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"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 history.

“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 migration.

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 privilege.  

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 rebellion.

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 at all.”

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 home.

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 communities.

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 baths”

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 world.

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 closer.

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 government interpreter.

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 Chinese.

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 China.

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 roots. 

“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 youth.

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 years ago.”

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 Zealanders.

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.