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Short History

Did you know that at one time the Chinese population outnumbered the European population in the Top End? Many were recruited by the Government of the day and by 1878 the Chinese were the largest non-Aboriginal group of the time.

According to the Government Resident's report of 1909, there were 6122 Chinese in the NT by 1888. The "coolies" were contracted to work the goldfields and later the building of the railway line from Palmerston to Pine Creek.

These early Chinese settlers were mainly from the Kwantung Province in south China and primarily spoke the Sze Yup and Hakka dialects. The local newspaper of the time noted of the Chinese arrival in the NT: "The coolies were landed here in a poor state of health, and if they had been so many cattle, instead of human beings, their low condition would have caused their employers to feed them and to strengthen them before putting them to work."

By 1881, anti-Chinese feeling in South Australia was sufficiently strong to fix a boundary between the Northern Territory and South Australia (1000 miles north of Adelaide). The Chinese could pass south of this line only if they paid a ten pound entry tax. But it was the need for cheap labour which allowed the Chinese to continue their work in the Northern Territory and soon enough they were working their own claims, establishing market gardens and engaging in general industry and commerce.

In the 1890s the economic depression and a national campaign aimed at a White Australia mean many Chinese left the Territory but some stayed on and became Australian citizens in the brief period when it was possible and settled permanently in the Territory. These families increased and extended their commercial base in Darwin.

This description from 1897: "Chinese, who are ready and willing to work night or day and seven days a week, have ousted Europeans from many branches of trade. Hairdressing, tailoring and bootmaking are all done by them....The chefs are invariably Chinamen; this applies to most of the Northern Territory." But the Chinese settlement in the NT was not approved of by the rest of Australia, as Banjo Paterson wrote in The Bulletin in 1898: "....the Territory itself is now clamouring for the introduction of the cheap and nasty Chow, notwithstanding that it is breeding its own Chinky fast enough, in all conscience. The Territory people want more Chows and would gladly cut loose from South Australia to get them." Chinatown in Cavenagh Street had become a hive of Chinese activity and commerce. It featured many stores including a "bootmaker, tailor, baker, hairdresser, several washerwomen and many gardeners." There were also many restaurants and a seed and plant shop - the first of its kind in the Territory (even the Government Resident of the time made purchases there).

By the 1920s the Chinese had become economically powerful in the region but it wasn't until sometime after World War Two that they were able to overcome discriminatory measures such as not being allowed to work in the public service. Nevertheless, the Chinese continued to forge ahead and as we look back to recent twentieth century history the impact of those who remained has been well noted. In politics, in business, in sport and recreation, in the development of the general lifestyle of the Northern Territory - these areas and more have been "touched" by the Chinese. And not just those born and bred here, but those more recent arrivals who have chosen the Territory as their home.

Today in our proudly cosmopolitan community, there is a sharing of culture and blending of knowledge and roots. We pay tribute to our forefathers who helped make it so. This short history has been compiled from excerpts from the following books: Cathay of the North by Frances Chan The Chinese in the Northern Territory by Timothy G Jones Beyond Chinatown by Diana Giese Sweet & Sour compiled by the Museum and Art Gallery of the NT.