Life

Based on research trips to Young, an artist explores the events surrounding the Lambing Flat Riots. By Jason Phu.

The Lambing Flat Riots

Jason Phu’s ROLLING ROLLS ROLLED ROLL.
Credit: Document Photography

The Lambing Flat Riots occurred on the Burrowmunditroy Land of the Wiradjuri nation. I pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land and elders past and present.

 

I ask my mother

what’s the meaning of burning incense?

She half-heartedly shrugs and says

it’s just something we’ve always done

 

We burn these things for those from our past

and the past beyond that

to right the wrongs

but really we burn these things for ourselves

and in the past they burned the same things

also for themselves

trust me

 

Late 2017, Mikala Tai, director of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, called to ask if I’d like to be part of a project, with artist John Young Zerunge, exploring the history and repercussions of the Lambing Flat Riots.

The Lambing Flat Riots were a series of rallies against Chinese miners that happened from 1860 to 1861 in the Burrangong region of central New South Wales, just outside a town now known as Young. On Sundays after church, the mob of European, American and Australian-born miners would assemble and march behind a banner that read: “Roll Up, Roll Up, No Chinese”. They were accompanied by a brass band, which often played Confederate music. They would move from plot to plot, violently evicting the Chinese miners.

During the revolution in China, Mao declared sparrows were a pest that ate the crops. Everyone got their pots and pans out and banged them all day so the sparrows couldn’t rest and they fell dead from the sky. The Polish embassy refused entry to the people who wanted to kill the sparrows resting in its confines. The whole campaign only stopped when everyone realised the sparrows were the ones eating the insects that ate the crops.

My mother told me about the time our family friend was promised refuge at the Polish embassy. When he got to the gates, they refused him entry and he was arrested. He told me how the pickpockets would train in jail: put a bar of soap in some murky water and snap it out with two fingers.

By the 1860s, the gold rush had reached its end in NSW. Goldmining was tough and laborious work; not many struck it rich, let alone made a basic living. The Chinese miners were from poor farming backgrounds with families back home in a country ravaged by civil war, depending on their income. They worked communally for longer hours and subsisted on less than the European miners. Alluvial mining was hard work but could provide a consistent return. European miners who chose to work by themselves would only work the top of a plot and then move to an apparently more prosperous plot. The Chinese would often take over the abandoned plot and continue to reap small returns. This supposed good fortune, and the fact the Chinese spoke and dressed differently, made them an easy quarry for the disgruntled.

My parents never taught me I could be whatever I wanted to be, but they did say, “Whatever you decide, work hard at it.” I didn’t realise until recently that hard work is a skill you learn, one my parents taught me, so I could exist anywhere. It is a lesson passed down from people who understand where you call home is sometimes not your choice.

The most serious riot in Burrangong happened on June 30, 1861. Three thousand men marched on 200 Chinese miners at Lambing Flat. They beat them and set about cutting off their queues – their pigtails – often at the scalp. Sometimes, they ripped them clean off without use of a tool. These queues were proudly displayed after the various riots.

During the Qing Dynasty, the Manchu enforced the Queue order. The Han were forced to wear queues with the front part of their head shaved. This was problematic because the Han followed Confucian principles – hair was considered precious and should never be cut because it was a gift from our parents. Many who moved overseas, to the goldfields of Burrangong and beyond, continued to wear these queues, for fear of repercussions on their families back home.

 

Once when I was a teenager

I was cutting my fingernails after dinner

while watching TV

my father walked over and said

that it was unfilial of me

to do that

I ignored him

because I was a teenager

 

At Lambing Flat, the men looted the Chinese miners’ possessions and burned their tents to the ground. They moved on to different encampments after that to do the same. There were no recorded deaths, but some of the Chinese men were never seen again. Sometimes I meet people, very rarely, who are familiar with the riots, and the only point they seem to want to argue is that there were “no recorded deaths”.

 

I am familiar with numbers

because I am Asian

one million dead sparrows

is the same as fourteen

million

dead sparrows

 

About 1300 Chinese miners eventually made it to the homestead of James Roberts, who was known to be sympathetic to the Chinese. He let them stay on the land – clothing, sheltering and feeding them. He had to send his family away for fear of repercussions. There were threats to burn his farm down.

In her Meanjin article, “Race and the Golden Age”, Gabrielle Chan points out that “At the end of 2016, 1262 asylum seekers were in offshore processing centres, a little under the number Roberts had taken in.” What must it have been like to watch a thousand men slowly walk onto your property in the middle of the night – cold, beaten and in fear – and to welcome them with open arms?

The descendants of Roberts still own and live on this land. They welcomed us warmly to their farm and drove us around the property looking for places to film. I tentatively asked if I could set a length of shipping rope on fire for the project, spelling out “queue”. They told me they had plenty of gasoline and a small fire truck.

 

I try to think of people without cars

and warm clothes

my uncles tell me when they were posted in Harbin

the ice city

during the revolution

they only had two things on their mind

to find beer and to find warm clothes

I have always known cars

I have always known warmth

and this beer is

nice and cold

in my hand

 

The township of Young – formerly Lambing Flat – was once proudly considered the birthplace of the White Australia policy. It is far from that now. We are indebted to the town for supporting what our project became, The Burrangong Affray, but it is still a difficult thing to reconcile, to live with the past. My father always said, “Love people when they are alive; when they are dead, they are dead.” He also said, “When you walk past a dead body, spit three times on the floor and rub your face three times to ward off evil, even if it is a cockroach; bad spirits linger forever.”

When my father first arrived in Australia, he went straight to the pub. Two men approached him in that friendly sort of way and offered to play pool for money. Not wanting to seem discourteous to the locals, he agreed, and they sharked him of some cash. My dad spent the next few months perfecting his game. He wandered into the pub on a few occasions and eventually bumped into the two men, who gleefully rechallenged him. He smashed them in the game and walked out of the pub, leaving their money behind.

I am not from the provinces where the Chinese men who mined in Lambing Flat were born. I do not speak their languages. I am not from their time. I have never felt how tired they were, and I cannot fathom how much they missed their families, but I do have fear. Even in the short time I have been alive, this hatred has flared, and is once again. I fear that during these times we don’t see the faces of people just trying to be happy and safe; instead, we see the faces of the scapegoats to our frustrations.

 

I went back to Beijing

as an adult

and without my mother

to visit her brothers

they said to me

with as much love

as they could

for the only son

of their little sister

what you are looking for

doesn’t exist

here

go home

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 25, 2018 as "Lingering spirits". Subscribe here.

Jason Phu
Jason Phu is a Sulman Prize-winning artist. He is based in Sydney.