Mining for Gold in Australia’s Migrant Past


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On the dusty Ballarat goldfields, a group of Chinese miners find the body of a white woman dressed in Chinese clothing. Knowing what deadly consequences might result if the authorities think a Chinese person murdered a white woman, they hide the body. So begins “New Gold Mountain,” a new historical drama on SBS that has quickly become popular for its fresh take on a familiar element of Australia’s past.

It’s always hard to work out what makes a show resonate but during a pandemic era when anti-Asian racism has flared, and as the relationship between Australia and its biggest trading partner continue to deteriorate, it sometimes feels like Chinese Australians have become defined by being stuck between two countries, with our belonging a perpetual question. And “New Gold Mountain” provides a new — or rather an old — lens to look at the question, reminding us that while uneasy race relations are nothing new, neither are the contributions Chinese people have been making in Australia for over 200 years.

The four part mini-series, which premiered this week, is inspired by real and untold stories of Australia’s goldfields in the 1850s: primarily of the 24,000 Chinese miners who came to Victoria to try their luck, but also of women running newspapers, Indigenous trackers and more. Though at its core it’s a murder mystery, race and social roles are undercurrents informing characters’ actions and interactions, and the story has drawn interest from those who’ve traditionally not seen themselves represented in depictions of Australia’s history.

“The gold rush is such a powerful and classic Australian story, and in many ways that moment was the origin story of multiculturalism in this country,” said Corrie Chen, the show’s director.

“Chinese people are part of the foundational story of Australia,” added Ms. Chen, who was born in Taiwan and grew up in Australia. “We’ve been here almost the same time as white settlers. We should have had almost as much of a shot of imprinting that on the Australian psyche, but we haven’t.”

The history of Chinese miners is usually best known — if it’s known at all — through the racist attacks they suffered on the goldfields like in the Buckland and Lambing Flat riots. But, as “New Gold Mountain” highlights, they were also actively lobbying against discriminatory policies, navigating complex relationships with their backers in China, and wearing cowboy hats and being detectives — the main character in the play, Shing, is based on the real life Fook Shing, Victoria’s first Chinese detective.

As is the case in the show, on the actual goldfields, Fook Shing acted as a bridge between the authorities and the Chinese community, as well as running a successful theater and brickworks. According a historian’s account: “Wealthy, connected and well represented in court, he kept a pistol under his pillow for when extralegal methods were required to protect his followers.”

When Chinese miners left the goldfields and settled in Melbourne in what would eventually become its Chinatown, Fook Shing went with them, becoming appointed a member of the Victoria police and responsible for policing the Chinese community.

It would have been a position that came with status and recognition, but which Ms. Chen imagines would have been fraught: “I just think in that role at that time — you would have just ended up being an outsider to both, and someone seen as a bit of a traitor to the birth country you’re from.”

In the show, this comes across in a morally-ambiguous character whose desire for recognition and acceptance by the British upper-class sometimes comes up against the urge to protect his own community. More broadly, “New Gold Mountain” is a story of people trying carve out a place in an unfamiliar, often hostile environment in whatever way they can — from throwing together cultural festivals with whatever they have on hand in poor imitations of the real thing, to ingratiating themselves with the people in power to get ahead, sometimes at the expense of others.

“The thing that was very relatable and the motivational fuel of the show is the ambition and desperation of the Chinese miners coming here,” something that carries through in the Chinese diaspora’s experience of assimilation to this day, said Ms. Chen.

“I think for Shing, and one of the big questions of the show, is how do you fit into this country and how do you belong in this country? That’s something migrants have to navigate their whole lives: how do you hold onto that duality among your desire to really belong to a community?”

Now for our stories of the week.



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