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Scene 1 (right to left)

Life for Chinese labourers in Australia before the 1850s was often one of physical hardship in harsh conditions. In this scene Chinese labourers in search of work walk along a winding country road past bullock teams. The central composition depicts Chinese workers clearing bushland to makeroom for growing settlements.

Stitched panels of the Harvest of Endurance scroll featuring ‘Before the gold rush’ and ‘Chinese workers’.

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 refer to a 1477 map that shows the outline of the Australian continent. In the journal of HMS Investigator, Matthew Flinders noted that the Aboriginal people of the Gulf of Carpentaria seemed familiar with firearms and iron tools. 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 descendants became cabinet-makers and undertakers in Sydney.

Shortfall in the labour supply and Chinese workers

The transportation of convicts to New South Wales had ceased in 1840, bringing about a shortfall in the labour supply. British and Chinese agents responded by shipping out indentured labourers from China.

Most of the Chinese immigrants were from the densely populated southern provinces of Guangdong (Kwangtung) and Fujian (Fukien). Conditions in China, particularly in the south, were difficult and a significant rise in population had put pressure on the available resources. There were also foreign invasions, rebellions, severe floods and famines between the years 1849 and 1887.

On arrival in Australia, the Chinese labourers were assigned numerous jobs that helped to open up the growing settlement. Jobs included clearing the bush, digging wells and irrigation ditches, and working as shepherds on the new properties. Many new immigrants also started market gardens.

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