Here the aim is to approach history in a manner that strives to bridge the academic and the popular. Rather than add yet another narrative history, Chinese-Australian history is explored and exposed through some of the many objects that exist in collections both public and private in both Australia and, suggestively, China. These objects may or may not have aesthetic or historical value in themselves; rather the choice of object is based on its capacity to add a unique piece to the puzzle that is Australian and its Chinese-Australian aspects. In so doing it is hoped to diminish mystery while illuminating history.

Chinese-Australian history is a key component of Australian history that has always fascinated yet perplexed (white) Australians. It is also an element that is becoming of increasing interest as Australian society’s Chinese elements grow and evolve. This interest ranges from the academic to the popular but as in most fields, the academic perspective does not always easily or comfortably penetrate the popular. At the level of popular (or ‘public’ in the current academic fashion) ‘history’ and perception, much Chinese-Australian history remains fixated on gold diggers, racism and market gardeners. That Chinese-Australian history is so much more recent studies of ongoing links to Pearl River Delta villages, business networks in Hong Kong and Shanghai, the role of Chinese-Australians in the formation of the Australian Federation and of Australian identity itself, and much more, amply demonstrates.

Short reading list for beginners

For more on Chinese Australian history


This simple yet effective website showcases 88 objects from the history of the Chinese in Australia. It ranges over 200 years of migration history, illuminating political, social and economic aspects of the Chinese presence in the colonies and then Commonwealth. The objects come from both private and public institutions, each one including some discussion of its use and meaning in the past but also its curation and resonance today. Including bureaucratic forms and cafe menus, temple bells and even entire houses, this website provides readers with immediate access to a still overlooked part of the nation’s formation.

The website is attractively designed and extremely easy to use — a reminder of the importance of thinking through universal accessibility to communicate with as wide an audience as possible. Its focus on the everyday stimulates users to think about the deeper histories and futures of other objects, both in Chinese–Australian history and in the history of other migrant groups. This beautiful portal promises only to grow richer as it finds more topics for investigation.


History is complex and never linear. Which is why most people prefer stories that always get it wrong if only in sticking to stereotypes and simplifications. This is an attempt to try another way to simply convey the complexities of history.

About the author – Michael Williams