Once Out of View

The Historic Chinese Community at Wagga Revealed

In 2006 a number of Qing Dynasty coins were uncovered at the northern end of Fitzmaurice Street in Wagga Wagga. Originating in China they are tangible evidence of the Chinese ‘camp’ located there, alongside the Murrumbidgee River, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The story behind the coins reveal one of the many layers of the town’s history.

Chinese people have a long history of settlement in Australia. In 1828 administrators considered Chinese migration as a possible solution to a labour shortage in the colony. Between 1847 and 1853 three thousand Chinese migrants came to the colony to work as indentured labourers on pastoral properties. During the mid-century gold-rush Chinese migration increased significantly and by 1861 there were 13 000 Chinese people living in NSW. Like other migrant populations, Chinese migration to NSW was motivated by land and resource shortages at home.

By the end of the nineteenth century the Chinese settlement at Wagga straddled either side of Fitzmaurice Street. The area occupied was leased from European landholders. In 1884 the Chinese community was noted to number 223 people, this included 194 Chinese men, one Chinese and six European who were women married to Chinese men, along with sixteen children. The make-up of the Chinese community – being predominately male – reflected the skew toward men in the overall Chinese migrant population in NSW throughout the century.

The occupations of the Chinese population living at the Fitzmaurice street settlement indicate that residents worked both within and outside of the town. Twelve worked in stores, thirteen ran opium shops, thirty were market gardeners, six were fruit dealers, six ran lottery rooms, and 124 were labourers and lottery ticket sellers. Those who laboured out of the town performed clearing, ring-barking, dam-sinking and other jobs on pastoral properties.

The coins uncovered along Fitzmaurice Street in 2006 were used at the camp to play pak ah pu or my pow ghong, games that were commonly termed by Europeans as the ‘Chinese lottery’. The games were played in the lottery rooms at the settlement by Chinese locals and Europeans who visited the camp. The game of Fan Tan was also played, but predominantly by the Chinese.

According to colonial law, the gambling that took place at the settlement was illegal and police prosecutions were made. In 1884, however, eight lottery room proprietors charged with keeping and maintaining a gaming-house at the camp engaged a local solicitor to argue that their running of the game of my pow ghong was not illegal. Based on a precedent ruling, the case against the men was dismissed.