The Chinese community deep in rural Australia
ONE OF AUSTRALIA’S oldest working “joss” houses (Chinese temples) and the world’s longest imperial dragon are hardly what you’d expect to find in the heart of regional Victoria. But in Bendigo the Chinese influence is as established as the region’s foundations are set in gold.
Dubbed “Dai Gum San” (“big gold mountain”; Australia generally was known as the “shining gold mountain”) by its first Chinese residents in the 1850s, Bendigo held the promise of gold. Most of these early settlers left their home in the Canton Province (now known as Guangdong) in southern China, to escape lives shattered by the introduction of opium, European-made goods and political rebellion.
Primarily merchants and miners, the immigrants built temples and Chinese markets sprang up around town. But given their tangible differences – language, looks and food, distinctive way of life and specialised mining techniques – the Chinese diggers faced significant hostility from other miners.
They were excluded from the region’s lucrative quartz mining and only permitted to pan for alluvial gold in the gullies or mine the soil already worked by European diggers. Enmity peaked in the 1850s with the imposition of a £10 Chinese entry tax, aiming to limit the number of Chinese miners entering Victoria. As a result, 16,000 Chinese travelled more than 400?km by foot to the Victorian goldfields via South Australia; this stopped when SA also imposed a residence tax in 1857. Bendigo’s Chinese population peaked at 1200 (20 per cent of the town) in the early 1860s.
Although the Chinese were treated badly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when asked to contribute to local charities they were known for their generosity. According to Russell Jack, aka Louey Yeung Ming, who traces his ancestry back to the goldrush, this provided a way for the two disparate communities to build a relationship. “Whenever anyone was asked to raise money for charity, the Chinese were the first to put their hands up,” he says.
So began Bendigo’s Chinese golden age. Aiming to draw more people to the Bendigo Easter Fair (now Festival), which began in 1871, and raising money for local charities, the town’s first Chinese residents imposed a levy on their own. By 1882 they had enough money (approximately £750) to ship 100 crates of silk-and-gold-thread costumes (now regarded as the best collection of Guangdong clothing in the world).
In 1976, when Melbourne upped the ante and acquired a longer dragon, the Bendigo public decided to add to Sun Loong. Today, he measures 100-plus m and is covered in 6000 “scales”, 90,000 mirrors and 30,000 beads. Both are on permanent display at Bendigo’s Golden Dragon Museum. Opened in 1991 in downtown Bendigo, the museum is a hub of Chinese activity and houses a database of more than 44,000 names and detailed family histories and photographs, a traditional Chinese tea house, and a significant collection of Chinese coins, dating back to 221 BCE.
But according to Russell, the Chinese people’s biggest affirmation can be seen in the annual Bendigo Easter Festival parade. “Every year, over 1000 people march in the Chinese section of the procession and at least 700 of them are little Aussies,” he says. “All they want to be is Chinese on that day and we accept them in the same way as they accept us as Aussies.”
As director of the museum, the 73-year-old has always felt responsible for the community. “I’ve been tied up with all this since I was 10 years old,” he says.
“My Dad said, ‘When you grow up Louey Yeung Ming I want you to look after the Chinese people in this region.’ By the time I was 16, I had an almost one-track mind.”