Geographic Origins

The People’s Republic of China is a huge country in eastern Asia. It is bordered by Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, North Korea, the China Sea and the Sea of Japan. China has the world’s largest population.

History of Immigration and Settlement

In an appendix to England and America (1833), E G Wakefield, whose theory of colonisation formed the basis of settlement in South Australia, argued that Chinese workers could be used to combat possible labour shortages in the proposed colony of South Australia. This idea, however, was never put into practice.

The first Chinese settler to arrive in South Australia is believed to be Tim Sang. Mr Sang arrived sometime between 1836 and 1840.

In a letter dated 16 January 1845, Governor Grey referred to ‘the Chinese with their wide trousers’ who could be seen in the streets of Adelaide. Two years later Governor Robe mentioned a dozen Chinese who had arrived from Singapore as shepherds.

In 1853 several Chinese arrived at Port Adelaide and obtained employment throughout the colony.

The largest influx of Chinese to Australia occurred during the gold rush years. By mid-1855 there were 17,000 Chinese in Australia. In that year the goldfield commissioner reported to the Victorian government on the Eureka uprising of December 1854. The commissioner remarked that ‘even if the Chinese were considered desirable colonists they are unaccompanied by their wives and families, under which circumstances no migrant can prove of real advantage to any society’. Suspicious of ‘this pagan race’, the commissioner advised a restriction on the entry of Chinese immigrants. The Victorian parliament legislated against Chinese arrivals in 1855. An act specified that the number of Chinese that could be brought in any vessel should be limited to one to every ten tons of shipping. A poll tax of ten pounds was to be imposed on every Chinese who landed at Victorian ports. As a result, shipowners diverted their vessels to New South Wales and to a greater extent, South Australia. Chinese set up camps at Port Adelaide before starting the long walk to the diggings, or travelled via the River Murray. The greatest number of Chinese prospectors landed at Robe in Guichen Bay, on the south-eastern coast of the colony. In 1857 a party of Chinese who had disembarked at Robe arrived in Ararat on their way to the Ballarat goldfields and discovered one of the richest Victorian gold deposits. ‘Chinaman’s Springs’ and ‘Chinaman’s Well’ in the south-east of South Australia recall the days when thousands of Chinese passed through the region on their way to the diggings.

The number of Chinese passing from South Australia to Victoria caused conflict between the two colonies. South Australia paid little heed to reprimands from the eastern colony until racial riots on the goldfields began in 1857. On 11 June of that year the South Australian parliament introduced a Restriction Bill. Like the Victorian act, the South Australian legislation imposed a ten pound poll tax. It limited the number of Chinese passengers on vessels to one for every ten tons of cargo. The number of passengers was limited to six per vessel.

By 1857 the gold rush had passed its peak. From that year Chinese began leaving Australia at a rate of 3,000 per year. By 1861 there were only 40 Chinese in South Australia. They were scattered throughout the colony and worked as tradesmen, laundrymen, agricultural labourers, furniture makers or market gardeners. In that year the Restriction Act of 1857 was repealed. In a dispatch to the Duke of Newcastle, Governor MacDonnell expressed his ‘very great satisfaction’ that this blot had been removed from the Statute Book.

From 1863 until 1911 South Australia controlled the Northern Territory. Gold was discovered at Pine Creek, southeast of Darwin, in 1871. In 1874 186 Chinese arrived from Singapore to mine these gold deposits. In 1876 a further 96 Chinese arrived in the Northern Territory from Hong Kong, followed by a further 387 Chinese in 1878. Some of these worked on the Overland Telegraph Line or on the Port Augusta Railway. Others established themselves as market gardeners or merchants in the Northern Territory.

From the 1870s, Chinese were refered to 'Orientals', 'Celestials' and 'Chinamen.' Although their numbers in the region fluctuated with the seasonal demand for labour, throughout the decade their numbers were considerably higher than other settlers. Apart from its Aboriginal inhabitants, in 1879 there were 460 Europeans, 30 Malays and 3,406 Chinese in the Territory.

By the late 1870s there were over 100 Chinese South Australians. At this time some Chinese were working as fishermen in St. Vincent’s Gulf, and as market gardeners in Mount Gambier and north of Laura.

In 1877 the Queensland government passed legislation restricting the number of Chinese who could enter the colony. Queensland urged South Australia to pass similar laws so that fewer Chinese could cross the border from the Territory to Queensland. Partly for this reason and also because of a growing hostility to the rising numbers of Chinese in the north (in late 1880 there were 4,358 Chinese in the Territory), in 1881 a restrictive bill was introduced to the South Australian parliament. Although the bill was passed, it was limited to South Australia proper, so it did not fulfil its aim of limiting Chinese in the Territory.

