Chinese hawker's wagon (Battye Library 004644d)






The first documented Chinese immigrant to W.A. was Moon Chow.(1) There is some doubt about when he first arrived as we have information that he first came to W.A. in 1828 and another source says 1829.


A highly knowledgeable researcher in this area believes that Moon Chow may have been rescued after being shipwrecked. He may have arrived in Albany aboard a transport carrying horses. Our information prior to being told about this was that Moon Chow arrived in Fremantle in October 1829 aboard the Emily Taylor that he boarded in India. The stories may have become entangled over time and it is entirely possible that Moon Chow arrived in Albany in 1828 and then went on to Fremantle in 1829.


The only other information we have about Moon Chow is that he worked as a boat builder and carpenter. He eventually married an English woman named Mary Thorpe in 1847 with whom he had three children, one girl and two boys.


Moon Chow died in 1877 after being hit by a horse and cart.(2) We have seen information that this led to a speed limit being introduced in Fremantle (where the accident happened) but cannot confirm this.


We believe that Russell Square in Northbridge contains Moon Chow Promenade that was dedicated to this first Chinese immigrant.


Due to a local labour shortage 20 Chinese indentured labourers were brought in from Singapore in 1847 and this was so successful a further 31 arrived in 1848. This was a cheap labour force but due to convict transportation no more were brought in until 1874. The practice eventually came to an end in 1898.


Where ever the Chinese settled they developed market gardens, set up shops, food outlets and laundries. This was not always appreciated as there was some competition between Chinese and English businesses.


In the scheme of things the Chinese were seen as being somewhere between the Aborigines (considered the lowest of all) and the Europeans and as a result were always outside of the main stream of society.


Problems on the goldfields in the eastern states led to the governments there trying to restrict Chinese immigration. In 1881 part of a report on the issue stated:


"It is a matter for deep regret that the smallest colony of the group should take a course so calculated to cut her off from popular sympathy and to isolate her from colonizing progress..."


The Western Australian Government was actively supporting the immigration scheme and the Imported Labour Registry Act had already been passed in 1874. Singapore was the main point of importation of cheap labour but there were few controls and corruption was rife.


Old and sick men were substituted at the last moment for young healthy men who had passed health checks. Chinese coolies were lied to about the type of work they would be expected to do, what their pay rates were and even which country they would be sent to. The 1874 Act relating to imported labour was changed in 1882 in an attempt to tighten up the rules and stamp out some of the worst cases of abuse of the system. After intense opposition by employers the 1882 Act was repealed only two years after it had been introduced.


The great majority of Chinese immigrants were men, as Chinese women, although not excluded by law, were discouraged from entering the country. This led to a great deal of loneliness and hardships for the Chinese men. A few intermarried with European women but this was a very small minority. Gambling, visiting prostitutes and opium smoking were the main ways the men distracted themselves from their lonely lives. There were also a large number of co-habitations with Aboriginal women but this was very much discouraged by the European authorities.


Employment contracts usually made the employer responsible for ensuring workers were returned to the point of origin that they had been contracted from but in practice this provision was ignored.


The Chinese Immigration Bill of 1886 introduced a poll tax for Chinese entering the state and numbers were restricted by linking the number of entries to the weight of cargo carried by the ships they arrived on. 1 man per 50 tons of cargo was the initial figure.


As with the eastern states, real trouble began once gold was discovered and the Chinese began to compete for mining space on the gold fields. This led to protests and social unrest and in the end legislation (the Goldfields Act of 1886 that was not repealed until 1973) was brought in to stop the Chinese for mining for gold by banning them from holding a mining license for 5 years after a new field was declared. (Aboriginal people were also targeted in this way and banned from holding a mining license in 1888.)


Until 1888 only 10% of Chinese immigrants lived and worked in the Perth and Fremantle areas but two years later this began to change and by 1901 there were more Chinese in the city than anywhere else.


While the source of cheap labour was concentrated in the north west (a place many European colonists did not want to work in any case) there was little opposition to the labour scheme from Australian workers. Once the contracts of employment started to expire and the Chinese began to move south and establish their own businesses in competition with Europeans, opposition to Chinese immigration began to fester.


