In Search of Gold, They Found a Home
CHINATOWN. In many cities around the world, this word evokes vibrant images of Chinese shops, restaurants, festivals, and dragon dances. Yet, each Chinatown has its own history. Those in Australia today owe much to earlier generations of intrepid Chinese immigrants who came to these southern shores, hoping to strike it rich in the newly discovered goldfields.
New Gold Mountain
What had been a light rain of Chinese migration to Australia turned into a downpour when gold was discovered in 1851. Thousands of men left the Pearl River delta in Guangdong Province of China to make the arduous sea voyage south. Gold had been discovered earlier in California, U.S.A., and the Chinese who spoke Cantonese had called those goldfields Gold Mountain. The Australian goldfields, therefore, became New Gold Mountain.
It was not just the prospect of finding gold that moved the men to leave their homeland. China had experienced civil war, natural disasters, and poverty, which led to much hardship.
Tragically, some of the pioneers bound for Australia did not live to see its shores. They died of diseases that swept through overcrowded ships on the long voyage. As for the survivors, life was anything but easy when they finally reached the new land.
Toiling in the Goldfields
Loneliness soon became a constant companion, for tradition required that wives and children stay in China to keep their place in the ancestral family lineage. In 1861, more than 38,000 Chinese men lived in Australia but only 11 Chinese women. Few, however, had planned to settle there. Most were determined to return to their homes and families with wealth and honor.
This ambition drove them in their search for gold. The miners lived in tents and toiled for long hours in the hot sun. Some, at least initially, were afraid to mine underground because of certain superstitions. Hence, they started off digging and panning for surface gold, rinsing their tailings in wooden sluices. Their efforts bore fruit. Records show that between 1854 and 1862, just under 600,000 ounces (18,662 kg) of gold found in the state of Victoria were sent to China.
Sadly, some of this newfound wealth was eaten up by gambling and opium addiction—vices to which the lonely were more vulnerable. All too often, the consequences were ruined health and the loss of both earnings and the prospects of returning home. Some received help from Chinese organizations and from benevolent individuals, but others died prematurely, impoverished and alone.
The Chinese also had to endure the jealousy and suspicion of non-Chinese miners, who saw the foreigners as a tightly knit and successful competitive mining community. This ill will led to riots and assaults on Chinese. Their gold was looted, and their tents and provisions were burned. Eventually this hostility eased. Still, about 50 years after gold was discovered, the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 shut the door on Asian immigration into Australia—a door that was not reopened until 1973.
When the Gold Ran Out
When the mines ceased to produce, some Chinese chose to remain in Australia. As a result, gold-rush towns saw the spawning of Chinese laundries, restaurants, and market gardens, or truck farms. The Chinese also developed a good name as furniture manufacturers and marketers of fresh fruit and vegetables. As a result, by the end of the 19th century, Chinese communities, or Chinatowns, could be found in many cities in Australia, including Atherton, Brisbane, Broome, Cairns, Darwin, Melbourne, Sydney, and Townsville.
Because few Chinese-born women came to Australia, a lot of the men remained single. Some, though, married Australian women, despite local prejudice against such unions. In time, descendants of these mixed marriages became an integral part of Australian society.
Nowadays, more Chinese immigrants live in Australia than ever before. Most arrive in search of higher education and business opportunities. What is more, the immigrants now include many women. And in an odd twist resulting from the changing world economy, many male breadwinners, after settling their families in Australia, fly back to Asia to work in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, or Taiwan.
Yes, times have changed. But for immigrants the world over, the basic goals remain much the same—to find security and success in a foreign land.
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FARTHER THAN THEY THOUGHT
To avoid paying a landing fee, or tax, Chinese passengers would disembark along the Australian coast away from major ports and hundreds of miles (km) from the goldfields. Robe, South Australia, proved to be one such landing place. Robe had a population of between 100 and 200, and in the span of just five months in 1857, at least 12,000 Chinese passed through it.
In an amazing feat of endurance and cooperation, hundreds of men at a time made their way inland through sparsely inhabited country toward the goldfields. However, it was much farther than they thought, and the trek took up to five weeks. The immigrants harvested seaweed for the journey and ate kangaroos and wombats en route. They also dug wells and left a trail for others to follow.
Wearing traditional pigtails and coolie hats, the men often jogged single file, chanting as they went. Chinese coinage has been found along the route. The new arrivals discarded the money when they learned that it was valueless in Australia.
Image H17071, State Library of Victoria
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SOMETHING BETTER THAN GOLD
Wayne Qu worked as an environmental scientist for the Academy of Sciences in China. To advance his career, he and his wife, Sue, went to Europe in the 1990’s, where Wayne pursued higher education. While there, the couple met Jehovah’s Witnesses and discussed the Bible with them. In 2000, Wayne and Sue moved to Australia, where both continued their secular studies—Sue in molecular biology. They also resumed their Bible study.
Wayne explains: “We had spent decades getting advanced university degrees. Yet, I would say to myself: ‘In the end, we all grow old, get sick, and die. Is that the purpose of life?’ It all seemed to be in vain. The Bible, however, gave Sue and me logical, satisfying answers to life’s most important questions.
“Our study of the Bible also made us examine a concept we had never considered before—the existence of a Creator. I read the Witnesses’ publication Life—How Did It Get Here? By Evolution or by Creation? as well as a work by Charles Darwin on evolution. This reading, along with my own scientific research, convinced me that there is a Creator. Sue came to the same conclusion.
“Another thing that convinced us that there is a God is the power of the Bible to change lives for the better. Indeed, this amazing book has given us not only a hope for the future but also genuine friends and a stronger marriage. Sue and I were baptized in 2005, glad that we had found something of much greater value than higher education and ‘gold that perishes.’”—1 Peter 1:7.
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Chinese gold miner, 1860’s
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Sydney Chinatown: © ARCO/G Müller/age fotostock; gold miner: John Oxley Library, Image 60526, State Library of Queensland