Bendigo: A story of Chinese Immigration & Australian Federation

Since 1945, millions of people from more than 140 countries have settled in Australia but a 100 years ago the faces of Australia were very different. These photos might remind you of Beijing but this is Bendigo, where we spent time a week ago. Perhaps I should not have been surprised by what we discovered — another story of migration with very racist undertones that led to policies that perhaps even our right wing conservatives might not be proud of.

The rich gold vein that had been uncovered in Bendigo during the 1850’s proved to be a magnet for many nationalities who were keen to make their fortunes here. News travelled fast even back then and many Chinese people found their way to the ‘lucky’ country. However, the original European invaders did not look favourably on the influx of Asians. Threatened by the industrious migrants, the government started to impose a 10-pound (a small fortune then) levy on each Chinese landing in Victoria. They imposed other restrictions on the boats themselves, such as 1 Chinese passenger and crew to every 10 tons of cargo, making it exorbitantly expensive for Chinese migrants to get here.

Not to be outdone, the boats off loaded their passengers in places such as Port Adelaide, from where the Chinese migrants walked 500 miles to the gold fields in Victoria. Today, in places like the Coorong, you can still see the wells they dug for fresh water along the way to the Goldfields. It took them about a year to pay off the debt to businessmen back home before they could start to remit money to their families.

Migrants are incredibly resilient and the Chinese were no different. No matter what was thrown at them, they went about their life with a sunny disposition, determined to overcome the obstacles. I was a little shocked to read the racist remarks of our first Prime Minister, Edmond Barton. The quote at the museum was a little different, but here is one that I found a reference for.

“I do not think that the doctrine of the equality of man was really ever intended to include racial equality. There is no racial equality. There is that basic inequality. These races are, in comparison with white races… Unequal and inferior.” (Barton, Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, 26 September 1901, p.5233)

Views such as this were the norm at the time and made it very easy for the government to introduce the White Australia Policy, which came into effect in 1901 and restricted entry not just to the Chinese looking to find work in the gold fields but also to the families of people who had already migrated to Australia. This had a huge impact on the Chinese population, because family is an integral part of Chinese culture. I am also surprised to learn that it was racist fears and resentment against Chinese immigration that were a major motivating factor for Australian Federation.

Perhaps we might excuse the rhetoric by saying that people were not as enlightened back then. But has this changed? This story is beginning to sound awfully familiar –just a different scapegoat this time. It appears that humans have always been wary of change and anyone who might cause ripples in ‘our way of life’!

Chinese peoples are now considered to be the oldest continuous immigrants to Australia outside of those from Great Britain. They are now accepted as part of the makeup of Bendigo (and Australia), just as the Greeks, Italians and many other nationalities who were once considered wogs and outsiders when they first arrived.

But we continue to allow history to repeat itself and some Australians are succumbing to a new hysteria –this time against Muslims, giving credence to racist remarks from wannabe politicians such as Donald Trump or (if we look closer to home) people such as Pauline Hanson, who stir the pot for their own agenda.

Bendigo was recently on the news because a protest organised by the United Patriots Front against the proposal for building a mosque in Bendigo drew people from around Australia. Anti-racism groups, operating under the banner of the Bendigo Action Coalition, countered the protest. The City of Greater Bendigo had approved plans to build the mosque but objectors took the case to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) to argue the development would cause traffic and social issues. The Tribunal upheld the Council decision, so the mosque can go ahead.

I have recently been reading Joseph Campbell who tells us that we need a new myth — one relevant to our times and inclusive of our current knowledge of the universe. A myth that will unite all humanity, all races and religions, rather than tear us apart.

If only we could focus on the idea of a common humanity and a myth that will bind us rather than on the differences that separate us. Perhaps that is what will ultimately heal this planet and enable us to leave behind something that is habitable for the many generations that are yet to be born.

First published by on 26 December 2015



A collection of stories, reflections and learnings from ecovillages & other alternative lifestyle models around the world. These attempts at re-localisation point to an emerging revolution in the way humans live on the land. More at

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