The significance of the first anti-Chinese legislation in Australia


He came ashore soaked, stinking of seaweed, exhausted and stung by jellyfish, clinging to a tea chest.  The sweetish perfume of tea was in his hair as he rested on the beach below the town called Robe, an ironic mantle for his shivering bones.  He staggered along with the others.  They must have looked like strange creatures from the sea, clutching their meagre belongings… All these moon-faced men with pigtails, stepping ashore from another age.  The local inhabitants came in droves and stood along the edge of the dunes gaping at them…  Sitting by the light of the fire, the four men stared up at the trees and the clear night sky.  Around them other fires flickered from encampments in the hollow.  They did not speak much.  They tried to imagine the distance they still had to travel.  It was difficult to grasp the idea that they had four or five hundred miles to walk.
– Brian Castro (1983) Birds of Passage, p75

This month marks 160 years from the time when the first anti-Chinese legislation was enacted in Australia. In June 1855, the recently formed colony of Victoria passed its first anti-Chinese legislation ‘An Act to Make Provisions for Certain Immigrants’. The Victorian Act of 1855 was the first of its kind in the Australian colonies. It imposed a poll tax of ten pounds upon every Chinese arrival and limited the number of Chinese on board each vessel to one person for every 10 tonnes of goods.  To avoid the legislation, shipping companies landed Chinese gold seekers in Guichen Bay in South Australia and many Chinese arrivals were disembarked at the township of Robe.

This first piece of anti-Chinese legislation was, in many ways, a precursor to the federal Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. Established at the federation of the colonies six years later, the Act would underpin the White Australia Policy and ultimately exclude non-European migration to Australia, until the 1970s.  As one of the earliest anti-Chinese legislations created in the global gold rushes of the nineteenth century, the Victorian Act of 1855 and the experience of Australia’s first Chinese arrivals merits attention in the coming months as a reminder of a foundational episode of institutionalised racism towards the first group of non-European arrivals in Australia.

In the above passage, cited from his novel Birds of Passage, author Brian Castro captured something of the experience of these first Chinese arrivals.[1] War and famine had driven these men out of their villages in Southern China to secure their lives and the lives of their families in the ‘gold mountains’ of the west.  From Robe, the walk to Victoria is estimated to have taken some three weeks; longer for those headed to New South Wales.  From all accounts, these walks were dangerous and Chinese miners were often the victims of ambushes.  According to a descendant of a Chinese miner, Chinese words were written on trees to inform others where there was danger and to indicate the right direction to mining camps and compatriots.[2]  By and large, the European colonialists considered the Chinese as heathen members of an inferior race and the accounts of anti-Chinese violence at Buckland River in Victoria in 1857 and at Lambing Flat in 1860-61 in New South Wales, illustrate the brutality with which European miners could treat Chinese miners on the goldfields.[3]

The Chinese Question in Australia text
The Chinese Question in Australia, 1878-79, edited by Chinese merchants and community leaders, Lowe Kong Meng, Cheok Hong Cheong and Louis Ah Mouy. This pamphlet was published in 1879. The editors mount a reasoned argument against immigration restrictions placed on Chinese nationals. They also voiced strong criticism regarding anti-Chinese violence on the goldfields. Image sourced from the State Library of Victoria.[4]

Of course, colonial Australia was not alone in this regard.[5]  Gold was first discovered in California in 1848.  In 1850, the Californian state passed the Foreign Miners Tax.  Although it did not specify them as a race, the Foreign Miners Tax “was clearly aimed solely at Chinese miners and was designed to drive them out of the mining camps”.[6]  From 1850 to 1882 there were various laws passed to restrict the lives of Chinese miners and Chinese workers in the U.S.  This occurred in spite of the ratification of the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 between the U.S. and China, which promised free passage between China and the U.S. and the protection of human rights of Chinese citizens in the U.S.  In 1882, the U.S. Congress would pass a federal Chinese Exclusion Act.  Anti-Chinese poll taxes were also legislated in New Zealand (1881) and in Canada (1885).[7]  These acts would also become the precursors to federal migration laws that excluded the Chinese and other non-European arrivals in these nations.

Small Chinese communities managed to develop in Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and Canada during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  But the lives of these people were greatly affected by the migration exclusion acts and a pervasive attitude of discrimination towards non-Europeans. In all four nations, there are many stories of Chinese families being ‘broken up’ through the years as Chinese wives were barred from permanent settlement in these countries with their husbands and children.[8]

During the 2000s, representatives of the federal governments of New Zealand, Canada and the U.S., have apologised to the descendants of first Chinese arrivals for the poll taxes and subsequent anti-Chinese legislation.  There are some common elements to these formal apologies. In 2002, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clark expressed her recognition, on behalf of the government, of the historical wrongdoing that occurred with the enactment of the anti-Chinese poll tax.[9]  Clark also expressed regret for New Zealand’s past actions and like other formal apologies for past institutionalised injustices, Clark acknowledged that these laws contravened the human rights expressed in the foundational documents and constitutions of these nations.[10]  In 2011, (150 years since the Lambing Flat riot) the President of the Chinese Heritage Association of Australia, Daphne Lowe Kelley, stated that the desire for a formal apology has been building up for years in Australia’s Chinese community given the formal apologies enacted in New Zealand, Canada and the U.S.[11] This year will present an opportunity to renew the call for an apology to the descendants of the first Chinese arrivals.

