“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.”