A brief historical background

by Juanita Kwok

As labour migrants from China were amongst the first to work and settle in northwest New South Wales, they can be considered both as pioneers and agents of dispossession of the land of the First Nations peoples of northwest New South Wales. Indentured Chinese labourers, mostly from the port of Amoy, were brought to work as shepherds on pastoral leases in the northwest of New South Wales from at least the early 1850s. On completion of their five-year contracts, many joined the gold rushes whilst others continued to work in the pastoral industry.[1] It was on one of these stations, Hugh Gordon’s Strathbogie, in a place known as Vegetable Creek, that tin was reportedly found in March 1872. [2] An alternative account of the discovery of tin attributes the discovery to a location on R.R.C. Robertson’s Wellington Vale lease, which became the mining settlement of Tent Hill.[3]

The presence of stream tin on the Severn River and New England had been known to colonial authorities and the public from at least 1853, through the Reverend W. B. Clarke’s reports to the government and the press.[4] Though gold, not tin was mined in the 1850s and 1860s, in 1872 a rush began for selections to establish tin mining companies in Warwick and Stanthorpe in Queensland, at Maryland on the Queensland border and at Elsmore, Newstead, Middle Creek and Copes Creek (Tingha) in New South Wales. From very early Chinese people were reported on the tin-fields. At Oban near Guyra, “Celestials” employed on wages were said to be numerous, “for the reason that they work for less wages than a European and do just as much work”.[5] In 1872, land selected at Vegetable Creek under mining-lease tenure was approved in areas of 20 acres, and in June 1872 Vegetable Creek was surveyed. Tin ore from Vegetable Creek was sent via horse and dray to the northern New South Wales port of Grafton, from where it was forwarded by steamer to Sydney.[6] In 1875, when the road to Stanthorpe improved, it became easier for teamsters to haul tin and supplies between Vegetable Creek and Warwick, thence to Brisbane.[7]

The ancestors of Our Chinese Past committee member Kira Brown were amongst the earliest families on the tin fields at Vegetable Creek. Samuel Yaupaung (Yap Hong) b. 1836 Canton and Esther Holland b. 1846 Sydney, moved around the gold and tin fields of northern NSW and Queensland and already had a family of five when they settled at Vegetable Creek around 1879 and had two more children. After Samuel disappeared from the record in 1881, the family moved to Tingha, where Esther married dealer Tong Kee. Esther and Samuel’s daughters Emily and Agnes married Tingha storekeepers Sam Kee and Lee Kee Chong respectively. [8]

This picture taken in 1892 shows five of the nine children of Samuel and Esther Yaupaung. Left to right – Emily, George, Edward, Alice and Agnes. Photograph courtesy Kira Brown, “Chen Quin Jack: Chinese Australian Family History”, https://chenquinjackhistory.com/

George Sue Fong was on the Palmer River goldfield before moving to Emmaville where he worked as a miner, gardener and later storekeeper. Sue Fong married Elizabeth Gorkong, and after her death, he married her sister Minnie, with whom he had a family of fifteen children at Emmaville.[9]

George Sue Fong and some of his children, Emmaville, about 1920. From left: Frank, George holding Henry, Bessie, Maisie holding Bert, Eva, Ernest. Photograph courtesy Emmaville Mining Museum, caption from Golden Threads.

