Tasmania – A short Chinese-Tasmanian history


A short history (more to come)

While relatively little has been researched on Tasmania’s Chinese-Australian history, a surprising amount is to be found after a brief search on the web. The following is based largely on these findings with a small discussion on what more perhaps needs to the researched.

Chinese-Australian history in Tasmania is closely tied with tin mining, a feature recently highlighted  in the establishment of a heritage trail cutely entitled – Trail of the Tin Dragon. While inspired by tourist dollars – including increasingly those to be spent by Chinese tourists – and focused more on tin than Chinese people – this re-remembering of Tasmania’s Chinese heritage is of some significance. A number of short outlines of the basic story are to be found, largely based on the same handful of sources, such as that by the University of Tasmania’s Companion to Tasmanian History. Less well-known than tin miners are those who worked in the 1860s and 1870s on fishing for abalone in and around Maria Island until a Victorian tariff apparently killed off the industry.

In addition to these general histories there is always mentioned James Chung-Gon, who was a leading figure in both the Chinese and European communities of his time and whose descendants still live in Tasmania. Originally from Xinhui (新會) in south China’s Pearl River Delta, James Chung-Gon brought his wife from China and established a large family of Tasmanians. The account by ABC journalist Helene Chung of her own family history provides all the elements of a Chinese-Australian family including property in China, as well as the scandal of divorce, and even a mythic link to famous actress Merle Oberon!

We also have a rare portrait of a Chinese woman, Lula Chinn, who traveled to Weldborourgh when aged 16 to marry and raise eleven children. Another person closely linked to Tasmania’s Chinese heritage is Senator Bakhap who was raised the adopted son of a Chinese-Australian tin miner and worked not only as a tin miner but also as a Chinese interpreter before becoming a Senator for Tasmania in 1913.

Reference is made in these accounts to China and the returning of many people to China once their ‘fortunes’ were made. However, ongoing links and the nature of the intercourse with China and the villages of origin are largely neglected. One source that gives some details of this aspect of Tasmania’s Chinese-Australian history is “Decoding historical scripts in Chinese: The Tasmanian Chungs from Xinhui”. This is based in part on the ‘confession’ of Willie Chung Sing who had returned to his village and been caught up in the land reforms after 1949.

In material terms one of the most interesting aspects of this history is the large collection of Chinese temple artefacts gathered into Launceston’s Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery. This collection was gathered as each of six local Chinese communities of Tasmania’s North-East declined and could no longer look after their temples. The collection is the largest in Australia and possibly outside China.

While an account of declining temples may imply a disappearing population, in fact, Chinese-Tasmanians continued to thrive. Certainly numbers declined along with tin mining, and even further due to the impact of the White Australia policy. It was in the 1960s, as this White Australia began to gradually breakdown, that new arrivals, often students or former students, saw the Chinese-Australian community of Tasmania grow once more. In 1969 the Chinese Community Association of Tasmania was founded, an organisation that continues to thrive today.

Interesting as much of this web based material is, there are still many gaps in the history. The White Australia policy and the impact of the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act is often mentioned, though the numerous files this act generated do not seem to have yet been used to further investigate the history of Chinese-Tasmanians.

Like mainland Australia, Tasmania’s population of people originating in China is growing and this fact, along with the growing number of Chinese tourists – no doubt increasingly attracted by Bobbie the bear – and even Chinese ownership of a major tin mine is influencing how our Chinese-Australian past is being seen. This includes people such as artists Chen Ping who recently completed a series of works inspired by the tin miners of Tasmania. An interesting piece of writing by Cassandra Pybus on how Tasmania’s Chinese past is being re-imagined is also worth looking at.

Much more always remains to be done and the relatively small but fascinating history of Chinese-Australians in Tasmania should prove rich grounds for any researcher who cares to take up the task.

B Easteal, ‘The Chinese in Tasmania 1870–1900’, Honours thesis, UT, 1965

Helen Vivian “The Tasmanian’s Chinese Heritage: An Historical Record of Chinese sites in North East Tasmania” (Australian Heritage Commission/Queen Victoria Museum, 1985)

Alcock, J (1998) “The Middle People” A History of the Launceston Chinese Community. Honours thesis, University of Tasmania.

Wu, Qianlong & Gao, Mobo, “Decoding historical scripts in Chinese: The Tasmanian Chungs from Xinhui”Journal of Chinese Australia, October, 2006.

Chinese Historical Images of Australia – Tasmania