Monday, February 26, 2007

New England's Chinese - Introductory Post

Photo: Chinese miner testing wash for tin, Great Britain Mine, Emmaville, 1899. By 1899 tin mining in the Emmaville (Vegetable Creek) district had passed its peak and the number of Chinese had dropped from around 1200 to 200. The posed photograph was a conscious commemoration of the Chinese role in tin mining.

Growing up as a kid, I used to play in the Armidale cemetery. There, in the "other denominations" section I found a number of Chinese graves. I was curious because I knew no Chinese. Later I found out that the Chinese had played a significant development role in New England.

According to the Australian National Museum's Heritage Scroll, a small number of Chinese settlers arrived quite early. Numbers then increased significantly after transportation ended in 1840 as Chinese were brought in as labourers. According to Geoffrey Blainey's Tyranny of Distance early people movements were facilitated by a quite complex web of trading and shipping links between Australia and China.

From the discovery of gold, Chinese numbers increased very rapidly. The Chinese immigrants referred to the Australian gold fields as 'Xin Jin Shan', or the New Gold Mountain as compared to the now declining California fields, as 'Jiu Jin Shan', the Old Gold Mountain. By 1861, 38,258 people, or 3.3 per cent of the total Australian population had been born in China, a number not reached again until quite recently.

Chinese diggers quickly appeared on all the new New England fields from the Hunter to the Queensland border. As other minerals and especially tin were discovered, the Chinese moved there too. Those visiting Uralla should visit McCrossin's Mill Museum which has a major Chinese display, including the pictured Joss House.

The rapid increase in immigration caused tensions and resentments among the European population There was intermittent violence against the Chinese, including the famous Lambing Flat (now Young) riots of 1861 when, in the worst outbreak, 2000 European diggers attacked the Chinese, injuring 250 and destroying their possessions.

I know of no equivalent violence on the New England fields, although that may simply mean I haven't found it yet.

The pressure of public opinion against the Chinese caused the New South Wales Government to pass the Chinese Immigration Restriction and Regulation Act in 1861 to restrict the numbers of Chinese in the colony.

As the level of mining dropped, some Chinese returned to China. Those staying could not bring in wives from China because of immigration restrictions. Some found local girls, others died alone far from family.

Many Chinese went into retailing if which Inverell's still surviving Hong Yuen business is an example.

By 1900 there were at least 5 Chinese owned stores in Inverell - one of these was Hong Yuen. Hong Yuen began its life in the 1890s as a small business trading from a wooden shop. By 1899 the adjoining land had been bought and in that year the first part of the store as it is now known was built.

The first town outside of Inverell where Harry Fay established a venture was Moree in 1926, which began as a general store. In Texas, Harry Fay was encouraged by the local community to open a store and by 1932 he had a thriving business up and running. In 1936 a store in Warialda was to follow. Harry Fay also set about expanding his business back in Inverell.

When he originally purchased the store it consisted of a grocery section. To this he added a drapery department and showroom in 1925. By 1935 a men's and boy's wear department were also established.

Hong Yuen has always been a family owned and run business. Most members of the family have done their fair share of work. Two of Harry Fay's brothers were employed in the business, his children and grandchildren have also played their part. In 1974 Harry Fay died, and his sons became the governing directors (the business was already jointly owned by the eight Fay children).

Two years later, a massive fire destroyed all but the oldest part of the building in Inverell. Despite the tragedy, the community effort which went in to helping the cleanup reaffirmed that Hong Yuen was there to stay

Photo: Gordon Smith, Emmaville Post Office undergoing repair from hail damage.

Today some of the once thriving mining settlements in which New England's Chinese once lived are ghost towns, others sleepy settements.

Today Vegetable Creek, now Emmaville, north of Glen Innes has a total population of around 350 as compared to a peak Chinese population of 1,200. Yet the village still retains links to its Chinese heritage.


New England Australia's Chinese - Reference Post provides a list of posts on New England's Chinese along with some supporting references.

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