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Before the gold rush

Before the gold rush

This scene depicts Chinese labourers in search of work walking along a winding country road past bullock teams and Chinese workers clearing bushland

Life for Chinese labourers in Australia before the 1850s was often one of physical hardship in harsh conditions. On the right, Chinese labourers in search of work walk along a winding country road past bullock teams. On the left, Chinese workers are clearing bushland.

The earliest Chinese contact with Australia

The earliest Chinese contact with Australia appears to have come from fishermen searching the north-western coastline of Australia for sandalwood, bêche-de-mer (trepang) and sea cucumbers. Chinese sources actually refer to a 1477 map that shows the outline of the Australian continent. In the journal of HMS Investigator (1802–1803), Matthew Flinders noted that the Aboriginal people of the Gulf of Carpentaria seemed familiar with firearms and iron tools, and he reported seeing pieces of earthen jars, bamboo latticework and other articles which he thought to be of Chinese origin.

Records show that about 18 Chinese settlers had immigrated to Australia before 1848. The earliest known Chinese immigrant to arrive in Sydney is reported to have been Mak Sai Ying. Born in Guangzhou (Canton) in 1798, he arrived as a free settler in New South Wales in 1818 and purchased land at Parramatta. In 1829 Mak Sai Ying (or John Shying as he became known) was granted the licence for The Lion, a public house at Parramatta. His descendents became cabinet-makers and undertakers in Sydney.

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