The Chinese on the Western Goldfields

The Chinese on the goldfields were generally miners, shopkeepers or gardeners. They arrived quite early in the gold rush and quickly established themselves at Tambaroora, towards the northern end of the town, around Tambaroora Creek and along the Mudgee Road. Here they built a joss house, shops and plenty of gardens which are shown in the foreground of a panorama of the town. They were industrious workers, often successfully going over old leases once the European miners had moved on.


Looking from Chinatown to St. Saviours Church, Tambaroora, ON 4 Box 12 No 80015 Digital order no: a2822976 State Library of NSW

Looking from Chinatown to St. Saviours Church, Tambaroora, ON 4 Box 12 No 80015 Digital order no: a2822976 State Library of NSW


Attitudes to the Chinese varied. Whilst many kept to themselves, the fact that their culture was so different led to misunderstandings and some animosity and in some instances they were perceived as a threat. Once established as businessmen they competed with the Europeans by managing pug mills, and opening stores. They did, however, gain a reputation for integrity in their dealings, in contrast to some of their European competitors.

In his article on the Chinese shopkeepers in his 1930s newspaper series “Tambaroora” no. 6, Will Carter reminisces about these stores and their owners:

There was a large settlement of Chinese, on Tambaroora, as on most alluvial goldfields, and among the white population were many who dealt with Sam Choy, On Ti Kee, Sam Gon Shin, or Ah Tye, fully convinced that they got better value from the Celestials than from their own countrymen.
Perhaps it was the never failing Christmas box forthcoming at the Chinese stores that attracted a certain amount of patronage from the whites; it certainly was not the offensive reek of light Chinese tobacco smoke; or the fumes from the long opium pipes, proceeding from the Chinky smoking lounge at the back of the shop, which allured the shopping housewives.
It does not involve a very great strain upon the imagination to conjure up a picture of one of those old time Chinese stores. In front of the wooden building there would probably be seen little red paper fragments of discharged fire crackers let off, a packet at a time, the night before, in keeping with the Chinese custom to mark some recurring phase of the moon, or anniversary.
The window sill would bear a row of gimlet holes, and in each would appear the remains of a thin, slowly burning, and highly scented sort of rushlight, suggestive of a miniature bullrush. Small, coloured candles of the size used in connection with birthday cakes would be stuck in holes there too, and all partly consumed. On the door would appear bright red strips of paper bearing greetings, or notifications intelligible only to Chinese patrons.


Chinese man outside a house, Tambaroora, ON 4 Box 12 No 80007 Digital order no: a2822969 State Library of NSW

Chinese man outside a house, Tambaroora, ON 4 Box 12 No 80007 Digital order no: a2822969 State Library of NSW


On entering the low roofed shop, one smelt that queer reek, or combination of smells that suggested crowded Oriental occupancy, indifferent house cleanliness, stale opium fumes and tobacco smoke, sarm-soo, chop sticks and chow-chow. On the counter lay an abacus, or bead calculating apparatus by means of which the bills were quickly totalled. The almond eyed salesman was always polite and ready to oblige his Tambaroora customers and to beat white opposition prices wherever possible. He never forgot that a child, were he white, black or brindle would fully appreciate a gift of lollies, and that a little generosity in that direction would win the approbation of the youngster’s mother.

Another report, in the 4 May 1939 issue of Lachlander and Condobolin and Western Districts Recorder presents a similar version:

AT OLD HILL END. When Hill End. was flourishing in 1872 there were fully 30000 people there and at Tambaroora, which had gradually extended towards Bald Hill so that it was practically all one settlement. Of those there were a good many Chinese, most of whom were engaged in alluvial fossicking in the adjacent gullies. Among, those in business On Gay was a popular storekeeper, a generous hearted fellow who was always ready to back up any striving prospector, whether one of his own countrymen or of other race. Joe Long, a Chinese purveyor of “punkeen, cabbage, and letushee’ which he grew down along the Turon River, and bore laboriously up the steep Hawkins’ Hill in baskets at first, and later on packhorses, used to learn of the needy circumstances of the unlucky diggers on his rounds, and report them to On Gay, who promptly sent them relief supplies, and served them on credit till they struck better times. Many an old-time Hill Ender speaks to this day of the considerate nature of On Gay, the storekeeper.


On Gay and his countrymen, outside his grocery & drapery store, Hill End ON 4 Box 7 No 18723 Digital order no: a2822609 State Library of NSW

On Gay and his countrymen, outside his grocery & drapery store, Hill End ON 4 Box 7 No 18723 Digital order no: a2822609 State Library of NSW


Brian Hodge devotes a comprehensive chapter to Chinese migration to the goldfields in his “Frontiers of Gold” book.

In his analysis of the situation Hodge reports that in the early years there were only two occasions between 1853 and 1854 where there was publicity concerning the unwelcome presence of the Chinese.

There have been great disturbances here lately with the Chinamen, and many of them have been marched to the watch-house with broken heads and disfigured features. The yellow skins have been so much annoyance to the authorities, that they have ordered them off the diggings. So much for Chinese immigration. [Bathurst Free Press 10 Sept 1853].

