While women may have been a minority in the first periods of Chinese-Australian history, women have always played a significant role. Women not only include those few who actually came to Australia at first, but also the many who remained in the villages, mothers, sisters and wives, looking after parents, raising children and awaiting the return of men from far off Australia. In addition to those women who did travel to Australia, there were also those of European origin who married Chinese men, including those and their children who lived, for a time at least, in the villages.
Most of the men who spent their working lives in Australia in the 19th and early 20th century married in their villages. This was largely the result of custom and parental wishes, although harsh immigration restrictions made the bringing of wives increasingly more difficult over time. The great imbalance between the sexes, whether created by Chinese cultural norms or European legal restrictions, is clearly seen in the Commonwealth Census of 1911 which records 801 Chinese out of a total male population of 21,032, living with wives in Australia while a further 6,714 were recorded to have wives in China.
Despite their greater chance of bringing a wife from China, merchants and storekeepers were also more likely to marry the few Chinese or part-Chinese women who were in Australia. Another option was to marry, or at least live with, non-Chinese women. While the ‘intermarriage’ option was one that was notionally disagreeable to both Chinese and European cultures throughout the period, as the 1911 census figures indicate, a significant number did take this option.
The establishment of families in Australia meant there was a growing population of Chinese-Australian’s who throughout much of the 20th century were required to live within a nation that considered itself a ‘White Australia’ and had rigorous migration laws to enforce this. Despite this, some of these families maintained links with China including travelling to and from Australia. These Australian citizens often found themselves enmeshed in the same restrictive laws that were designed to keep out new arrivals from China.
Golden shadows on a white land: An exploration of the lives of white women who partnered Chinese men and their children in southern Australia, 1855-1915
by Kate Bagnall