Chinese settlers first rushed to Victoria in large numbers hoping to strike gold. Most were men contracted to agents who sponsored their voyages, and they faced years of difficult repayments. They also sent money back to their families in China.
By 1861, the Chinese community was already thriving, making up nearly 7% of the Victorian population. Melbourne’s Little Bourke Street became a bustling centre for Chinese cultural and business activity.
As the gold ran out, many Chinese settled as market gardeners or farm hands. Some set up small grocery stores or fruit and vegetable-hawking businesses in country towns. Others worked around Melbourne in a variety of pursuits, including import-export businesses, laundry operations, cabinet making and in medicine. Many Chinese religious and cultural organisations were established, and Chinese New Year celebrations became a highlight in many towns in Victoria.
Chinese immigration had been restricted by Government policy from as early as the 1850s, but it was the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act
– often called the White Australia Policy
– that significantly hindered the entry of non-Europeans, including the Chinese, through the use of a dictation test
. Residency conditions were also strictly controlled.
The Chinese community actively protested against prejudice, however, and activists such as Loius Ah Mouy and Lowe Kong Meng highlighted the important economic and social contributions made by members of their community. Finally, policy restricting the migration of non-Europeans was lifted in the 1970s, and trade links with China were subsequently strengthened.
Between 1986 and 1991 the China-born population in Victoria more than doubled to over 20,000. This number was largely due to the many Chinese students seeking citizenship
and asylum after the repression of student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
In 2006, the census
recorded 56,560 China-born people in Victoria. In recent years many professionals have migrated from China, including scholars, doctors and business investors. Many more live in Victoria temporarily as students. They have continued a long and proud history of a Chinese community that has made an important contribution to Victorian life.