2021-10-16 05:17:39 Mining for Gold in Australia’s Migrant Past
Mining for Gold in Australia’s Migrant Past
A group of Chinese miners discovers the body of a white woman dressed in Chinese clothing on the dusty Ballarat goldfields. Knowing what could happen if the authorities suspect a Chinese person of murdering a white woman, they hide the body. So begins “New Gold Mountain,” a new historical drama on SBS that has quickly gained popularity for its unique take on a well-known aspect of Australian history.
It’s difficult to pin down what makes a show resonate, but in an era when anti-Asian racism is on the rise, and as Australia’s relationship with its largest trading partner continues to deteriorate, it sometimes feels like Chinese Australians have become defined by being trapped between two countries, with our belonging a constant question. And “New Gold Mountain” offers a new — or rather, an old — perspective on the issue, reminding us that, while tense race relations are nothing new, neither are the contributions made by Chinese people in Australia for over 200 years.
The four-part mini-series, which premiered this week, is based on true and untold stories from Australia’s goldfields in the 1850s, primarily about the 24,000 Chinese miners who came to Victoria to try their luck, but also about women running newspapers, Indigenous trackers, and others. Though it is primarily a murder mystery, race and social roles are undercurrents informing characters’ actions and interactions, and the story has piqued the interest of those who have traditionally been underrepresented in depictions of Australia’s history.
“The gold rush is such a powerful and classic Australian story,” said Corrie Chen, the show’s director. “In many ways, that moment was the origin story of multiculturalism in this country.”
“Chinese people are part of Australia’s foundational story,” Ms. Chen, who was born in Taiwan and grew up in Australia, added. “We’ve been here almost as long as white settlers.” We should have had a better chance of imprinting that on the Australian psyche, but we didn’t.”
The history of Chinese miners is usually best known – if at all – through racist attacks on the goldfields, such as the Buckland and Lambing Flat riots. However, as “New Gold Mountain” demonstrates, they were also actively lobbying against discriminatory policies, navigating complex relationships with their Chinese backers, and wearing cowboy hats and being detectives — the play’s main character, Shing, is based on the real-life Fook Shing, Victoria’s first Chinese detective.
On the real goldfields, as in the show, Fook Shing served as a liaison between the authorities and the Chinese community while also running a successful theater and brickworks. According to one historian, “he kept a pistol under his pillow for when extralegal methods were required to protect his followers because he was wealthy, connected, and well represented in court.”
When Chinese miners left the goldfields to settle in Melbourne’s Chinatown, Fook Shing followed, eventually becoming a member of the Victoria police and in charge of policing the Chinese community.
It would have been a position with status and recognition, but Ms. Chen believes it would have been difficult: “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 your birth country.”
This is portrayed in the show by a morally ambiguous character whose desire for recognition and acceptance by the British upper class sometimes clashes with his desire to protect his own community. More broadly, “New Gold Mountain” is a story about people trying to carve out a place for themselves in an unfamiliar, often hostile environment in any 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 those in power to get ahead, sometimes at the expense of others.
“What was very relatable and the motivational fuel of the show was the ambition and desperation of the Chinese miners coming here,” Ms. Chen said, referring to the Chinese diaspora’s experience of assimilation to this day.
“I think one of the big questions for Shing, and one of the show’s big questions, is how do you fit into this country and how do you belong in this country?” That’s something migrants have to deal with their entire lives: “How do you keep that duality in balance with your desire to truly belong to a community?”