Digging dirt on Chinese history

Local archaeologist and Southern Cross University Honours student Theresa Gilroy (pictured) is trying to unlock what she calls the “hidden history” of the North Coast region: the activities of Chinese migrants from the 1850s to the 1930s.

“Thousands of Chinese men migrated to the upper Clarence in the 1850s in search of gold. There were at least six Chinese mining settlements, referred to as Chinatowns.

“During this time they built extensive stone and wooden structures for the washing of alluvial gold... Chinese men were also sand mining at Evans Head in the 1870s and had their camp at Chinamans Beach,” Theresa said.

“As the gold strikes ended, market gardens were established on the outskirts of many towns. Murwillumbah had several gardens, and at North Lismore they extended as far as the racecourse.”

She said there was an extensive settlement of Chinese people in North Lismore, with about 150 people working in the market gardens.

“There were several stores in Bridge St and Terania St, along with gambling houses and opium dens,” she said. “The market gardens supplied Lismore with fresh fruit and vegetables and there is one story of a Chinese fruiterer turning up to a Lismore primary school on a really hot day with a wagon load of watermelons.”

Theresa said the reason Chinese migration to the region has been largely forgotten is because of legislation that stopped Chinese men bringing their wives or girlfriends out to Australia, so most of them eventually went home again.

“It was because of this racist legislation that we don’t have a lot of Chinese families in the region looking after their heritage,” she said. “Much of this information has never been recorded. We are in danger of losing this knowledge if we don’t document it soon.”

Theresa is doing an Honours project through the School of Environmental Science and Management at SCU after studying archaeology at UNE in Armidale.

“When I was there somebody told me about some mining structures out towards Drake and that sparked my interest. I started looking into it and tried to identify the location and time frame of sites in the Far North Coast. I got to 94 sites that were associated with a range of activities to do with Chinese migrants in the area.

“Chinese fruiterers from Sydney first established banana farms on the North Coast in 1916, due to a prohibitive tariff imposed on imported bananas by the NSW Government,” she said. “I have classified these farms as ‘complexes’, as they contain a variety of archaeological evidence spread over a wide area. As well as remnants of communal houses, packing sheds, stables and cook houses, these banana farm complexes contain stone terraces, wells, dams and even a tramway used to transport bananas from the field to the packing shed.

“In some instances Chinese people even built the infrastructure needed to transport their produce, with a road being built at Chinamans Hill, a causeway at Wilsons Creek and a road and wharf at Bagotville.”

Theresa is hoping anybody with information about other sites will get in contact with her so it can be recorded in her research.

In particular she said there is one reference to a market garden in Alstonville that also supplied Ballina.

“That is all we know. There is also a reference to a market garden at Coraki, so I am looking for the location and any other information.

“There were six Chinese settlements west of Casino and Kyogle. We know where some are, but not all of them. We also believe there were stores at Byron, Ballina and Kyogle.”

If anybody has information for Theresa she can be contacted via email at tgilroy@rocketmail.com or by phone on 66841498.


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