People from the Pearl River Delta districts were described as ‘nearly all farmers and labourers’ and after the gold rushes a move into agricultural occupations was natural. Fishing, banana plantations and tobacco growing were other areas but as market gardeners, from the late 19th century to the 1930s, Chinese people dominated.
Most gardens were leased by groups of 5 to 10 and such arrangements suited people who would often go to China for a year or two. When travelling, shares were often passed to another gardener and resumed on return. The vegetables would be hawked around the streets or sold at Sydney’s Belmore Markets where Chinese stallholders were common. Chinese people often worked as vegetable dealers and a gardener with limited English would sell his entire load to a dealer who then sold it at the markets. Dormitories above stores in the Haymarket would be full on market day before the gardeners returned to their huts on their gardens.
In Sydney the main gardens stretched from Rose Bay to Randwick and through Botany to La Perouse, with a small number of gardens of Gao Yao district people at Alexandria. There were also gardens in the Willoughby area and Fairfield, and Chester Hill, Camden, Parramatta and Windsor had at least one or two gardens each. In rural NSW, nearly every town had a Chinese market garden and on many stations a Chinese cook would also grow vegetables.
By the 1950s, exemptions for assistants to, or substitutes for, market gardeners under the Immigration Restriction Act did not keep pace with their retirement. Instead Italians and other post-war arrivals took over vegetable production.
Fishing, tobacco and banana-growing were also undertaken by Chinese people. A significant fishing and fish curing industry arose in the mid-19th century at Lake Macquarie, Broken Bay, Port Stephens, Jervis Bay and Twofold Bay. Though by1880, the days of Chinese taking ‘all the fish brought’ were long over. Tobacco growing in areas such as Albury, Nundle and in particular Manilla in northern NSW, appears to have been pioneered by Chinese farmers and by 1891 there were 464 growers in NSW and Victoria, a number that fell to 89 only 10 years later. The banana trade was also a profitable business for many Chinese stores in Sydney and many owned plantations in Fiji. Rising tariffs on imported bananas led a number of these stores to develop plantations in northern NSW and by 1919 nearly 500 acres around Mullumbimby were owned or leased by Chinese growers. Resistance from established European growers, returned soldiers attempting to enter the industry, and the Crown Land Act’s prohibition of Chinese owning land may have limited expansion.
For many Chinese men market gardens were not their only agricultural pursuit and Australian-earned money was very often used to buy rice-growing land in the home villages. Land purchased was usually rented out to grow rice to be sold on the speculative rice market, although vegetable plots maintained in retirement were also common.