There is a case to be made for an official apology to be made by the Victorian or Australian government to the Chinese community for the anti-Chinese poll taxes. Some have argued that present day people should not be held responsible for the acts of earlier generations, while others contend that there are moral and symbolic arguments for formal apologies to be made towards victims of institutionalised injustice. As one theorist of national apologies has written, “whereas historians and truth commissions can unearth the factual details of past events and are free to acknowledge that injustices have been done, we lack the authority either to take responsibility for these actions on behalf of a political community or to signal that community’s intention to break with its questionable past” –  “this act can only be performed by the government”.[12]

If such an apology is made respectfully towards the descendants of the Chinese gold miners, undoubtedly it will be of benefit to the now passing generation of Chinese Australians aged in their nineties, whose father or grandfather arrived in Australia during the 1800s. But what is also important is the wider recognition and education of Australians about this episode. Historians in Australia and the U.S. have ably demonstrated how the first anti-Chinese poll tax legislation and the racist discourse directed at Chinese miners became the dominant model for excluding other non-Europeans.[13]  While any formal events aimed at raising public awareness of the discriminatory poll taxes would offer an opportunity for the government to apologise for a past episode of institutionalised racism, it also presents an opportunity to consider how these early anti-Chinese laws have been activated and reconfigured towards the discrimination of others who have subsequently arrived in Australia.

The fate of the Chinese miners who came out during Australia’s gold rushes was not always one of success. Thousands returned to China. Some are known to have gone insane. Some became beggars.  Some continued the search for gold at the expense of their lives.[14] Nonetheless, it took immense courage and hope, to undertake the journey to a foreign and hostile country and to meet the challenges of a 500-mile walk to the goldfields upon arrival.  It would be easy to produce celebratory narratives of the Chinese miners and to rest on stereotypes of their tenacity and capability to endure in any formal recognition and commemoration of the anti-Chinese poll tax in Victoria this year. It would also be meaningful to take the opportunity to reflect on the first anti-Chinese legislation in order “to reshape the meanings and terms of national membership” at a time when the rights of foreigners in Australia continue to represent a shifting ground.[15]


[1] B. Castro (1983), Birds of Passage, Sydney: George Allen and Unwin, p75.

[2] S. Connolly and T. Stevens (1994), Flowers and the Wide Sea, videorecording Sydney, Film Australia.

[3] S.W. Wang (2001), ‘Chinese’ in J. Jupp (Ed.) The Australian People: An encyclopedia of the nation, its people and their origins (pp. 197 – 204), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p202-3.

[4] L.K. Meng, C. H. Cheong and L. Ah Mouy, (1879), The Chinese Question in Australia, 1878 – 79, Melbourne: F.F. Baillere. Retrieved from [11/6/2015].

[5] S. Couchman and K. Bagnall (2013), ‘Introduction: Chinese Australians, Politics, Engagement and Activism’, Journal of Chinese Overseas, 9, 99-106 at p103.

[6] J. Soennichsen (2011), The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood, p60.

[7]  M. Ip, (1990), Home Away From Home, Auckland: New Women’s Press, p177; Historica Canada – Chinese Canadians. Retrieved from [11/06/2015].

[8] See Arthur Gar Lock Chang cited in M. Kamenev (2011, July 6), ‘Should Australia Say Sorry For Its Old Anti-Chinese Laws’, Time. Retrieved from,8599,2081397,00.html [17/05/2015].

[9] ‘New Zealand Government Apologised for the Poll Tax’ on the Siyi Genealogy Website. Retrieved from: [17/05/2015].

[10] M. Murphy (2011), ‘Apology, Recognition and Reconciliation,’ Human Rights Review, 12, 47–69.

[11] Kamenev, idem.

[12] Murphy, idem. p56.

[13] See E. Lee (2010), ‘The Chinese Are Coming. How Can We Stop Them? Chinese Exclusion and the Origins of American Gatekeeping’, in J. Wu and T. Chen (Eds), Asian American Studies Now: A Critical Reader, Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, NJ. 143-167.

[14] D. Horsfall (1985), March to Big Gold Mountain, Ascot Vale, VIC: Red Rooster Press, p35.

[15] M. Nobles (2008) The Politics of Official Apologies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Pamie Fung

Author: Pamie Fung

Pamie Fung wrote her thesis on the Maribyrnong Migrant Hostel in Melbourne’s west. She is interested in Indigenous and migrant cultural heritage. Since commencing work with Professor Kee Pookong at the Asia Institute in the University of Melbourne, she is researching on Asian Australians and public life in the past and present.