‘Celestial City’ explores Sydney’s Chinese story

‘Celestial City’ explores Sydney’s Chinese story

‘Celestial City’ explores Sydney’s Chinese story

Posted 25 June 2014, 16:11 AEST

The Museum of Sydney’s ‘Celestial City’ exhibition celebrates the history of Australia's Chinese community and its vibrant legacy.

In the second part of our look at the exhibition, we step back in time for a look at life in 19th century Sydney. Many Chinese immigrants arrived in Australia in the 1850s hoping to make their fortune on the goldfields, but as the gold rush subsided some stayed on, settling in cities. In Sydney they became bankers, traders and market gardeners, known for their diligence and hard work.

By 1888 there were about 100 market gardens in Sydney, and as they flourished the gardens came to supply much of the community with fresh vegetables. The sight of Chinese hawkers going from house to house to sell their produce became commonplace.

Man with two baskets on yoke. Supplied: Museum of Sydney

Daily interaction with hawkers helped to build relationships with other Sydney locals. Families came to know their neighbourhood hawker, exchanging gifts and greetings.

The friendships formed between Chinese hawkers and other Sydneysiders often helped to diffuse the tensions and misunderstandings that arose from the mix of cultures sharing Sydney’s urban landscape.

Chinese carpenters at work, Emerald Hill, Frederick Grosse, c1873. National Library of Australia. Supplied: Museum of Sydney

Chinese cabinet-makers were known for working long hours to produce furniture sold in department stores around the city.

But as their success grew so did resentment from European cabinet-makers. Anti-Chinese rallies and marches were organised across the city and in some places riots broke out, along with physical attacks on the Chinese community.

By 1878 the tension reached its peak when around 2000 youths carried flaming torches along George street, an incident that left Chinese residents fearing for their safety.

Despite this hostility Chinese cabinet-makers continued to out-perform their European counterparts, with two thirds of furniture sold in Sydney made in Chinese workshops until around 1915, when restrictions were placed on Chinese immigration. 

The perseverance and success of Sydney's Chinese migrants is apparent today in the diverse and vibrant community at home in modern Sydney.

Information and images courtesy of Museum of Sydney's 'Celestial City - Sydney's Chinese Story' exhibition, on show until 12th October 2014.

Read: Part 1 – Celestial City: Quong Tart – a household name in 19th century Sydney