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Chinese Settlement in Forbes 

HISTORY OF CHINESE SETTLEMENT IN THE FORBES SHIRE

Research by Dr Merrill Findlay. Written by Jill Morgan. 

 

With special thanks to Esme Smith, The Forbes Historical Society, the Forbes Family History Group and SCID Studio.

Many local people assume that the first Chinese to arrive in Forbes came during the gold rush era but it is now generally believed that they probably came with the early squatters as shepherds, servants or cooks from the late 1840’s onwards. The links between China and the colony of New South Wales date from 1788 when some of the First Fleet sailed to Canton to re-load after delivering their cargos of convicts to Sydney Cove. Many of the ships on the Sydney route were also crewed by Chinese sailors and may have carried Chinese passengers who settled in the colony.


The gold rushes of the 1850s and ‘60s brought thousands more Chinese born people to the colonies. Many of these migrants were Cantonese speakers from Kwangtung (Guongdong) in the Pearl River Delta in Southern China and most were young single men who were possibly escaping war or famine and came to seek their fortune in Australia. They would have been expected to send regular money back home and many did return back home to marry or take care of ageing parents.


Early records of burials show that Chinese people were working in the Forbes goldfields from at least 1863. It is difficult to imagine what life was like for these Chinese migrants when they first arrived on the Lachlan goldfields in the 1860’s. Few of them spoke English, they looked different from other diggers and they had left behind everything they were familiar with. What they brought with them however were generations of cultural traditions which they were soon sharing with non-Chinese diggers.

AFTER THE GOLDRUSH

After the Goldrush many Chinese people stayed on and settled in the Forbes district. By the 1880’s more Chinese were probably living on pastoral stations and in bush camps than in town. Hundreds of Chinese men were employed to clear land, excavate dams, fence, shear and do other station work including cooking and gardening.


Many of the farms in the shire were first cleared by contracted Chinese work gangs who ring-barked much of the land that was later opened up to selection or acquired for soldier settlement blocks. In 1886 the Edols of Burrawang Station, on the western rim of Forbes Shire, hired Chinese work gangs to ring-bark some 50,000 acres. The pastoralists considered Chinese workers much more reliable than other groups at this time because they were not heavy drinkers.

Many Chinese who stayed on in the Forbes district after the gold rushes turned to market gardening and storekeeping. Although little evidence of the presence of Chinese horticulturists has been preserved it is well known that there were many market gardens along the Galari /Lachlan river and along the edge of the lake near Chinaman’s Bridge.

Chinese Settlement Map

Map Illustration © SCID STUDIO

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ILLUSTRATIONS OF A GOLDMINE SHAFT
“The elaborate conical structure in this sketch is a horse-powered Cornish whim. It consisted of a large drum with a continuous rope that raised and lowered two skips in the mine shaft. A bark roof covered the whim to protect the horse and miners from the elements.
Illustration by JON LAWRENCE
Words by TERRI LAWRENCE, FORBES & PARKES SKETCHBOOK

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BALE MARKING STENCIL USED ON THE BURRAWANG WOOL BALES
Photo courtesy of SCID STUDIO.

Housed at the FORBES HISTORICAL SOCIETY

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BURRAWANG HOMESTEAD, c. 1891-1901
Photo courtesy of STATE LIBRARY OF NSW

VIEW OF WOOL SCOUR “BURRAWANG”, c. 1891-1901
Photo courtesy of STATE LIBRARY OF NSW

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CHINAMAN'S BRIDGE, BEDGERABONG
Photo courtesy of SCID STUDIO

IRRIGATION PIONEERS ON THE GALARI

A large portion of Cantonese speakers who migrated to the Australian goldfields were from rural Southern China and brought with them thousands of years of inherited knowledge and experience in intensive irrigation agriculture and horticulture. Many of these settlers put their ancestral knowledge into practice as soon as they found land to cultivate with reliable sources of water.


In the early days they constructed channels and embankments to irrigate their crops and carted water by hand in large buckets attached to shoulder yokes. This process later became partly mechanised by attaching the buckets to an endless chain that was driven by a horse going round and round. It has been claimed that Chinese market gardeners on the Galari / Lachlan River paved the way for successful vegetable growing in Australia.

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CHINESE GARDENERS ON THEIR PLOT
Photo STATE LIBRARY OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA

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CHINESE HAND DRAWN CART.
Photo courtesy of SCID STUDIO.

