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Subject: Cultural Studies »

Andrew Markus about the Chinese in 19th century Victoria

Andrew Markus.

Historian Andrew Markus presents an overview of the Chinese in 19th century Victoria



Date Added:

03 February 2009


source not available


mov (Quicktime);

File size:

14.7 MB






... if we try and identify key moments, one moment might be late in the gold rushes, so late in the gold rushes, weíre talking 1957, 1958 there was mounting conflict on the gold fields. There was a riot at Buckland River for example in 1958.





And then later on there were worse riots in New South Wales when Chinese gold diggers were attacked and driven from the gold fields, maybe some were killed but thereís no accurate records of that but certainly a lot of conflict between the European diggers and the Chinese diggers. Now that led to the first spate of restrictive legislation. I think some other very interesting episodes in Victorian history in the 1970s, in particular a conflict at Clunes (sp?) in 1873, which is a gold mining area and this has to do with whether Chinese labour can be used in the gold mines or not. And a few years later there was a strike of seamen, so again, the issue was: could the major navigation company sailing to Australia, employ non-European labour on their ships?


And I think whatís happening there is that the working interests or the working classes in the Australian colonies and Victoria in particular are trying to draw lines and the lines that they are trying to draw is that exclusion of non- European labour from areas of union strength. Unions are very Ė in their very early stage of development but one of the issues on which they cut their teeth so to speak, is the issue of Chinese labour. So there are these battles against major employers who want to employ a Chinese labour. It also happens in the furniture trade in the 1880s. And these are basically successful in terms of the objectives of the white workers.


Various historians debate about how significant the working class as opposed to middle class and upper class interests were in the development of the white Australia policy but itís certainly the case that there were these battles in which workers were very prominent seeking to exclude non-European labour. And what they were concerned about was, they had this belief that the Chinese would undercut working class standards, when we look back today, when historians examine that and look at it in the light of cold realities, itís probably not that well-founded. Because all people want to get the best wages they possibly can.


But the dominant idea at that time, was that the Chinese and other non-European workers would be like putty in the hands of employers. And would really wreck the chances of establishing like a working manís paradise in the Australian colonies. I think the idea is that the Chinese cannot understand full stop. Itís a lack of respect, itís a sort of pulling down the shutters and not seeing whatís on the other side. Whatís on the other side is a fellow human being, but as far as theyíre concerned, itís an object, an unknown object on the assumption that these people donít care. They can never be like us. Theyíll work for you know, half the wages, a quarter of the wages and theyíll be happy with that.


They donít have the aspirations to better themselves, they donít have the aspirations to be educated and to be participating in democracy. And they didnít really go much further than that.


The fact that there were Chinese who did very well in the colonies, who were wealthy, that had no impact but even closer to the reality, there were Chinese who tried to in effect join the union movement. For example there were major strikes in the Australian colonies in the late 1880s and early 1890s. And the Chinese workers actually had a collection of money to help the strikers. And what happened was that the furniture trade, which saw itself as a major opponent of Chinese immigration, the furniture makers in Melbourne said to the main union movement, ďGive the money back to the Chinese and weíll give you the money instead.Ē So that they really didnít want to know, there was no discussion and one of the constants with regard to prejudice and bigotry, racial hatred, is this blindness: we donít want to recognise fellow human beings. We see them as objects. If weíre talking about the working classes, their essential concern is really a struggle for decent wages and decent conditions under circumstances where people have to work very long hours, very poor wages, short life spans, terrible housing conditions, so itís no surprise that people coming from England and coming from Europe were concerned about better conditions for themselves.


As far as the Chinese and other Asian workers were concerned, the issue really was that the employers would be able to utilise them. The Chinese are not really seen as a threat in themselves, theyíre threat in the context of the struggle of the working classes to establish themselves and to build better lives for themselves.


End transcript