The Chinese trek for gold inspired my new novel The Boy With Blue Trousers, about two very different young women seeking to escape their pasts on the goldfields of Australia, one from England and one from China. In the mid-19th century, the discovery of gold lured tens of thousands of men from Southern China to seek their fortunes in the strange new land of Australia. They called it New Gold Mountain, and they risked their lives and what little money they had to get there. Most took on bond debts, borrowing from clans or agents, who organised them into groups that travelled and worked together.
But some of the existing settlers were suspicious of the newcomers, whose ways were unfamiliar and who came without their wives or daughters. By 1855, there was enough agitation that the government instituted a head tax of ten pounds upon every Chinese immigrant arriving in Victoria, and banned ships from docking with more than one Chinese passenger for every 10 tons of ship’s weight. Not to be deterred, the Hong Kong shipping agents began landing their passengers in the tiny port of Robe just beyond the border of Victoria. The men from China then had to find their way across 200 miles of alien country that was hot and parched in summer and wet and boggy in winter.
It’s not difficult to imagine how Robe must have looked to the new arrivals. It’s a low lying town nestled into the dunes at the edge of a long curving bay guarded by treacherous cliffs, the scene of several shipwrecks. Many of the town’s earliest buildings remain, simple limestone dwellings and stores, a couple of bark-slab huts, with some more prosperous looking stone houses, banks and hotels. An obelisk still stands on the cliff to warn approaching sailors. But now, the place where the Chinese once came ashore is commemorated with a pai fang, a traditional Chinese welcome gate.