Monday, 2 March 2009

Chinese-Australian History

My knowledge of Chinese history is minuscule, and my knowledge of the Chinese in Australian history is marginally more. I had never planned to travel to China – there were other world destinations on my dream list, but life does take many twists and turns and in 2008 I went to China to teach English at a foreign languages college. I remember in the few days while I was considering the offer, and the few short weeks later as I tried to put my life on hold in Australia and prepare for my amazing adventure, I did read quite a bit about China in Tourist brochures, websites, travel guides at a time when I was already struggling with information overload.In any case, anything I read did not prepare me for the culture shock and the widening of my own horizons.

In retrospect I wish I had more time to do research, but I am enjoying a fascinating journey of inquiry now as I try and understand more about the Chinese culture as it is in Zhejiang province where I spent most of 2008. And other things have conspired to make me want to learn more about the Chinese in Australian history too. Another journey of discovery is underway.

In China I found that a knife and fork was an unlikely to be found on the table, and I was quite experienced at using chopsticks. The Chinese students were surprised about this – though they relentlessly attempted to improve my technique without much success. How did I know about chopsticks? When did I learn to use them? Had I eaten Chinese food before?

It was then that I wished I had known more about the history of the Chinese in Australia, and remembered more about my experiences learning to eat Chinese food, with two small sticks.

My overcrowded and ancient memory recalls that I was probably in my early twenties before I actually visited a Chinese restaurant, and then it would have been to stand and read a menu, order with fear and trepidation food that I was not familiar with, and wait to take it home in some sort of plastic container. Of this I have scant memory. Maybe I was older.

I can remember later when I was married and had two small children in tow, we had Chinese takeaway a little more, and as I became more adept in the kitchen, I explored cooking Chinese meals myself. I’ve had a series of woks (incidentally not a word that my Chinese students recognised), and I have regularly cooked pork, chicken or beef stir fry, with rice, and other recipes gleaned from my huge collection of cookery books. I can make spring rolls, and other delicacies, but as an adventurous cook in the kitchen I have explored the foods of many nations.

It was then that I wished I had known more about the history of the Chinese in Australia, and remembered more about my experiences learning to eat Chinese food, with two small sticks.

My overcrowded and ancient memory recalls that I was probably in my early twenties before I actually visited a Chinese restaurant, and then it would have been to stand and read a menu, order with fear and trepidation food that I was not familiar with, and wait to take it home in some sort of plastic container. Of this I have scant memory. Maybe I was older.

I can remember later when I was married and had two small children in tow, we had Chinese takeaway a little more, and as I became more adept in the kitchen, I explored cooking Chinese meals myself. I’ve had a series of woks (incidentally not a word that my Chinese students recognised), and I have regularly cooked pork, chicken or beef stir fry, with rice, and other recipes gleaned from my huge collection of cookery books. I can make spring rolls, and other delicacies, but as an adventurous cook in the kitchen I have explored the foods of many nations.

Somewhere over the years I have collected and used chopsticks, and strangely a wonderful Chinese china set which includes two large serving bowls, 8 small bowls, 8 small plates, and 8 serving spoons. And I regularly used these when I created Chinese food in the kitchen.

As well, I collected Chinese plates, bowls, spoons in blue and white china, and especially sought those with small pieces of rice embedded into the clay before the firing process. Was I destined to have a greater connection with China?

I was aware from my Australian history lessons many years ago, and reading the book “Oliver’s Diary” edited by my second cousin Margaret Ragless of the many Chinese who came to work the gold mines in Victoria in the 1850’s. Oliver Ragless, kept a diary of his life at that time. I knew the Chinese were also involved with the gold fields in New South Wales, but that was about ten years later

I know they settled in our major cities from the 1850’s onward, and I know there was a big community of people from mainland China in Australia, but was surprised to learn that there were about 50,000. In any case China and Australia have had strong connections from the beginning of Australia’s written history.

In China I learned that Admiral Zheng He was reported to have at least visited the northern part of Australia, probably around 1412, though there is some conjecture on this. In any case it was not until 1777 that Captain James Cook discovered the east coast of Australia and claimed it for England. I wonder how our history would be if Admiral Zheng He had claimed the land for China?

Chinese people settled in the major cities and larger towns of Australia around 1850. As always they were hard workers and created our first restaurant and cafes, and for a long time were involved in market gardening.

I remember from my own childhood in Adelaide, that some of our vegetables came from the market gardens of people who had come from China, or whose ancestors had come from China. I don’t think they were near where we lived, but perhaps in the northern suburbs of Adelaide.

All this information is probably new to my students and friends in China.

I remember well visiting Chinatown in Melbourne in the 1970’s, and I have often visited Fortitude Valley here in Queensland, which has a strong Chinese community with shops and restaurants and other business with a Chinese focus. One whole streets looks very much like a Chinese street, and when I showed pictures of it to some of my classes in China, they could not believe it was in Australia.

I remember visiting the Chinese temple behind The Breakfast Creek Hotel at Newstead, and the Chinese temple in Bendigo, in Victoria many years ago, and recently going to Yum Cha at a restaurant at Sunnybank, which is full of Chinese shops and restaurants.

Over the years I have read many books with Chinese theme – and especially remember Wild Swans.

As well I find myself talking abut Emperor Yu and the story of how he tamed the rivers in China and reduced the flooding especially from the Yangtze River. I tell this story in a vain effort to point out that something should and could be done to capture the flooding rains in north Queensland where houses, farms and businesses have been underwater for several weeks, and channel it down to the south of this big arid land, where there is no water and rivers are drying up. If only someone in Australia in the 21st century could have the foresight that Emperor Yu had!

Australian and Chinese people have been working together in Australia for almost all our history, and I know many Australians are now working in China. We have a huge Chinese population in Australia and many of the brightest are our key doctors and surgeons.

For the most part we have a good relationship – Australians are often touted as racist and some are. The majority though are very thankful to have good Chinese people in Australia. They are hard workers and generally very successful business people. The young Chinese students are usually very dedicated to their study and many have made their mark in music too.

My learning journey continues.

(In the next post I will list websites with good information on the Australian/Chinese connections.)

1 comment:

Kiwi Riverman - The Writer said...

A most interesting post, Di. I wouldn't believe too much about Admiral Zheng and his travels.

If the stories are true, some of my Scandanavian viking ancestors discovered America centuries before Columbus did, and perhaps some early Irish priests in their little leather boats, too!

NZ has had a lot of early contact with the Chinese too, probably similar to Australia but in a smaller way. I don't know if you remember our former Labour PM Helen Clark making an official apology on behalf of New Zealanders for the despicable way Chinese were treated in the 19th century and even the early 20th century too.

Cheers

peter