In 1878 the Chinese population at Vegetable Creek grew when some 300 Chinese men arrived from Queensland to work for European mining companies.[10]The first Chinese joss house in Emmaville dates from this time.[11] Rebecca Yit’s archaeological research locates the joss house in the Chinatown settlement on Joss House Road, about 500 metres north of the town and to the east of the Great Britain Tin Mine, which in 1882 was being worked by Chinese tributors, also at work at Moore & Co., Wesley and Graveyard mines. [12] A newspaper article from 1881 report stated that the Chinese population at Vegetable Creek, including the Chinese camps distributed over the district, made up almost three-fourths of the population of 3000.[13] According to the article, “white prospectors, after taking up a claim of ten, twenty, or more acres, generally leave the working of the same to be performed by Chinese, either by contract or tribute.” The article described the joss house at Emmaville, declaring that the profuse decorations of the joss house show that the Chinese who erected it “are far from having become indifferent from the religion of their fathers.”[14] The temple was indeed central to religious observances and the celebration of Chinese festivals.[15] George Sue Fong maintained the temple in later years and organised the exhumation of Chinese buried at the Emmaville Chinese Cemetery.[16] Close links with home villages were maintained through remittances sent to families in China, return visits and for some like Len Boo Lee, a Chinese education.[17]

The Vegetable Creek Medical Fund, reportedly the first medical fund in Australia, was formed in 1881. The Chinese community contributed towards the cost of erecting the Vegetable Creek Hospital, which retained the original name of the settlement despite the official change of the town’s name to Emmaville in 1882.[18] As subscribers to the Hospital, Chinese people were entitled to be treated there. Dr McDougall amputated the leg of a Chinese patient of the Hospital in 1885.[19] An 1896 list of subscribers to the Vegetable Creek Hospital lists the Sun Kum Loong and Yee Lee stores in Emmaville and the names of over seventy Chinese donors.[20]

Despite the introduction of legislation to restrict the flow of Chinese migrants into New South Wales, the 1880s was a prosperous time for the Chinese community at Emmaville. In 1882 the Inspector of Mines visited Emmaville and reported:

“At the Gulf, Bladder Arm Swamp, Black Creek, Bald Rock, Black Swamp, Mole Tableland, Nine Mile, Glen Creek, Tent Hill, Vegetable Creek, and other places, parties of miners—principally Chinese tributors—are at work … Nearly the whole of the shallow alluvial workings on the Vegetable Creek tinfield are in the hands of Chinese, whereas all the lode-mining … and deep or wet workings … [are] in the hands of European miners. The whole of this tin field is in a prosperous condition … At the Graveyard, Wesley, and other mines, Chinese tributors are employed to re-work (re-sluice) the waste and tailings from former payable and rich workings, seemingly with satisfactory results to owners and tributors”.[21] Under the tribute system, Chinese worked European held leases for a small royalty.

Emmaville miner Ah Hin, storekeepers Ah Chock and Jimmy Ah Why, Tent Hill storekeeper Lum Kee, Amoy bushman John Dun Shing and miner San Ah Pan were naturalised in 1883, whilst Emmaville storekeeper Ah Chan and Fong Ah Lin, gardener at the Waterholes Emmaville were naturalised the following year. [22]

In 1887, a new joss house estimated to have cost £1300 was opened with great fanfare in Emmaville. A Chinese procession paraded through the town followed by a Chinese band, and five-hundred Chinese and a large number of Europeans turned out to see the festivities. The temple, which old residents of Emmaville recalled as ” the most beautiful joss house” survived until 1932 when it was destroyed by fire. [23] 

Entrance of the 1887 Chinese temple at Emmaville
Entrance of the 1887 temple at Emmaville. Photograph by Robert Newby Kirk in 1899, reproduced from Golden Threads, p. 84.

At the turn of the century, as mining companies turned to constructing dams for bucket dredging, Chinese labour and skills were still crucial to the mining industry. The Emmaville Mining Museum has two photographs of Chinese labourers constructing a dam at the end of Moore Street to house a floating barge. The caption does not name the mining company who the dam was being built for, but it may have been the Great Britain Tin mine which in 1899 constructed a dam to hold 3,000,000 gallons of water.[24]

Chinese building dam for floating barge. Photograph courtesy Emmaville Mining Museum.