Economic depression from 1883 added to anti-Chinese sentiments. The growing trade and labour movement in South Australia regarded Asians with hostility because the latter were prepared to work for smaller wages than Europeans. This competition undermined union demands and decreased wages. In 1888 Chinese South Australians presented a petition to parliament, offering rational arguments against the tide of hysterical racism. The Chinese drew attention to the fact that their numbers were declining, that they did not draw on hospitals or the Destitute Asylum, and that there were no Chinese alcoholics, gamblers, or bankrupts in the colony. Their appeal to reason fell upon deaf ears.

Prior to the passage of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, Adelaidean Chinese appealed to the Empress Dowager of China in Peking (now Beijing), Tz’u Hsi. They requested her protection and that she negotiate with the Australian government on their behalf to stop the legislation. Tz’u Hsi was busy quelling the Boxer Rebellion, however, and did not respond to their entreaty.

In 1901 there were 287 Chinese South Australians. Of these 270 were men, and 17 were women. Forty-five per cent of these settlers lived in Adelaide.

The lives of early Chinese settlers in South Australia are not well documented. One person known to have lived in Adelaide was Poon Num. He worked as an agent for the Geraldton Fruit Company’s Adelaide branch at the East End Market in 1904. Poon Num had come to South Australia in the 1890s to join his elder brother, Poon Pack Quon. Poon Num was born in Canton, China, in December 1872. In 1904 he was baptised at the Grote Street Church of Christ, and in 1908 he was married at Saint Luke’s Church, Whitmore Square. Poon Num was fluent in English. In 1911 he was an orator for the Adelaide branch of the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist Party. In 1913 he worked as a fruiterer and restauranteur. During the same year he encountered opposition from white neighbours while buying his family home at Rose Park. In 1915 Poon Num and his family fell on hard times. He had to resort to hawking fruit and vegetables in Adelaide’s eastern suburbs. Poon Num’s application for naturalisation was refused in 1920 because he was Chinese. From 1925 until his death in 1928 Poon Num operated a laundry in Eastwood. 

Lum Yow was another prominent Chinese Adelaidean during the early part of the twentieth century. He was born in Canton, China, in 1870. He was probably married to Eleanora Clarissa Lum, who was born in 1889. Lum Yow’s son Stanley was born in Canton in May, 1905. Some time during the next four years Lum Yow and his family arrived in South Australia. Between 1909 and 1934 Lum Yow had professional rooms at 263 North Terrace, Adelaide. He was a well-known herbalist, renowned for a ‘cure all’ tonic that was advertised regularly in Adelaide’s newspapers. Stanley Lum was a student at Scotch College, Melbourne. He drowned at St Kilda Beach, Melbourne, in March 1923 at the age of 18. He was Lum Yow’s only son. Lum Yow died in October 1934 aged 64 and Eleanora Lum lived until May 1963 aged 74. A memorial to the Lum family stands in the south-western corner of West Terrace Cemetery, Adelaide. It is one of the cemetery’s largest monuments. The plot is 5.5 metres squared and is adorned by a tall column and draped urn, about 6 metres tall. Besides recording details about Yow, Eleanora and Stanley Lum, the memorial is also ‘sacred to the memory’ of Low’s father. Lum Duk Jo was born in August 1835 and died in Sun We Shactoi, Canton, China in 1899. His wife, whose name is not recorded, was alive and probably living in China when the memorial was constructed in 1922. She was born in October 1843.

In 1901 the Immigration Restriction Act prevented Chinese from entering Australia as permanent residents. Following an amendment to the act in 1908, Chinese businessmen and students were welcome to enter Australia for a maximum period of five years. During the 1930s and 1940s a small number of Chinese entered Australia as wartime refugees. These people had fled the Japanese invasion of Asia. They were assisted by the Australia China Co-operative Association. In 1947 there were 193 Chinese-born South Australians. Since the 1950s a number of Chinese have arrived in South Australia. Many have been students under the Colombo Plan. Others have been academics, professionals and businessmen. In 1961 there were 478 Chinese-born South Australians. By 1966 there were 615. It is probable that many of these people were of European descent.

