Commercial activity between Australia and China began with the First Fleet while indentured Chinese workers in the 1840s were part of an international trade in labour. The gold seekers of the 1850s were also part of a commercial system of emigration, which by the 1870s included working gangs moving from country to country. Commerce conducted by Chinese people began with ex-gold seekers setting up businesses to supply, at first Chinese, and then European customers. However, fishing and fish curing, gold buying, storekeeping, fruit and vegetable growing, selling and importing, hawking, drapery, cabinet-making, newspaper publishing, shipping and restaurants are all commercial activities carried out by Chinese people before the mid-20th century.
The first recorded Chinese store was in 1858 on Campbell St, Sydney but by the end of the 19th century Sydney was the centre of a network of such stores spread throughout NSW. Rural stores had a high level of interaction with non-Chinese people and in many NSW towns the Chinese storekeeper was a prominent citizen. Nevertheless a racially based anti-Chinese stores movement in 1904-5, coupled with the decline in Chinese customers so the number of rural Chinese stores greatly reduce.
The stores were linked with those in rural NSW on the basis of district and provided services for fellow district members. The Zhongshan district based firms such as Wing On, Onyik Lee and the Kwong War Chong, not only sent on remittances but paid fares, purchased tickets, arranged Immigration Restriction Act paperwork, provided accommodation and even lent money for the first remittance home, including a letter written by the firm’s scribe if necessary. These Sydney-based stores were able to provide services that reached back to the villages because they were part of a network of stores related by ownership and/or common partners in Hong Kong and the home districts.
Chinese merchants early formed associations such as the Lin Yik Tong, which in 1903 was superseded by the more representative Chinese Merchants Association, formed partly to balance a grouping of more conservative merchants in the Empire Reform Association. Chinese Merchants Defence Association was also formed to counter the agitation of the Anti-Asiatic League. These two associations merged in 1913 to form the NSW Chinese Chamber of Commerce. This organisation lasted until 1965 when lack of numbers caused its dissolution. An organisation with the same name was formed in 1975 and continues to promote various benevolent and cultural activities today.
In the 20th century Chinese stores had the capacity to bring in family members and employees under the White Australia Policy restrictions. More than 2,000 people entered Australia before 1940 on ‘temporary’ Certificates of Exemption as substitutes and assistants to those working in stores and market gardens. In the post-war period this role was taken over by Chinese restaurants serving ‘Australian-Chinese’ meals as market gardens and cabinet-making declined as their workers aged, returned to China or died and were not replaced.
In the post White Australia Policy era Chinese migrants have taken up a much wider range of occupations and businesses.