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‘The Mongolian Octopus: his grip on Australia 1886’, by Phillip May, from the collection of the State Library of New South Wales [TN86] .

As we welcome the year of the sheep and the Lunar New Year celebrations kick off this Friday, let’s take a step back in time to the 1800s and look at the Chinese experience in Sydney. I spoke with Mitch Byatt on 2SER about it this morning.

Many of us might assume that the first people Indigenous inhabitants witnessed sailing toward Australia were Europeans. However, there is evidence that suggests that the Aboriginal people of Sydney Harbour may have seen or at least heard stories of the Chinese traders that sailed the globe, and that Chinese contact with Australia probably occurred as far back as 1,800 years ago!

It wasn’t until 1818, however, that the earliest documented Chinese settler, Mak Sai Ying, arrived in Sydney and purchased land in Parramatta. He married an English woman, Sarah Thompson in 1823, changed his name to John Shying and held the licence for a Parramatta public house called the Golden Lion. Some of his children became furniture makers and his descendants live in Sydney to this day.

After the convict transportation system ended in the 1840s, the colony went through a shortage of labour, encouraging the arrival of Chinese workers. By 1852 more than 1,500 Chinese labourers had arrived in Sydney. But by early 1852, news of gold had reached southern China and men from across the country arranged passage to Australia under a credit-ticket system, which meant fares were paid once fortunes were made. With this influx came laws designed to restrict Chinese arrivals, the first of which came in 1861 and then in 1881 and 1888. In addition to anti-Chinese legislation, many blamed the emergence of diseases such as smallpox on the arrival of Chinese people.

The statistics tell us that while our city had many Chinese visitors during the gold rushes, very few of them settled permanently. And interestingly, large influxes of Chinese after February resulted from reduced movements during Chinese New Year. Officially, there were 189 Chinese living in Sydney in 1861, 336 in 1871 and 1,321 in 1881.

Chinese fruit and vegetable hawker

Chinese fruit and vegetable hawker c1895. National Library of Australia.

One popular area for Chinese arrivals in Sydney was the Rocks, which actually became the first site for Sydney’s Chinatown, which we all know is in Haymarket today. They set up Chinese furniture shops, cook-shops and boarding houses in Lower George Street, not far from the wharves. One such furniture shop was called Ah Toy’s, and was one of the largest.

However, in 1878 an there was an upsurge of violence against Chinese traders which led them to petition the government for protection from ‘larrikins’. Today the term ‘larrikin’ holds positive connotations, but back then, it was a word reserved for the undesirables of society, hoodlums and criminals. The source of this violence were trade union meetings which called for an end to immigration, opposed to the low wages paid to Chinese workers by Chinese employers and advocated the use of violence. Public rallies were held, with one reportedly numbering around 2,000 people. As they headed up Pitt Street they eventually came to Ah Toy’s shop and attempted to torch the building, aware that many Chinese workers were asleep inside.

Today, things are certainly very different as we celebrate the richness of Chinese culture, and its status as a fixed and vibrant part of Sydney’s multicultural identity. Have a read of Shirley Fitzgerald’s article on the Dictionary of Sydney to find out more about the Chinese community’s fascinating story.

Listen to my Dictionary of Sydney segment at 2SER radio and have a read of the article at the Dictionary of Sydney. For other interesting segments, see my Dictionary of Sydney project post and visit the Dictionary of Sydney blog.