"The Chinese in Ballarat" by Irene Scott
Ballarat, 1858. The peak of the gold rush. Just under 10,000 Chinese had
migrated to Ballarat and around a quarter of the men on the goldfield were
Chinese, second only to the English in numbers. But looking at Ballarat
today, you wouldn’t have a clue there were ever any Chinese at all.
Such an enormous human migration is sure to leave a mark on the community
it rests in, but what you’ll find in Ballarat is a recreation of what is
a missing part of their golden history.
Barbara Cooper-Ainsworth, an independent researcher of the Chinese in
Ballarat, says the Chinese impact is often a forgotten part of Ballarat
“The Chinese village and commercial zone lasted into the twentieth
century…but by the early 1960s, all signs of the (Chinese) community had
been removed except for the Chinese areas in the cemeteries”
It is not widely known that many of the Chinese graves in the Ballarat
cemeteries are actually empty. The Chinese miners were sincere in their
desire to finally return home to China.
“Celestial Body” funds were established by the Chinese to support the
exhumation of graves to return individuals to their home villages for
final burial with their ancestors.
Often it is only the headstone that remains.
Over 16,000 Chinese walked to the Victorian goldfields from South
Australia to avoid the harsh government taxes made to limit Chinese
The “New Gold Mountain” of the Ballarat goldfields provided many
Chinese with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to free themselves from
poverty in their homeland.
Settling in a handful of Chinese camps scattered across the Ballarat
goldfield, the Chinese miners largely saw themselves as “sojourners”
– working collaboratively with other Chinese to acquire wealth to send
home to their families before finally returning home themselves.
This pattern of Chinese migration was well established across Asia and
more recently in the goldfields of California, but was alien and
threatening to the frontier population of Ballarat.
When the Chinese miners arrived, they did not receive the reception they
had expected and the community they entered was far from welcoming.
They were forced to live in designated Chinese camps, under the protection
of ‘Chinese protectors’ and were asked to pay for the
There was little opportunity for meaningful communication between the
Chinese miners and their Western counterparts and local government
continued to raise Chinese mining taxes well above the European charge.
Conditions were that the Chinese certainly had merit for their own Eureka
At that time, one letter to the editor in The Ballarat Courier told
readers that “Charities should refuse Chinese contributions in the hope
that the money would be spent on their houses and personal hygiene or,
preferably, one way tickets to China.”
Little effort was made to forge active links between the communities of
Western and Chinese miners and shop-keepers. Just as in later years,
little effort was made to preserve Ballarat’s Chinese heritage.
Cooper- Ainsworth observes that many Chinese homes were pulled down early
in the century. In fact, the last Joss house (Chinese place of worship)
became run down and was demolished in the 60s. The Chinese camp was then
bulldozed to make way for a sports reserve and the commercial area was
cleared to make a grassed area.
“ I think you would struggle to see any lasting impact (of the Chinese)
these days, except what has been recreated in Sovereign Hill…And,
because of the language barrier, we don’t have many written accounts of
the Chinese in Ballarat.”
“With European history we have so-and-so’s letter to their mother, and
it records what life was like. But for the Chinese, there’s very little
All of this despite the fact that the Chinese brought with them their own
scribes and were often in regular communication with their families at
Despite the often open hostility of the Ballarat goldfields community, the
Chinese actively struggled to integrate by often adopting western dress
and raising funds for many of the public institutions. Groups such as the
Chinese opera, circus and orchestra worked hard to raise funds for
Ballarat’s public library, orphanage and hospital.
It is ironic that one of the most lasting contributions of the Chinese
community was their support for establishing such key civic assets from
which they received little or no benefit.
While many Europeans did attend performances of Chinese circuses and
opera, mostly out of curiosity, the performances were not always well
received and highlighted the lack of understanding between the two
One performance was reviewed in The Ballarat Star in December 1858. The
reviewer described the Chinese costumes as “dresses which would look
like bed curtains if they did not still more resemble ornamented shower
But the Chinese did have one campaigner for their rights, the rather
eccentric, Robert Bell.
Bell, later nicknamed ‘Chinese Bell’, was born in Middlesex, England,
and after studying Chinese culture and language for four years, he moved
to Ballarat and in 1856 started a rather remarkable newspaper.
“The English and Chinese Advertiser”: the first Australian-Chinese
paper and possibly the first bilingual paper with the Chinese in the
From a small office in Ballarat’s Main Road, and only a stone’s throw
from the Chinese camp, Bell translated, published and hand carved wooden
printing blocks for the paper he hoped would bring the two communities
Yewang Wang, a Chinese librarian and researcher, has studied the paper,
and the impact it made on the Chinese community in Ballarat.
