Migration – Understanding why and how it is done?

A history of Chinese settlement in Australia requires an understanding of the background to the migration. Motivation, the significance of district and dialect, traditional culture, and the organisation of the movement all need to be understood if why Chinese people came and their settlement patterns, including return to their villages, is to be comprehended.

Before the 1950s most Chinese people arrived in Australia from the Pearl River Delta region, and while famines, floods and civil disturbances seemingly provide motivation, they do not explain why this movement was largely limited to a handful of districts, nor why it was nearly all male. For this it is necessary to consider the long history in these districts (from the 12th century), of the concept of leaving the family to earn money overseas. This, added to the spread of news about the goldfields, and combined with a recently imposed proximity to European shipping and Hong Kong, opened up new prospects in an old pattern.

For the overwhelmingly male Chinese, it was family left behind that was of significance with the majority coming not as individuals seeking their fortune, but as family representatives entrusted with providing income. For a woman, the role of supporting her husband’s parents exceeded that of joining her husband overseas. In addition, the movement of thousands of villagers around the Pacific was not a disorganised stampede of the impoverished and dispossessed. Rather it involved a range of co-operative and commercial methods that meant the majority of Chinese men arrived indebted, a factor determining much about working activities. Another factor was strong identification by district and dialect, on the basis of which chain migration, local societies and businesses, remittances and communication with the village-based families was conducted, including the return of the bones of the dead. These characteristics made early Chinese settlement in Australia a well-organised, close community of hard-working men, who often returned to their villages. Habits often despised by European workers, ignorant of their origins and used as pretexts for anti-Chinese prejudice and agitation.

The anti-Japanese war and the new China government after 1949 brought about two major changes in the migration background of Chinese people in Australia. The growth of Chinese nationalism lead to more ‘Chinese’ and less district identification, including many new organisations, while the threat to the villages forced many to make new choices about where their families should settle. The impact of the new government in Beijing and the effective cutting off of close contact with the villages and districts completed this change. By the 1960s the settlement patterns of Chinese in Australia transformed as the possibility of citizenship and family migration ended the imbalance of the sexes, and migration of Chinese people from places other than southern China (including from South-East Asia) began for the first time. Political changes in the 1980s resulted in a renewal of migration from China to Australia, one that was China-wide, gender balanced and professionally educated.

For a summary of numbers of Chinese people in Australia on a State by State basis see the Australian Bureau of Statistics page on the 1925 Year Book of Australia.

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