Who Were They?
Full length portrait of a Chinese woman, seated, Davies and Co Photographers, Melbourne, circa 1855-1882Contributors
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Nearly all men: the Chinese 19th century diaspora was unique in that it was almost exclusively male.
Of the tens of thousands of Chinese people who arrived in Victoria in the peak gold rush migration period between 1851 and 1870 only a very few (possibly only up to 11) were women. Men generally outnumbered women on the Victorian goldfields, but the almost entire absence of Chinese women caused consternation and disapprobation amongst European miners and bureaucrats.
However, Chinese society strongly disapproved of Chinese women journeying far away from home. Rarely would a Chinese woman break the convention and sail to the goldfields, although as the 19th century wore on more women did. One such adventurer was Tong Chay Lye, wife of Bendigo's Chinese interpreter Wat Ah Che. She was Chinese-born and known to make appearances in Sandhurst (Bendigo) in Chinese costume in the mid 1860s.
The absence of Chinese women on the goldfields did not mean they were absent from the lives of Chinese goldseekers. It's estimated that at least a third of the men who left for Victoria were already married, although that did not preclude them from marrying again in Australia.
Chinese men corresponded with their families through letters home written in their own hand or by scribes. The parents, grandparents, wives and children at home were strong motivators for voyagers to work hard and return wealthy.
However, some voyagers made other choices and stayed in Victoria, perhaps with a new partner, while some travelled to new parts of the world following the next mining boom. But few lost their connections to women and families at home.