“The newspaper made a very distinct contribution in promoting
cross-cultural understanding between the Chinese and the broader
community, and helped many Chinese diggers adjust to the unfriendly
environment they found themselves in.”
The weekly paper was free and informed the Chinese of government notices
and advertised local European retailers.
But it also included valuable educational sections, for example, teaching
the Chinese how to read English numbers.
“This Chinese paper is not only rare because it is written in Chinese,
but also because it was edited and published by a western gentleman who
had a strong sympathy towards the Chinese people. These facts alone make
the paper very valuable.”
The paper lasted until around 1860 when Bell was elected as the official
The Chinese population had started to diminish as prospectors returned to
China, married European women and became westernised, or resigned
themselves to a life on the fringes of the Ballarat community providing
services as market-gardeners, green-grocers and herbalists.
“In a single issue this Chinese newspaper used letterpress, cast pieces,
woodblock, and wooden type all together.” Wang said, “This is a
really eccentric sample of printing. It is unlikely that other similar
publications could be found.”
There are now only eight known copies of the paper that remain.
For the remainder of his life, Robert Bell continued to fight the
government for the rights of the Chinese. An increasingly eccentric figure
in Ballarat, Bell’s legacy lies with the forgotten stories of the
In 1905, destitute and senile, Bell was admitted to the Ballarat
Benevolent Asylum. Police found at Bell’s home all the apparatus for
producing his remarkable paper together with a pile of correspondence,
five feet high, covering his failed political campaigns and efforts on
behalf of Ballarat’s Chinese community.
Two years before Bells death, the final blow came when public funds were
spent on sending many of the, now elderly, Chinese in Ballarat, back to
Bell died in 1905, aged 88, he was poor, and had no surviving family. His
last resting-place was the lawns of the New Ballarat Cemetery, in a
faceless grave with no plaque.
His printing press and files were discarded and with them Ballarat lost a
unique view on its Chinese past.
Jim Quinn, Chair of the Ballarat Chinese Community Committee, believes
that this disregard and loss of history is not specific to Ballarat.
“There was a view up until the 1970s that there wasn’t any real value
in Australian history. It wasn’t really taught in the schools and it
wasn’t until the appearance of the National Trust and places like
Sovereign Hill that there has been any attempt to acknowledge that
Australia had a history beyond English history.”
However there has been a certain resurgence of interest in Ballarat’s
Chinese heritage over the past decade. Barbara Cooper-Ainsworth has
noticed that it is family history that has fuelled much of this interest
as people have discovered that, through intermarriage, they have Chinese
“In previous generations people weren’t keen to emphasise their
Chinese connection. Now that people are becoming aware of the size of the
community and its role within Ballarat, there’s more research and more
understanding of the significance of that population within the community.”
“Unfortunately there is very little material from that time and
recreations, such as the Joss house and the Chinese village at Sovereign
Hill, are perhaps the only way we can get an understanding of the kind of
life style they did have in Ballarat.”
But this is a shift in focus not fuelled by Ballarat’s history, but its
Primary schools in Ballarat have sparked an interest in their Chinese
heritage creating ties with the new Chinese community.
Students teamed together to build ‘Gum Loong’, a Chinese dragon used
at several Ballarat festivals. “Gum Loong” is seen as a symbol of
acceptance of their past and their commitment to the future.
They have also worked to create a Chinese garden as part of the
reconsecration of the old and new cemeteries. In the past, the Chinese
area of the cemetery was remembered as an eerily decrepit and forgotten
corner of the cemetery.
The Ballarat Chinese Community Committee is also trying to raise awareness
of the town’s Chinese heritage, by producing brochures and organising an
annual Chinese art competition for the primary schools in the area, called
the “China Challenge”.
But with little original evidence of this vibrant Chinese community of the
past, can this focus last?
“Well the University has already dropped Chinese from the courses” Jim
Quinn said, “and the schools are struggling to keep it. It’s a problem
of getting teachers, so it’s not as healthy as it was three or four
The wheel has turned full cycle. Echoing the migrations of the goldfields
era, approximately 6600 Chinese people immigrate to Australia each year.
The Chinese form the third largest immigrant group behind British and New
Perhaps it is these new arrivals at the “New Gold Mountain” who will
provide the energy and direction to sustain both Ballarat’s exploration
of its Chinese heritage and forge a Chinese presence in its future.