Chinese miners, gardeners & shopkeepers in Gympie

PHOTO: Ah Foy, of Gympie.
Source: Immigration Records, National Archives of Australia

Guest blog by volunteer Robyn
(Thank you to Robyn who researched and collated for this project).

Chinese people during the gold mining era have come to life during a research project completed for the local history collection at Gympie Regional Libraries.

The practical goal of the project was to collate the library’s source material so that it is mostly accessible as a paper copy and as a digital copy. The philosophical goal of the search for records was to discover information about individual Chinese people, not just the group in general. Our records now include over 260 names, people who lived on our goldfield and left a mark in our written history. It would be our dream for a descendant to ask to see what we’ve found.

We’ve left spelling of names the way it was in the original sources – there is no telling how well Chinese names translated into English, nor how accurate the listening skills were of the person writing down the name. For example, Ah Young’s family records suggest that his family name was Ng which became Young here. Several names are suspiciously similar, but we would need an expert to unravel the practices and flaws behind Anglicising names.

Sources of information

First-hand information comes from official documents such as National Archives immigration records, lease documents, rates books, election rolls, cemetery records and maps. Miners Homestead Leases were granted to several Chinese gardeners at the Two Mile, and in a few other locations around Gympie. Their names appear on maps, and the lease documents reveal that they frequently transferred ownership of the lease to other Chinese people. A couple of Chinese merchants paid rates to the council so their names are in the 1914 rates books held in the library.

Gympie has two main cemetery records, the old hand-written Register of Interments Old Gympie Cemetery, 1 Nov 1869 to 29 Oct 1886  from the Tozer Park Road cemetery and the current cemetery’s digital deceased search. Both record the burials of many Chinese people.

The Nashville Times and, soon after, The Gympie Times reported the events on our goldfield as well as publishing reports from other newspapers in Australia and across the world. By searching in Gympie newspapers for individual names, on the National Library’s Trove website, we can piece together a picture of how the Chinese people were working and living.

In the newspapers

There are a few main categories of newspaper report: court reports, council meeting reports, advertisements, social news and general interest articles. We feel that Chinese people were given a fair go on the goldfield. They could appeal to the law for justice against each other and against other people on the goldfield; magistrates were apparently unbiased and delivered reasonable judgements; harassment by Europeans went on but was not tolerated in the courts.

There was some casual racism in the nicknaming of Chinese people as Tommy, Jimmy or Charlie.

Reports and advertisements describe industrious members of the community who grew food, owned shops, donated to hospital funds, subscribed to the turf club and took up mining shares and land. Gardeners grew vegetables which were an important source of fresh food for the growing town. Unfortunately, the allotments were usually near creeks for a ready water supply. When the creeks flooded, the gardens and their infrastructure of channels were destroyed, breaking the spirits of the Chinese gardeners. The theft of melons reported in the newspaper shows the respect shown for local gardeners

Gympie Times, 18 December 1919

Waugh Hing, who later declared himself bankrupt, advertised the goods in his Mary Street shop in December 1871. We loved reading about the variety of goods kept by a general merchant.

Headman Lin Goon led Chinese New Year celebrations, wrote to the council and was given permission to make a bit of noise.

Gympie Times, 12 Feb 1918
Gympie Times, 18 Jan 1906

Along with others, Chinese people imported practical goods which were landed at Maryborough.

Gympie Times, 4 April 1885

Our more recent local historians have written about the Chinese people.

Ailsa Dawson wrote Chinese in the Gympie District in the 1980s. These type-written essays contain Ailsa’s personal reflections on her grandfather’s life as a farmer at Two Mile as well as her own research.

Dr Elaine Brown wrote Gympie’s Chinatown – was it welcome on the goldfield? in the Gympie Times, 27 January 2007.

John Ferguson and Elaine Brown included a section on Chinese miners in The Gympie Goldfield, 2009.

The Gympie Family History Society have published a collection of research in The Gympie Chinese.

In 1967, in Gympie Centenary Magazine, snippets of information emerge in these reports of Chinese fossickers, a musical group, a farmer and importers of cans of ducks in oil.

In Reminiscences of 23 pioneers, in the Gympie Times, 1938, Gympie folk recalled Chinese men on the gold field and around the town. They mention Ah Young and Ah Wee but no other individuals. Be warned, there are some ill-chosen words in these essays, typical of an era when anti-discrimination was not such a core value.

The recent project of collated research is now held at Gympie Regional Libraries, Gympie Local History room in the form of a table of information, as well as a ‘book’. The 300 page book, a Word document, includes references and screenshots of source material.