In Australian history Chinese as goldseekers is the predominant popular image, and certainly gold was the motivation that brought large numbers of Chinese people. In NSW the major gold rushes were over by the mid-1860s, and from the diggings miners dispersed into a range of other occupations. By 1901, only 9% of Chinese people were occupied as miners, some continuing the search for gold, but most mining for tin.
The stereotype of Chinese gold miners of patiently hardworking in groups, sifting diggings left by European miners, while suffering hostility and violence holds some truth, but such generalisations are not the whole picture. Chinese miners discovered new fields and worked old ones, they sought gold individually and worked in groups. While hard working and frugal, Chinese miner’s gradual acquisition of a more ‘comfortable’ lifestyle was noted, and while violence there certainly was, peaceful workings over may years were also the case.
The big Victorian goldfields of the early 1850s attracted most prospectors, and in 1856 only 700 Chinese miners were recorded in NSW. In 1858 the first large numbers of Chinese miners entered NSW via Twofold Bay as the Colony of Victoria became increasingly hostile. The arrival of thousands of Chinese miners on the NSW goldfields also generated hostility, the most famous incidents being those at Lambing Flat in 1860 and 1861. The discussion of violence on the goldfields usually emphasises that of Europeans towards Chinese, however, Chinese also fought with Chinese, and committed violence against Europeans.
While authorities suppressed this violence, often dealt with by the police through the segregation of ‘Chinese camps’ from that of European miners, the ultimate result was the 1861 ‘Chinese Immigrant Regulation and Restriction Act’ which, until its repeal in 1867, imposed a £10 poll tax, tonnage restrictions and prevented any Chinese person becoming naturalized. The crossing of miners from other colonies was a feature of NSW Chinese immigration, as when the end of the Palmer River rush resulted in the crossing of former goldseekers from Queensland in the late 1870s.
The pattern of settlement by Chinese gold miners was generally similar to that of European miners in that a find of gold would result in a large influx of miners into a district followed by a rapid decline once the gold was depleted or a new field opened. While both European and Chinese miners worked claims co-operatively, Chinese miners also often worked fields in ‘gangs’ under a ‘headman’ due to many arriving in debt and being required to work under instruction until the debt was paid off.
Mining for tin became more common than for gold after the early 1870s. Tin mining had been carried out by Chinese miners in Malaya and Borneo, and like gold, this form of mining could be carried out cheaply by relatively few people. Southern Queensland and northern NSW were major areas of tin mining and the Chinese population of towns in these areas reached many thousands in the 1870s and 1880s, before falling there after.