Some racially abusive articles appeared in newspapers including the one below that was published in the Fremantle Herald:


'The quality of goods that the Britisher displayed in his window was superior in most cases and more than equal in all, to the stuff the parchment faced, dope smoking, fan tanning coterie of exiled Chows had. One day the money that is going into Chow coffers will be shot back at you in the form of bullets. Germany did it. Orientals are notoriously untrustworthy - and they MAY do it.'


Frederick Vosper (who at one time was associated with the Sunday Times and was Member for North East Coolgardie) was a rabid anti-Asian and used his position with the paper to print lies and mis-information about the Chinese at every opportunity. He also sought to stop Greeks, Hungarians and Italians from immigrating. (Vosper finally died from a burst appendix, perhaps brought on by his own bilious nature.)


The Chinese who came to W.A. tended to be more isolated from each other than those who went to the eastern states. This led to greater interaction with Europeans and was probably responsible for the W.A. Chinese resorting more to legal action through the court system than was the case elsewhere.


Although the Chinese were on the whole much less violent than the Europeans who surrounded them, they were not averse to defending themselves legally when provoked. Unfortunately the court system and juries were substantially biased towards the Europeans no matter what the evidence was. There were a number of notable court cases that were clearly decided on the grounds of race rather than on the available evidence.


Chinese men were most vulnerable when unemployed or sick. One case involving a very sick man took place in the north west 60 miles from Roebourne. Although travellers frequently passed the sick man and some gave him food and water, he was not transported to town and was left by the roadside for six weeks until he eventually died. This kind of treatment was not unusual when applied to the Chinese or indeed to the Aborigines.


When Responsible Government arrived in 1890 there was a marked increase in anti-Chinese sentiment.


The official immigration scheme was wound down in 1893 but this failed to deter Chinese immigration which reached a peak of 508 in 1897. Numbers in W.A. were always small compared to those in the eastern states but as immigration to the east was tightened up, W.A. was seen as a 'back-door' through which the Chinese could gain access to the rest of Australia. Considering that the total number of Chinese in W.A. never exceeded 2,000 at any one time and that New South Wales had 10,205 and Victoria 11,799 Chinese residing there as early as 1881, it is difficult to see why the eastern colonies adopted this attitude.


Population changes of Chinese in W.A.


No. of people














As moves for responsible government began to take shape it was realised that support from the eastern colonies was vital and in 1897 the Immigration Restriction Act was passed. Eventually this led to the 'white Australia' policy that effectively excluded all Asians from immigrating here. This was finally overturned in the 1970s when Australia went down the road of multi-culturalism.


Alexander Forrest ensured that pastoralists in the north west were not deprived of their cheap source of labour by introducing the Immigration Labour Registry Act of 1897 which enabled Chinese labour to continue to be imported as long as workers were restricted north of the 27th parallel.


In 1904 the Factory Act was passed in an attempt to curb the hours worked by Chinese businessmen and a large number were prosecuted for working longer than the regulation number of hours per day and for working on Sundays.


The South Perth foreshore was once dominated by the market gardens of Chinese men who worked the area until the early 1950s when is was decided to upgrade the area with parks and sports fields along the river and the men who had worked their gardens for 40 years or more were all evicted. Once the old men had all been removed the area quickly became a waste land and Yugoslavs were brought in to re-establish the old vegetable gardens. It was to be 20 years before any real work was done on establishing any park land.


Estimates put the total number of Chinese immigrants to W.A. in the 1800s at about 5,000 with a peak of about 1,900 being reached in 1897. By 1949 there were almost 10,000 Chinese in W.A. and this number has continued to climb steadily. By 1982 it had risen to over 25,000 and by 1991 had exceeded 60,000.


Further reading and research:


Atkinson, Anne, `Chinese Labour and Capital in Western Australia, 1847 - 1947', PhD thesis submitted to Murdoch University, 1991


(1) Early Days. Journals and proceedings of the W.A. historical Society. (Vol 9, Part 2, 1984. pp.96 - 104)


(2) Atkinson, Anne, 'Asian Immigrants to Western Australia, 1829 - 1901', (UWA Press, 1988) p.228





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