Housed within the FORBES HISTORICAL SOCIETY

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EVIDENCE OF IRRIGATION CHANNELS, CONDOBOLIN NSW
Photo courtesy of SCID STUDIO

MERCHANTS

The Shire’s earliest Chinese stores were probably simple canvas tents and rough slab huts hastily erected in the early 1860’s from which traders could sell food and manufactured goods to the diggers. The proprietors of these stores would have filled their shelves with imported goods, including traditional Chinese foods and medicines, and with whatever fresh produce was available. They probably also sold opium, which could be legally imported until the early twentieth century.


The premises at 161 Rankin Street, Forbes, known as Beryl & Bert’s Music Store, Mathias’s General Merchants and Quong Lee’s Store, dates from the nineteenth century and is probably the last authentic physical memory of the town’s remarkable Chinese heritage. According to Mathias family lore, the shop was built by Quong Lee after a very high flood in the 1800’s.


It was very close to the South Lead goldfield so would have attracted pedestrian and other traffic. It was also on the route to the market gardens on what was then called the Condobolin road and to stations, farms and settlements further west including Bedgerabong, Yarrabandi and Condobolin.


There were several other Chinese general stores in Forbes during Quong Lee’s era, including the very large Chong Brothers Model Store in Rankin Street, but although some bricks, mortar and timber may remain from these establishments they are not recognisable today.

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GROCERY SECTION OF A CHINESE OWNED (LEE FAMILY) STORE IN TEMORA, NSW

Photo courtesy of MUSEUM OF THE RIVERINA

Quong Lee  Store
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Chong Bros Store

CHONG BROTHERS MODEL STORE, RANKIN STREET, FORBES NSW
Photo courtesy of the FORBES HISTORICAL SOCIETY

THE CORNER OF RANKIN STREET & BROWNE LANE, FORBES. Formerly the QUONG LEE STORE

Photo courtesy of SCID STUDIO

CHONG BROTHERS MODEL STORE, RANKIN STREET, FORBES NSW
Photo courtesy of the FORBES HISTORICAL SOCIETY

THE FOO FAMILY

One enduring tie in the Forbes community are the descendants of William Ah Foo. Ah Foo crossed the Blue Mountains in a bullock wagon to the Forbes goldfields. In 1878 Ah Foo, aged forty, married Margaret Kang in Orange. The union produced nine children, three of whom spent all their days in Forbes.


Ah Foo, by now a dynastic figure in the Chinese community, flourished. The earliest of the land titles Ah Foo purchased (presumably after the gold ran out) was dated 10 March 1883. This was approximately two acres and over the next few years gradually built up to twelve acres that remain in the family to this day.

 

A son, who lived on the property, Mr Percy Foo, married Annie McMahon of Forbes and raised a family of eight children. He was respected and well known to townsfolk and will be remembered for his long association as caretaker of Victoria Park.

William Ah Foo conducted a market garden on a large scale and employed many Chinese workers. He became an important citizen and birthday celebrations would mean a chef from Sydney and a weeks festivities and fireworks. People came from all over the country and as part of the celebrations, gambling would go on day and night for a week.


Ah Foo died on 31 August 1932 aged 104 and a venerated figure.


Stories survive about the close relationships between Chinese and non – Chinese people in the Shire, including a number of marriages. Sadly there are also stories about racism and xenophobia, especially in the decades leading up to Federation and the introduction of the White Australian Policy, which is also part of our shared heritage.


In her 2009 interview with Rob Willis, Esme Smith (Ah Foo’s granddaughter) talks about being teased at school and how her parents were ostracised at times. Her father Percy was very class conscious and this inferiority complex was passed on to his children. Times have moved on however and Esme’s children are proud of their heritage.

Some other Chinese names from the past are: Sam Lock, Tom Wong, Archie Wong, Lee Fook, Thomas Kue, Sam Quong Lee, Peter Ah Lee, George Wing and George Hing Lee.

William Ah Foo

WILLIAM AH FOO

Photo courtesy of ESME SMITH

Foo Family Decedents

FOUR GENERATIONS OF THE AH FOO DESCENDANTS
L-R: ESME SMITH, KRISTINE DOBELL, LUCY AND OLIVE STEWART
Photo courtesy of SCID STUDIO

CUISINE

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Chinese settlement has been its impact on food. Almost every country town and suburb in Australia features at least one Chinese restaurant with ingredients like soy sauce, garlic, rice and noodles becoming pantry staples in modern Australia.

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Illustrations © SCID STUDIO

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WONTON SOUP, GRAZING DOWN THE LACHLAN 2022
Photo courtesy of EMILY WILSON