After the gold rush; before Tiananmen: how Chinese-Australians put down deep roots in the regions | Australia news

Three years in the past in the city of Moree, a small common retailer shut down, simply eight years in need of what would’ve been its hundredth anniversary.

The identify didn’t actually strike me as one which would appear odd to these exterior the north-west. Not till years later: Hong Yuens. Not till I spent a while in Brisbane, and noticed that individuals appeared amazed that, sure, there have been Chinese language folks exterior Sunnybank – typically way exterior.

The identify by no means struck me as odd, rising up in Bingara. However not out of some innate Asian-Australian familiarity with Chinese language names.

To me, Hong Yuens was simply the identify of the store at Moree. It had been there since I’d been born. It had been there for 30 years before my father was born. Hong Yuens had simply all the time been there.


The favored historical past of Chinese language folks in Australia appears restricted to pre-federation, pre-White Australia coverage goldrush miners, their ability and diligence elevating the ire and envy of the Europeans. Solely taking, by no means contributing. Or some form of Eighties-era boomer-approved refugees, fleeing from Tiananmen and Sort 59 tanks.

Both a villain or a sufferer, however all the time the different, interlopers in the Aussie milieu.

Kathy See-Kee, holding a photo of her parents, Charles Tsang See-Kee and Noreen See-Kee (nee Wong)
‘The truth is that the Chinese language diaspora in Australia stretches past these boundaries’: Kathy See-Kee with pictures of her dad and mom, Charles and Noreen See-Kee (nee Wong). {Photograph}: Simon Scott/The Guardian

The White Australia coverage was the very first thing the new commonwealth handed into regulation in 1901. It didn’t simply halt the inflow of Chinese language migrants; it additionally had the impact of freezing the narrative of Chinese language folks in Australia as merely a folks excluded.

The favored narrative is that there are roughly two eras of Chinese language immigration in Australia: Nineteenth-century miners, these ponytailed ghosts of the goldfields; after which the post-White Australia inflow of immigrants, beginning with these fleeing Tiananmen tanks in the Eighties.

However this ignores 100 years of historical past of the Chinese language individuals who managed to remain after federation, like my grandfather, or these diaspora from the outposts of collapsing empires – Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Timor-Leste – a few of whom emigrated to dwell and work in Australia throughout the peak of the White Australia coverage.

The idea of Chinese language folks as foreigners in Australia was all the time a overseas idea to me, principally as a result of I by no means actually felt Chinese language – at the least, not in the means that I used to be purported to be. Hell, I’m allergic to shellfish.

It’s by no means actually been my id. As an alternative, I used to be all the time simply … Australian. Small nation city, searching, fishing, elevating the odd cow or two, almost getting murdered by horses. OK, sure, there was some occasional gold panning, however the return on that isn’t actually price the effort as of late.

The truth is that the Chinese language diaspora in Australia stretches past these boundaries, and, properly, a few of us slipped previous the internet and solid a life.

Diana Giese, in her 1995 ebook Beyond Chinatown, referred to as it “the typically hidden historical past”. Chinese-Australians: Chinese language individuals who had been, and are, Australian. Not separate, not others, not dwelling on the fringe. Not on the exterior trying in.

My grandfather – Goong-Goong, or Charles See-Kee, gave a lecture in 1987, revealed as an occasional paper for the Northern Territory library referred to as Chinese Contribution To Early Darwin.

He notes that 4 earlier makes an attempt to settle the Northern Territory all failed, till Chinese language labourers, used to the warmth and humidity, had been introduced in from Singapore on the fifth try in the 1860s. Solely then did Darwin take root.

A tableau of some of the papers Tom Plevey has that belonged to his grandfather Charles Tsang See-Kee, including a photo of him
‘None of this was the lifetime of an outsider’: Charles See-Kee helped discovered the Chung Wah society, coached sports activities groups, obtained an OAM and had a scholarship named after him. {Photograph}: Tom Plevey/The Guardian

And solely as soon as Chinese language staff had laid the foundations and gotten issues going had been the doorways shut to them, with tariffs positioned on their entry to Australia. A string of alarmist tariffs and charges on their journey past the new northern settlement had been additionally imposed. With out Chinese language labour, it’s unlikely Darwin would even exist in any respect.


However many caught round, constructing companies and a thriving Chinatown. These folks slipped by means of the internet of the White Australia coverage by dint of already being right here. They had been a part of the basis of the new nation; in spite of everything, they helped construct it.

I’ve by no means been precisely clear on how Goong-Goong ended up in Australia, at the least from a authorized standpoint. I do know he fled the New Territories after a mock execution (the place he debated together with his captors about whether or not to be shot or beheaded). Goong-Goong had been working for EWO Brewery in Shanghai, and in the chaos of the second world battle, nobody appeared to thoughts him being in Australia. I’m not even certain he had citizenship, even when working as the secretary to the NT administrator on 19 February 1942, on censorship, or becoming a member of the RAAF.

The See-Kee household owned a pearling firm, See Yick, on Thursday Island, and Goong-Goong attended Nudgee School in his 20s. His mum had an Aussie passport, and he had Hong Kong residences, however none of that was a assure of acceptance and citizenship.

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After the battle, he raised a correctly Catholic variety of children, and between work he discovered time to assist discovered the Chung Wah society, coach sports activities groups, throw my mom into a cabinet on Christmas Eve of 1974 to shelter her from Cyclone Tracy and feed and settle boat folks at the request of the Hawke authorities in the 80s. There was an OAM, and when he died, Charles Darwin College named a scholarship after him.

None of this was the lifetime of an outsider. This was not a perform of being peripheral to the neighborhood.

By some means, it appears, Goong-Goong turned a fixture, then an establishment.

In regional Australia, there’s virtually all the time some echo of the Chinese language presence, remembered fondly as a common retailer, a market backyard, a shoe store, or the omnipresent Chinese restaurant. In locations like Darwin and Broome, the Chinese language presence runs deep, not as the story of outsiders, however of founding members.

This form of engagement and integration of Chinese language folks with Australian communities over the years, and particularly for many of the twentieth century throughout the darkish days of the White Australia coverage, appears to have been forgotten. Or, at the least, unnoticed. I’ve by no means actually considered myself as something aside from Australian, however nonetheless that Chinese language household historical past is there.

However that’s the level, isn’t it? These Chinese language folks grew to develop into … Australia. A lot in order that they’re probably not seen as something new or completely different or particular.

We’ve all the time been right here.

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