With the abolition of the White Australia policy in 1973, South Australia experienced an influx of Chinese from South East Asia. These post-1972 arrivals were generally more educated and more politically aware than their predecessors.
Repressive action by the Chinese government against students in 1989 saw some Chinese South Australians granted permanent residency in Australia. 

Many Chinese South Australians were born in Hong Kong or south-eastern Asian countries. Alfred Huang, an immigrant from Hong Kong, became the first Chinese Lord Mayor of Adelaide in 2000. 

Community Activities

The Chinese Association of South Australia was formed in 1971. Most of its members were born in Asian countries other than China. The largest groups are from Indo-China, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

In the mid-1970s the Chinese Association established a Mandarin language and cultural school. Initially there were less than 30 students. The school holds classes on Saturdays at Christian Brothers College, Wakefield Street, Adelaide for Reception to Year 12 level students. Cultural lessons include Chinese dancing, lantern-making, calligraphy and Chinese painting.

In April 2016 the South Australian government announced that the William Light School in the western suburbs of Adelaide would be the first school to go bi-lingual.  As from 2017 year 3 students at the school would be taught 50 percent in Mandarin and 50 percent in English. Since then various other schools in South Australia have followed suit. 

The Chinese Association of South Australia, the Overseas Chinese Association, Chinese Welfare Services, the Zhu-lin Buddhist Association and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce are the five main Chinese organisations in South Australia. Every year they combine to celebrate the Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival. The Chinese Association celebrates the Dragon Boat Festival as part of the State Bank Multicultural Carnival in March. The carnival emphasises the cultural aspects of dragon boat races. It is not to be confused with the Dragon Boat Association of South Australia which promotes the sporting aspect of dragon boat racing at a carnival in October.

Chinese South Australians continue to use a lunar calendar. Preparations for the New Year begin in the twelfth Moon of the previous year. This is sometimes called the Bitter Moon because it marks the beginning of winter. Three or four days of religious ceremonies and observing ritual and custom are followed by a traditional preliminary feast. On the twentieth day of the Bitter Moon, Chinese sweep and clean their homes. Food is prepared on the last day of the Bitter Moon, New Year’s Eve, because knives, choppers and sharp instruments cannot be used on New Year’s Day. They are believed to ‘cut’ luck.

New Year’s Day usually falls in February. The festival runs for 15 days. Often Chinese businesses close for a few days. People hang luck-bringing inscriptions on red scrolls around their homes and exchange greeting cards. Friends and relatives visit each other and greet each other by saying Gong Xi Fa Cai, Happy New Year, or Wan Shi Ru Yi, May Your Wishes Come True. The most important New Year’s gifts are hong bao, red packets containing lucky money, given to young children. Bai nian, honouring the elderly, is an important aspect of the New Year. Senior members of the community are given two oranges or mandarins, representing lumps of gold, and a hong bao as a mark of respect.

The most popular foods at New Years’ feasts are hao shi, oysters, and fa cai, black moss seaweed. Other dishes served at New Year’s feasts include gold cash chicken, fairy chicken, kidney flowers, meat dumplings and lotus root balls. The meal is usually accompanied by shao hsing, a favourite drink throughout the year. Shao hsing is rice wine, served warm in tiny cups. Firecrackers and a dragon or lion dance are central to New Year’s celebrations. They are believed to rid the community of evil spirits. Dragons are believed to be benevolent creatures, noted for giving gifts to humanity. Dragons rule rivers and oceans and are respected by farmers, who are dependent upon the rain they bring. Dragon or lion dances are accompanied by drums and cymbals.

The Dragon Boat Festival is held on the fifth day of the Fifth Moon of the Chinese calendar. It falls on the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice, the longest day of the year. The Dragon Boat Festival is a southern Chinese Buddhist tradition. It originated in 314 BC. An official called Qu Yen drowned himself in the Mek Lo River in protest against the corruption of the Imperial Court. Local fishermen, who considered him a great and righteous patriot, made a great deal of noise as they searched for him. The festival honours Qu Yen and holds up his values as worthy of emulation. The dragon boats are accompanied by gongs, drums and thrashing oars, in memory of the boats that searched for Qu Yen. The festival is believed to encourage the dragons of the heavens to fight, causing rains to fall for the next season’s crops. For South Australian Chinese, dragon boat racing is a cultural event more than a competitive sport. Teams from Chinese community organisations participate in honour of the hero of long ago. Races are held on the River Torrens.

