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Friday 18 February 2005

Janis Wilton, School of Classics, History and Religion, University of New England


Golden Threads  


Racism, prejudice, fear of the foreign: these are all parts of Australia’s past and present. For most of the twentieth century, ‘white Australia’ worked to expel and exclude non-European immigrants and to make Aborigines disappear. Today, we allow the horrific acts of the terrorist few to affirm prejudices and stereotypes based on religious beliefs.


All this creates graphic, attention-getting material: racist cartoons, colourful and distasteful language, heart-rending stories of discrimination and hardship. The danger is that we absorb these vi ews and forget to look beyond them and to understand what it was and is like to live and work in Australia despite the racism.  


This concern to create a different perspective sits at the core of the Golden Threads project which, for the past seven years, has worked with local museums and historical societies and with Chinese-Australians to document the contributions of those Chinese immigrants who spent time in parts of regional New South Wales from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries.  


The Chinese presence is captured in the objects saved in local museums, the memories shared within families, and the remnants of sites where they lived, worked and died. It is hidden beneath the rhetoric of sensationalist newspaper reports and contemporary commentaries. It is in the stories of their work, leisure, food, beliefs and patterns of leaving and staying.  


Let me invite you to visit one or two of these memory sites, and to imagine the rich and complex lives of Chinese immigrants as they moved between the centuries old traditions of their home villages and the emerging customs and beliefs of white Australia.  


In Tingha in northern New South Wales you can walk into the history of the Wing Hing Long general store. Since the 1880s the store has served the local residents : food, mining equipment, hardware, clothes, fabric. Today it is a community managed museum. Its fittings date from the 1920s, the weatherboard building from earlier, the goods on its shelves and the documents in its archives from the 1920s to the 1980s. Out the back, in a galvanised iron two storey building are the sparse rooms which housed the owner’s family and the many overseas born Chinese who were sponsored to work in the store. Some of their stories have been recorded. 


Under the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act - known colloquially as the White Australia policy - one of the few ways Chinese could still come into Australia was as shop assistants. They were mainly men. They came alone or with relatives or fellow villagers. They worked long hours. Haltingly, some learned English. Eventually, some moved on to open their own general stores and to settle. Others went back to China.  


The pattern of coming, leaving, staying was a common pattern for Chinese in Australia. Connections with home villages, ancestors and with family left behind in China were strong.  

It is a message which can be read on the inscriptions of gravestones in the Chinese sections of cemeteries across regional New South Wales. Many grave markers provide, in Chinese, the name of the village and district of the deceased. The hope was that fellow countrymen would exhume the body and return it for burial alongside ancestors back in China. And exhumations were common. The bare expanses in cemeteries are evidence. Bodies have been exhumed, gravesites left empty, gravestones discarded.

Yet, not all Chinese left Australia. Some stayed alone. Others settled with Chinese, European or Aboriginal wives and partners. Children were born.  


Within families, there are stories of silences about Chinese ancestry, of visits to China, of the food and
leisure pursuits brought from China and adapted to an Australian environment. Photographs convey the mixing and matching of traditions and the crossing, however hesitantly, of cultural and racial barriers.

There is three year old Jack Chong dressed in a very smart white suit astride a wooden rocking horse in the Vincent Photographic Studios in Dubbo in 1913. There is Wagga Wagga market gardener Charlie Wong Hing holding the baby daughter of his employers in about 1959. His own family was back in China. There is Mary and Robert Duck Chong in their Salvation Army uniforms: they married across the racial divide. 


The wealth and complexity of Chinese perspectives on their Australian experiences is slowly emerging from the stories which flow around the objects, sites and memories held within families and within communities. The
Golden Threads website, exhibition and book have tapped into some of these rich sources. 


Guests on this program:

Janis Wilton  

School of Classics, History and Religion 

University of New England