Growing up, I knew a little of New England’s Chinese heritage. I knew that the Chinese had been here, but beyond a few gravestones in the Other Denominations’ section of the Armidale cemetery and store names in other New England towns. Beyond that, I knew nothing of our Chinese connection. It was all very vague,
I knew from novels that many Chinese had been attracted to the Californian gold fields and had gone on to do things like help build railways. I did not know that California had been called the Gold Mountain, that after the discovery of gold in Australia California became the Old Gold Mountain, Australia the New Gold Mountain.
The first Chinese did not come for gold. They came because NSW had a labour shortage with the ending of transportation, and the regular trade routes between China and England via NSW provided an easy entry route.
In September 1849, at least two Chinese workers entered into the service of J Pike of Pikedale run in what is now the Queensland Granite Belt. In May 1850, M H Marsh employed ten Chinese workers from Amoy, all of whom arrived on one ship, the Cadet. By the end of 1852, Chinese workers were widely if thinly dispersed across New England.
Life could be dangerous for our early Chinese. In May 1852, the Phoenix sank on its way to the Clarence River with 12 Chinese on board. A thirteenth was found wandering the beach with the Aborigines. He was reportedly quite mad, although no-one knew how he had got there.
The discovery of gold in New England brought thousands of Chinese to the New England gold fields from Nundle North. As the gold petered out at Rocky River, the Chinese moved to the tin fields on the Western Slopes and beyond into Queensland. The Chinese influence lingered, especially in Tingha, but for most of us, this early period had become a distant memory.
In September 1982, Kent Mayo and Ron Alexander from the Uralla Historical Society were shown dust coated, water damaged, Chinese artifacts that had come from Tingha piled in a galvanised iron shed. Recognising their significance, they arranged to purchase them for the Society.
Other artifacts were collected across New England
The resulting display that opened in August 1983 provided a remarkable insight into a forgotten part of New England’s life.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 24 April 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013