The Mid-Autumn or Full Moon Festival is celebrated on the fifteenth night of the Eighth Moon. This is often in September. According to one legend dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618 AD–907 AD), the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrates the heroine Chang-Er. She was the wife of a cruel and ruthless emperor. Chang-Er, who was kind and compassionate, was spurred to thwart her husband when a magician gave him the Pill of Immortality. The emperor entrusted his wife with the pill, which he was to take on Mid-Autumn Night. Chang-Er, unable to tolerate the idea of a tyrant who ruled forever, swallowed the pill and escaped to the heavens, where she became goddess or guardian spirit of the moon. Mid-Autumn festivities in South Australia at the Chinese School include performances of plays which enact the tale of Chang-Er, calligraphy, lantern and painting competitions and food stalls. Moon cakes are popular festive delicacies. They are made from sweet bean pastry and are filled with sesame or lotus paste, nuts and egg yolk. A dragon or lion dance rids the community of malevolent spirits.

Many Chinese South Australians are Buddhists. On 21 April 1985, Chinese Buddhist South Australians established the South Australian Zhu-Lin Buddhist Association. The name Zhu-Lin means bamboo forest. This alludes to the place where Kwang-yin, an Indian princess, achieved Nirvana, Enlightenment. The Zhu-Lin Buddhist Association has built a traditional temple with tiered, curled-up roofs at Ottoway. The association has no resident monks, but monks from interstate occasionally visit the association for short periods.

The main festivals of the Zhu-Lin Buddhist Association are: Buddha’s Birthday; the Chinese New Year; the birth of Kwang-Yin, a bodhisattva or lesser buddha, noted for her immense compassion, who is believed to assist distressed people who call her name; Chinming, ancestor’s day; and the association’s anniversary. These occasions are marked by teachings from the scriptures, prayers and a social gathering. On Chinming, Chinese Buddhist South Australians visit the graves of their ancestors to pay their respects with offerings of food.

The members of the Zhu-Lin Buddhist Association emphasise that their temple is not exclusively for Chinese South Australians. Anyone who is interested in Buddha and his teachings is welcome to attend the temple.

From 30 January to 27 July 2018 the Migration Museum exhibited ‘Sym Choon: Changing fortunes in White Australia’. The exhibition showcased the business acumen of the Sym Choon family that spanned most of the twentieth century and the family’s legacy to cultural diversity in South Australia.  

Organisations and Media

  • Australia China Friendship Society (SA Branch)
  • Chinese Alliance Church of SA
  • Chinese Association of SA Inc.: publishes a quarterly newsletter
  • The SA Zhu-Lin Buddhist Association
  • Chinese Catholic Community: publishes a newsletter three times a year
  • Chinese Chamber of Commerce of SA: publishes a quarterly newsletter
  • Chinese Welfare Services of SA Inc.: publishes a monthly newsletter
  • Chinese Youth Cultural Centre
  • Indo-Chinese Australian Women’s Association Inc.
  • Overseas Chinese School Student Association of SA Inc.
  • Penang Chinese School Student Association of SA: publishes a quarterly newsletter
  • Chinese Herald newspaper
  • The Tide newspaper
  • 5EBI-FM Radio Program


The 1981 census recorded 1,124 Chinese-born South Australians.

The 1986 census recorded 1,702 Chinese-born South Australians. Many Chinese South Australians were born in Indo-China, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. In the 1986 census, 8,113 people said that they were of Chinese descent; while 5,833 recorded that they spoke Chinese at home.

According to the 1991 census there were 2,663 Chinese-born South Australians. 5,424 people said that their mothers were born in China, and 5,844 that their fathers were.

According to the 1996 census the second generation numbered 1,581, compared to a first generation of 3,060 Chinese-born South Australians.

The 2001 census recorded 3,587 Chinese-born South Australians. 18,494 people said that they were of Chinese descent and 87 that they were of Chinese Asian descent.

The 2006 census recorded 8,076 Chinese-born South Australians while 25,363 people said that they were of Chinese descent and 12 were of Chinese Asian descent.

The 2011 census recorded 15,932 Chinese-born South Australians, while 37,025 people said that they were of Chinese Asian descent.

The 2016 census recorded 24,609 Chinese-born South Australians, while 52,271 people said that they were of Chinese descent. The number referring to Chinese-born South Australians excludes those people who came from Special Administrative Regions (SAR of China) comprising Hong Kong and Macau.

By Migration Museum

This article is part of the From Many Places project documenting the diverse cultural groups in South Australia. It is a project started by the Migration Museum in 1992 and continued in partnership today. 

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Courtesy of/Photographer:Bit Scribbly Design

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