In August 1854, at Richardson’s Point (Windeyer), a dispute over a waterhole sparked a serious disturbance whereby European miners from Tambaroora came to support their mates:

The Europeans hunted the Chinese into the gullies wherever they could find them. The Chinese tents and belongings had been consumed in a general conflagration…. many a heathen found a last resting place at the bottom of many an abandoned shaft. [Bathurst Free Press 26 August 1854].

A further incident was recorded in the Empire on Saturday 20 March 1858, page 3

A correspondent of the Bathurst Times writes from Tambaroora to the following effect: – These, like other diggings, are very dull at present, from the great want of rain, and from the vast hordes of Celestials who are daily making their way to the camp already founded by their countrymen, on the Red Hill, opposite the present Sub-Commissioner’s residence. The water reserves are entirely drained, and murmurs loud and deep are heard among the Europeans, particularly the female portion, against the leprous Tartars. But these ” gentlemen”, not satisfied with stealing, and polluting the water, rendering it unfit for any common use, have begun to exhibit their petty thieving propensities, by taking every little article they can find on the premises of Christian diggers; and the Commissioner, apparently not caring to check the evil, content himself with attributing it to the ignorance of the Chinamen, the European miners determined to have satisfaction. On the morning of the 11th instant, they commenced by driving the Celestials from the outskirts of the diggings into the main camp; to do which, they had to pass Mr. Sub-Commissioner Forster’s barrack yard. This brave man, seeing the Chinese in their bog trot, ordered his force out with loaded pistols and carbines. He himself came forward, like a lion, and said he would stand to be shot before he would allow a Chinaman to be touched. This too, at a time when the European were only discussing a suitable day to hold a meeting, for the purpose of framing a petition to the Legislature for the removal of Mr. Forster, and the expulsion of the Chinese from the gold-fields. In order to acquaint the diggers of this meeting, written notices were placarded through the diggings, but very shortly afterwards, were all taken down by Mr. Forster, who asked Mr. Cassidy, junior, if he put them, up, and was answered in the affirmative. – Mr. Cassidy, finding that the placards had been removed from his house, replaced them. They were taken down a second time by Mr. Forster. Mr. Cassidy, then went away on horseback. Returning home, he was halted by Mr. Forster, and an angry discussion ensued. But to the meeting. About four o’clock on Saturday last, about one hundred diggers were to be seen in front of Messrs. May’s, Tambaroora Inn, Mr. McLean, with, the force from all the Goldfields attended, expecting a riot; but Mr. May, being, voted to the chair, called on Mr. Brown to address the meeting; after which Mr. McLean made a long and able speech in which he expressed himself well satisfied with the conduct of the diggers. He was greeted with three hearty cheers after, which the meeting quietly dispersed.

Whilst some inhabitants were not happy with Mr Forster’s work another group of residents petitioned the Governor General, Sir William Thomas Denison to retain his services.

Hodge goes on to say that Europeans associated with immigration considered that the Chinese who came to the Western Goldfields between 1856 and 1861 were a superior class to the Chinese of the first migration. Mostly they were young men between 20 and 30 years of age (although some were younger, mere boys) of whom about one quarter had left wives behind them. Many had been able to pay their own passage and equip themselves for the goldfields, at a total cost of about £20.

As time passed the Chinese who arrived on the diggings worked the old ground which had been abandoned by the Europeans. As they remained alluvial miners, they posed no real competition to the Europeans who became more involved in the exploitation of quartz reefs etc.

The job of the goldfields police was also made easier as they were able to direct them away from potential trouble spots and the European mines. The geography was to thank for this as there was sufficient gold-bearing country, along the rivers, in the gullies and creeks to absorb them.


Bark huts & temple in Chinatown, Tambaroora, ON 4 Box 12 No 80012 Digital order no: a2822973 State Library of NSW

Bark huts & temple in Chinatown, Tambaroora, ON 4 Box 12 No 80012 Digital order no: a2822973 State Library of NSW


By the 1871there were only a quarter of the number of Chinese living in the Western Goldfields that had been there in the previous Census. They had returned to China or moved back to the larger cities. Small numbers remained in the district and after they had given up the gold they turned their hand to selling vegetables from their gardens.

By 1875 the Hill End Mining Warden, Mr Sharpe, when discussing the Chinese in the district in the Annual Report to the Minister of Mines stated that:

The alluvial miners in this district are chiefly Chinamen and fossickers. Very few Chinamen, it will be observed, do anything in quartz-mining; their labours are confined to shallow alluvial and river workings, for which they display a remarkable aptitude, appearing to be indifferent to wet and exposure, working in large bodies, and being satisfied with moderate returns, The Turon and Macquarie, and many other places for many miles, have been worked over and over again but co-operative bands of Chinamen.

