Most of New England’s small settlements have vanished in the great rural depopulation, leaving little behind beyond a few posts. This was especially true of our mining towns, for there the town survived just as long as the rush endured. Once the miners left, the town vanished, the buildings moved or decaying into the landscape. Now the few remains lie forgotten, ignored even by neighbours, their history lost.
This remains true even where the original physical presence was substantial. Tingha’s China Town is an example. Heard of it? I bet not.
China Town ran on the creek bank along Amethyst Street. However, the Chinese population was so big that it overflowed across the town. At the height of the tin boom, Chinese boarding houses, stores, cafes, peanut shops, wine shops, herbalists, opium dens and gambling shops competed for space in Tingha’s overcrowded town centre.
How big was big? That’s difficult to estimate. At the height of the tin mining boom, 2,500 people packed into Tingha and its immediate surrounds. The population of the broader Tingha mining district was 7,000 of whom 2,000 were Chinese. My best guess, and it’s only a guess, is that Tingha had perhaps 500 Chinese residents; the remaining Chinese visited as needs demanded.
Chinese celebrations were both noisy and colourful. One year, a huge paper marquee was imported from China and erected in the vicinity of the main joss house. It housed displays of various gods and devils and of humans being punished for their sins.
The display remained open for a week. On the seventh day amidst much ceremony,
it was set alight. As it burned, fire crackers exploded; there was much gaiety until the whole structure was reduced to ash.
As the mines declined, people left, Chinese and non-Chinese alike. Yet many Chinese lingered, leaving their imprint. That is why stores in so many towns near the tin belt carried Chinese names, names that linger to this day; Hong Yuen (Inverell), Kwong Sing (Glen Innes and Bundarra), Hong Sing (Stanthorpe) and Wing Hing Long (Tingha).
When Harry Fay died in Inverell in August 2012, the Northern Daily Leader spoke of his connection with the iconic Hong Yuen department store. After taking over the store in 1970 that his grandfather had run for sixty years, the paper said, Mr Fay had carried on the family tradition of honesty, quality service and community spirit. That’s not a bad epitaph.
I wonder how many Chinese students at UNE know that their ancestors were a significant part of the history of the area in which they now study? Not many, I would guess.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 4 June 2014. 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, here for 2014.