Hills temple, the burning ovens of various cemeteries throughout the region such as in Beechworth. In the river flats where you can still see the self sowing pear trees and the old Chinese village Vaughan Springs. They're little touch stones. There is no Chinatown unfortunately like you'll see in places like Melbourne or Victoria in Vancouver Island or in San Francisco. If you look carefully enough you can find them. You suggested that we find them in our inside of us.
I think anyone who has an interest in the gold rushes would be turning the other way if they didn't sort of consider the history of the Chinese as a part of the broader story. For that matter, a whole lot of people who came from all over the world. To a certain extent, the great legacy of the gold rushes is not the wealth, it's the fact that the population increases by a factor of 10 in a decade. Just to put that in perspective, if we've got four million people today in Victoria, imagine if we had 40 million in 10 years time. That's the sort of impact the rushers had and are really quite extraordinary.
Lucinda: If you had an opportunity as you do now to talk to your audience who might be school students, they might be just interested members of the general public, they might be researchers. What question would you like them to have in their mind after watching this film?
Keir: Okay, great question Lucinda. I feel like we're having a PhD vibe. I feel like I’m revisiting my PhD. What's the significance of it all? I don't know. I never quite worked that out. I couldn't find anything, that's why I did cultural landscapes. I've got a document for you, an article that we published. In all seriousness, I think the question that you would want to ask, it's a couple bound up together is: when did multiculturalism begin in Victoria?; who is a pioneer? - If you're among the first to arrive I would suggest that you are a pioneer – and; is it important to tell a number of different stories and interpretations, some conflicting, sometimes a little bit edgy that provide a more comprehensive picture of what's happened in this part of the world for the past 150 years?; and do we need to have those conversations to fully know who we are as a society today?
Lucinda: Yeah interesting. Where do you look to in this story? When you're thinking about this whole story, particularly of the Chinese migrating here during the gold rush, what resonates with you personally? What makes you feel sad to think to reflect on?
Keir: I think if you're the richest colony in the Empire briefly and you have the run of the green and given the sensibilities of today ... The opening decades of the 21st century, it's slightly wistfully that I reflect that we didn't find a place for everybody in the community at a time of such excitement and dynamism.
Lucinda: Conversely, where do you find hope? What gives you hope when you look at this story?
Keir: Well I think the exciting thing is that when we examine the actuality of the historical experience of the gold rushes, we find stories of success, we find stories of diversity, we find stories of mutual commercial benefit, we find stories of hostility, we find stories of Europeans and Chinese marrying, we find stories of happiness of families, we find stories of enduring communities in places like Bendigo that continue with the Easter Festival and a vibrant community into the present day, and we find now in 2018 an acceptance that the Chinese were an important part of what happened. For some it was a place that Australia was good to them.