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Chinese on the Gold Fields

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Groups of Chinese, seeking wealth on the gold fields, started arriving in Victoria in 1853, which started perhaps the most controversial issue surrounding the gold rush era. Racism against the Chinese mounted in the fields, as well as in the cities and towns, but not only because Europeans saw themselves as superior (many saw Chinese as being the social equivalent of Aboriginals). You see, unlike other ethnic groups, the Chinese came in large, organised groups, which then segregated themselves from the rest of the miners.

The Chinese were law-abiding, so they did not represent any problem in that respect, but kept their own strange customs and dress, and made no effort to socialise with those of other races. Also, they often worked areas abandoned (or shunned) by others, extracting gold others had failed to find. The Chinese were known as hard-working, though the fact that they often worked tailings left by others (which, in hard times, miners could fall back on) angered many. Soon, criticisms that the Chinese were muddying water needed to wash gold turned to a real worry that so many Chinese were coming as to not leave any gold for the Europeans.

By mid-1855, 17,000 Chinese lived and worked on the gold fields - a stark contrast to the 10,000 at the beginning of the same year. As their numbers increased, so did the frequency of attacks upon them, which led to a £10 entry tax being imposed on Chinese coming to Victoria by the Legislative Council in June, 1855. They also limited ships to one Chinese per 10 tons of registered cargo, and established a protectorate system (which called for the registering of all Chinese, who were to only live in designated areas on the gold fields, and pay a £1 annual residence fee). Of the few protectorates that were actually implemented, it can be said that they did in fact reduce attacks upon the Chinese.

The entry tax did slow down the influx of Chinese by sea, but not for long. Captains soon started unloading Chinese at Robe in South Australia in an effort to avoid the tax, and the Chinese then walked to Victoria overland. So the Chinese population increased, while the gold to be found decreased, which led to more open hostility towards the newcomers.

In July 1857, angry miners of the Buckland River lead held a meeting, after which they went to the Chinese camp and tried to drive them off. They destroyed property, as well as injuring and killing an unknown number of the Chinese. Fawkner, who led an inquiry into the affair, then recommended the residence tax to be lifted to £6 per year for Chinese.

In the same year, South Australia passed a similar legislation to the Victorian restrictions, but Chinese were still able to enter Victoria by way of NSW. In 1859, the Chinese numbered over 40,000 - which meant that 20% of males in the colony were Asian. However, at that point it seems Chinese interest in Victoria waned, and their numbers steadily decreased over the next few years. Some created small Chinese communities in Melbourne, Bendigo and Beechworth, while others returned to China. Anti-Chinese legislation was dropped in Victoria in the early 1860’s, but the racism would linger for some time.

Today, Chinese Victorians are a part of Melbourne heritage, and Chinatown (which takes up a whole street in the City) is alive with the hustle and bustle of not only Chinese and other Asians, but Australians and Europeans. If you want the best Asian food in all of the world, your best bet is Melbourne’s Chinatown!

Chinese and Aborigines

One strange and vague episode in the Chinese influx concerns their interaction with a certain tribe of Aborigines during the Victorian gold rush years. Perhaps interaction is not the right word, as the Chinese were notoriously unsociable, and the only way the Aborigines interacted with them was to kill and eat them! This is very strange, as Aborigines are not known for cannibalism, yet apparently liked ‘yellow meat’.

Why this certain tribe never did this to white man or other Aborigines is a mystery. Some have offered the suggestion that these were revenge attacks. Considering that Aborigines never did this to white man, who was openly hostile to the natives, this has prompted some to suggest that the revenge was of an eye-for-an-eye nature, meaning that Chinese had killed Aborigines to add to their diet of meat, and the Aborigines had then waged war on them for their atrocities and returned the favour.

None of this is substantiated in any way, so please do not go around saying that Aborigines ate Chinese because the latter started it first! However, if you have any info on the matter, please feel free to send it to me and share it with the world.

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