The 1882 Medical Fund ledger listed a large number of stores including Yee Lee, Yet War & Co., Yow Sun & Co., Pan Foon & Co., Sam Hong & Co., Sun Choy & Co., Sun Kum Loong, Sun On, Sun Sing, Sun Tung Yoon, Sun Way Lee, Tommy Ah Hip & Co., Ah Mung & Co., Ah Wang & Co., Yee War, Tin War and Tie Loong. [25]. Some of these stores continued trading in the twentieth century. C. F. Yow, General Storekeeper and Produce Merchant advertised drapery, ironmongery and stationery in 1901. [26] Sun Kum Loong was doing business in Emmaville from at least 1882 to 1912.[27] Kum Sing Chong in Irby Street was managed by Yee (Len) Lee [Lee Hong] and later his son, Len Boo Lee from 1917.[28] A general store on the Kum Sing Chong store site was later managed by George Sue Fong until his death in 1932. [29] In 1933, Walter Gett and family moved to Emmaville from Glen Innes where Walter Gett had managed the Kwong Sing & Co. store. The Gett family ran Yow Sing and Co. Cash and Carry Store in Moore Street, Emmaville, up until the mid-century when they left Emmaville.[30]

Yow Sing & Co. store, Emmaville, 1930s. Photograph courtesy Emmaville Mining Museum.

Walter Gett was the nephew of Percy Sing Young (Kwan Hong Kee) who owned the Kwong Sing & Co. store in Glen Innes, established in 1886 by Wong Chee. Yow Sing & Co. was part of a network of linked family managed stores associated with the Kwan clan which had branches in Casino, Bundarra, Stanthorpe, Werris Creek, Ballina, Coffs Harbour, Kyogle and Texas, Queensland. Also associated with Kwong Sing, was the Inverell-based Hong Yuen network of stores. [31] These stores, which had their genesis in the mining communities of northwestern New South Wales, served the communities of northwest NSW from the 1880s through much of the twentieth century.

With thanks to Kira Brown for sharing her family history research and photographs.

[1] Maxine Darnell,  “Life and Labour for Indentured Chinese Shepherds in New South Wales 1847-1855.” Journal of Australian Colonial History, Active Voices Hidden Histories: The Chinese in Colonial Australia, no. 6 (2004).

[2] Ian Lobsey, The Creek, (Emmaville: Emmaville Central School P & C, 1972) 11.

[3] Septimus Suttor,  “A Brief History of the Emmaville District from the Arrival of the First White People“, 1954, 8, unpublished manuscript in the collection of Land of the Beardies History House Museum, Glen Innes.

[4] “The Discovery of Tin in New South Wales”, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 August 1872, 5, accessed 16 July 2021, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/188988495

[5] “Elsmore-Newstead-Middle Creek-and Copes Creek,” Maitland Mercury, 12 March 1872, 4, accessed 8 September 2022, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/18761962; “The New England Tin Mines”, Maitland Mercury, 9 July 1872, 3, accessed 15 July 2021, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/18764988

[6] “Mining”, Empire, 4 September 1874, 3, accessed 9 July 2021, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/60992049

[7] “Queensland”, The Mercury, 5 October 1875, accessed 9 July 2021, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/8940222

[8] See Samuel Yaupaung and Lee Kee Chong in Kira Brown’s blog, Chen Quin Jack, accessed 23 July 2021, https://chenquinjackhistory.com/

[9] Janis Wilton, “The Most Beautiful Joss House”, Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies, Vol 8, 2019, 26.

[10] “Vegetable Creek”, Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners Advocate, 12 February 1878, 2, accessed 9 July 2021,  https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/133330258

[11] Janis Wilton, “The Most Beautiful Joss House”, 29.

[12] Rebecca Yit, “The Archaeology of Chinese Suburban Settlement, Masters thesis, ANU, 2005 ” 79; “The Emmaville Tin Mining District”, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 December 1882, 10.

[13]“A Chinese Camp at Vegetable Creek”, Illustrated Sydney News and NSW Agriculturalist and Grazier, 3 September 1881, 11, accessed 16 July 2021, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/64974548

[14] ibid

[15] Janis Wilton, “The Most Beautiful Joss House”; Rebecca Yit, “The Archaeology of Chinese Suburban Settlement.