In the National Parks & Wildlife family history archives at Hill End is a book which contains records (in Chinese) of gold dust and coins sent to China between 1866 and 1888. The book apparently belonged to a Chinese, Liu Miao Jie, in Hill End and references to “elder” and “brother” were used to refer to members of his lodge.


A sample page of the notebook belonging to Liu Miao Jie (HEATGG photo collection)

A sample page of the notebook belonging to Liu Miao Jie (HEATGG photo collection)


The following is a translation of some of the notations made in that notebook:

Dispatching gold record book established in the fourth year of the reign of Tong Zhi (1865) recorded by Liu Miao Jie.

On the eighth day of the fifth month in the fifth reigning year of Tong Zhi (20 June 1866)
Sent gold dust 4dwt 5 gr via Liang Ming Zhou – a native of Cao Bian (Cao side) to bring back (to China)
On the twenty- eight day of the ninth month in the 5th year (6 October 1866) Sent gold dust 2dwt 2 gr via a native of Hu Zhou foot – Liu Ah Lin to bring back (to China)
On one of the ten days in the middle of the month (from 9 July yo 18 July 1870) Sent gold dust 2dwt exact via Guo Ying Zai of Zhu Xia Yuan (Excellent Bamboo Garden) to bring back to China
On the twenty first day of the tenth month in the ninth year (13 November 1870) Sent back gold dust 2dwt exact via Elder Liu Guan Shao – a native of Shan Xi Juao (the corner of the mountain brook) to bring back to China.
On the second day of the tenth month (28 October 1885) send gold soverign coin 10 x 1 s each 21dwt via Sydney Tian He Store to bring back to China and deliver to family to receive.

Nu (Mew) Chip

Mew Chip and his Miner’s Right (Malcolm Drinkwater – Hill End Gold & HEATGG photo collection)

Mew Chip and his Miner’s Right (Malcolm Drinkwater – Hill End Gold & HEATGG photo collection)

The last Chinese man to be on the Tambaroora goldfields was possibly Nu (or Mew) Chip who in his later years grew vegetables for sale to the locals. It is believed he arrived in Australia in 1855. He passed away in 1937, and the following year the Hydraulic Slucing Company demolished the Chinese Temple at Red Hill in Tambaroora, as well as Nu Chip’s home.

Researching Chinese ancestors – lists of names

Select listing of Chinese names in Joan Reese’s Index to Convicts and Others

To assist those researching their Chinese ancestors we have produced a select listing of material relating to Chinese, taken from Joan Reese’s Index to Convicts and Others Extracted from the Colonial Secretary’s In Letters at the Archives Office of New South Wales. Many of these references relate to Chinese on the Western Goldfields.

The index of Letters to the Colonial Secretary 1826 – 1894 was originally compiled by Joan Reese and is available on microfiche at selected libraries and Family History Societies. [Joan Reese’s Index to Convicts and Others Extracted from the Colonial Secretary’s In Letters at the Archives Office of New South Wales. Microfiche. Balgowlah, NSW: W & F Pascoe, 1994-2009]

This extract relating to Chinese people mentioned in the Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence was compiled by Verna Little in 2014. This project arose out of an enquiry that we received regarding the Chinese on the goldfields and developed from there. Verna spent many hours extracting the information and it has now been combined into one document which may be of use to others researching the Chinese in Australia in colonial times.

The index is just a listing of names and broad subjects and to see the full letters the researcher needs to view microfilm copies of the Correspondence in NSW State Records reading rooms.

For all further information about the letters contained in this index please refer to the State Records website for information relating to the Colonial Secretary’s Papers.

Hill End Family History Chinese database

A compilation of Chinese who spent time in the Central West of New South Wales is now available for access to the descendants researching their elusive Chinese connections. Over the last ten years Daphne Shead from Hill End Family History has been collecting this information and has stored it on a database. This database covers an area encompassing Portland in the east to Dubbo in the west, from up near Coolah in the north and down to Tuena in the south and includes Tambaroora and surrounding districts. She is happy to check this database for those researching their Chinese heritage. Email the name of person, region, and range of years; (e.g., Ah See, Tambaroora, 1853-1859) to Bear in mind that the spelling of names was how the English speaking person translated what he thought the Chinese person said his name was, and each ‘translator’ spelled the name to his own satisfaction.


Further Chinese resources:

The National Archives of Australia have also produced a handy downloadable guide: Chinese Immigrants and Chinese Australians in NSW

A number of petitions were raised concerning the Chinese situation in the district. Further information concerning the circumstances surrounding Bah Fook can be found in an article by Kate Bagnall, published in Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies, Volume Six, 2013.

Kate Bagnall’s blog “The Tiger’s Mouth” also offers thoughts on the history and heritage of Chinese Australia.

A good resource for Chinese research after the gold rush is Water from the Wells, Chinese Market Gardens in NSW, 1850 – 2010.

Further suggestions on researching Chinese may be found at the Chinese Museum website in their

Guide to Chinese Australian Research.

Resources from the Golden Threads Exhibition on the Chinese in regional New South Wales 1850 – 1950 can be found archived here.