No. 7: To the goldfields by Omnibus

An omnibus: popular means of public transport

Among the many stereotypes of people of Chinese origin in Australia that existed a common one was that they were extremely frugal and could and did live off earnings that anyone else (usually meaning white men) would starve on. This stereotype fitted well with the idea that Chinese workers were “unfair” competition and hence it was justified that they be discriminated against in various ways. As is usual, once equipped with a stereotype observers and writers for newspapers would complacently spot and repeat circumstances that confirmed the stereotype.

Rarer was the objective observer who reported what they actually saw even when it contradicted the received wisdom. One such case was William Kelly who made his living from travelling the world and writing books describing the exotic locations he had been to. And in the middle of the 19th century there were few such places more exotic as far as his English based readership was concerned than the goldfields of the new colony of Victoria. He made a number of interesting observations concerning the numerous Chinese people who had joined so many others from around the world to seek their fortunes by seeking for gold, but one of the most interesting was his observations as to the use of omnibuses:

I have already shown that they do not practise self-denial at their board, and as a proof that they are equally liberal in their personal expenses, I have only to state that it is remarked that the omnibuses and public conveyances which ply about Sandhurst and in the Bendigo district are largely patronised by Chinese; in fact, it would be safe to wager, as one of these vehicles is approaching that one-third of the passengers are of Celestial origin. The same average, I am satisfied, would be tolerably correct with regard to the coaches running to Melbourne. I know I have been several times up and down the line, and on every occasion I had from three to six Chinese fellow passengers. On one of the journeys, occupying the box seat, the driver called my attention to the circumstance “that while we frequently passed parties of European diggers on their way to the town, toiling along under heavy swags, we never saw one solitary instance of Chinamen returning on foot” and such, he informed me, is invariably the case.[1]

On the NSW goldfields (Hill End) – similarly popular with local Chinese miners?

Just why Chinese people were more inclined to take public transport than others it is impossible to say at this remove. Here it is important to note that not all sources are equal and much that we read in newspapers and books past is no more reliable than what appears in the media today. Reliance must be had on one’s own judgement and it needs to be left to the reader to judge if William Kelly is more or less reliable.

[1] William Kelly, Life in Victoria, or Victoria in 1853, and Victoria in 1858 : showing the march of improvement made by the colony within those periods, in town and country, cities and diggings. Note: Sandhurst = Ballarat