[16] Janis Wilton, “The Most Beautiful Joss House”, 26.

[17] ibid, 27; National Archives Australia, SP42/1, B1907/420, LEN BOO Certificate Exempting from the Dictation Test; State Archives NSW, NRS 136551, Bankruptcies – Len Boo, [10/23954 ] 22520; “Mr George Sue Fong” Glen Innes Examiner, 28 January 1932, 6, accessed 22 July 2021, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/184595916

[18] Septimus Suttor,  “A Brief History of the Emmaville District, 11.

[19] “Epitome of Colonial News”, The Armidale Express and New England Advertiser, 22 May 1885, 6 (last column), accessed 16 July 2021, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/192902905

[20] The 1896 list of hospital subscribers is in the collection of the Emmaville Mining Museum.

[21] “The Emmaville Tin Mining District”, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 December 1882, 10, accessed 16 July 2021,  https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/13524184

[22] State Archives New South Wales: NRS 905, Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence, Ah Hin, 4/1207 [83/07344]; Ah Chock, 4/1207 [83/01817]; Jimmy Ah Why, 4/1207  [83/07345]; Lum Kee, 4/1207 [83/06292]; John Dun Shing, 4/1207 [ 83/09842]; San Ah Pan, 4/1207 [82/09332]; Ah Chan,  4/1208 [84/4260];  Fong Ah Lin, 4/1208 [84/4779].

[23] “The New South Wales Premier Joss House”, Daily Telegraph, 30 April 1887, 6, accessed 16 July 2021,  https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/236759936 ; Janis Wilton, “The Most Beautiful Joss House”, Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies, Volume 8, 2019.

[24] “Our Mineral Resources”, Glen Innes Examiner and General Advertiser, 22 September 1899, 2, accessed 16 July 2021, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/217824336

[25] 1882 Medical Fund Ledger, transcribed from a private collection. Index cards to names of Chinese individuals and stores listed in the ledger are held at Land of the Beardies History House Museum, Glen Innes.

[26] “Advertising”, Glen Innes Guardian, 13 January 1901. Photocopy in the Emmaville Mining Museum.

[27] “Advertising” Glen Innes Examiner and General Advertiser, 13 November 1883, 4, accessed 22 July 2021, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/217840537 ; “Advertising” Sydney Morning Herald, 8 February 1912, accessed 22 July 2021, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/15308415

[28] “”Inter-district News- Emmaville”, Tamworth Daily Observer, 12 October 1915, 4, accessed 22 July 2021, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/107503768; State Archives NSW, NRS 136551, Bankruptcies, [10/23954 ] 22520; Re Lee Hong – See Ely Finch’s translation of the plaque above the door to the Emmaville temple.  

[29] “Mr George Sue Fong” Glen Innes Examiner, 28 January 1932, 6, accessed 22 July 2021, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/184595916

[30] Janis Wilton, Golden Threads: The Chinese in Regional New South Wales, New England Regional Art Museum, (Armidale: 2004),18;  “Advertising”, Glen Innes Examiner, 29 June 1933, 6, accessed 16 July 2021, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/183557906

[31] For more on this see Janis Wilton, “Hong Yuen: A Country Store and Its People“, Immigrants in the Bush, (Armidale: CAE), 1988; Rodney Noonan, “Trophies in the Window: Chinese Department Stores, Rugby League and the Great Depression in New England.” Sporting Traditions 26, no. 1 (2009); John Fitzgerald, Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia.  Sydney, NSW: University of New South Wales Press, 2007; Mei-fen Kuo, “Jinxin: The Remittance Trade and Enterprising Chinese Australians, 1850–1916.” In The Qiaopi Trade and Transnational Networks in the Chinese Diaspora, edited by Gregor Benton, Hong Liu and Huimei Zhang. (Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge), 2018.