With the exception of Aboriginal people, people of Chinese origin have been subject to the greatest number of legal restrictions. Anti-Chinese violence also meant repeatedly using the law to (hopefully) secure its protection, while contract labourers often appeared before the courts arguing improper treatment. Anti-Chinese violence on the goldfields brought police protection as well as the first restrictions on Chinese immigration, culminating in the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act. Such restrictions, including denial of citizenship and other rights, ensured that people of both Chinese birth and origin remained separate from the rest of the community and tied to a restricted range of occupations. Factory Acts and bans on opium and gambling put Chinese people on the wrong side of laws sometimes enacted for that purpose. Resistance to these laws included political lobbying, legal challenges, smuggling, a high degree of self-support within the Chinese community, sophisticated manipulation of regulations, as well as simply being friendly with relevant officials.
Many legal impositions on Chinese in NSW were directed at their coming into NSW at all. These included the 1861 Act (repealed in 1867), and Acts in 1881, 1888 and 1898 in NSW, and finally the 1901 to 1957 Federal Immigration (Restriction) Act, with various gradually lessening discriminations until 1972. All but the last of the NSW Acts were aimed at ‘members of the Chinese race’ while the 1898 NSW and 1901 Federal Acts did not mention any peoples by name in the interests of global politeness. Instead the infamous Dictation Test, a legal fraud, was the instrument used to enforce a White Australia.
All these laws recognised the right of Chinese people already resident to travel to China and return. A relatively relaxed attitude in this regard was essential if the links with the home villages were to be maintained and people were not forced to choose between income and their families in China. These immigration restrictions left open many opportunities for circumvention and manipulation, opportunities more easily taken up by those with money. For the bulk of market gardens this meant that their wives, present or future, would remain in the villages regardless of circumstances. In this way legal restrictions reinforced existing patterns and prevented, or at least slowed, change.
Throughout the life of the Immigration Restriction Act, court cases and other legal challenges were mounted. Such cases were supported by members of the Chinese community and were often successful in limiting the powers of administrators. So much so that these administrators sometimes became wary of taking a case to court lest it result in an adverse ruling that would further limit their discretion.
Laws on citizenship and immigration were not the only ones that discriminated against Chinese people. Factory Acts of 1898 and 1913 brought harsher regulations to bear on any workshops employing Chinese people, while the Crown Lands Consolidation Act 1912 prevented Chinese people from acquiring such land, and even entry into the army was restricted by stating that ‘European’ blood was necessary.