Digging up Chinese history

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 August, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 August, 1998, 12:00am

Nobody knows, with any accuracy, how many young Chinese last century packed meagre possessions into cloth bags and headed optimistically for the great gold rushes of Australia. There were, certainly, many thousands; in the tropical ravines of the Palmer River in north Queensland, a government survey showed in 1875 that 17,000 of the 20,000 diggers were Cantonese.

Nobody knows, either, how many died. Hundreds, certainly, many of whom were hunted by Aboriginals. Still more perished of exhaustion, starvation and disease.

And nobody has ever tried to trace the number who returned home to their native villages with sufficient gold dust to buy land, a house and a wife.

Larry Zetlin, a Beijing-born, Brisbane-based independent television producer, hopes to answer these and other questions about the great gold rushes of the last century. In conjunction with Shanghai Television, he is working on a special documentary which will be screened in both languages in both countries. It is a joint venture that will probe the often-delicate, largely ignored drama of a mass movement of desperate young men from the poverty-stricken villages of southern China to a savage and untamed land. In the corners of graveyards where men once dug for gold, there are humble blocks of stone bearing the word 'Chinaman'.

Many of the Chinese who flocked with such enthusiasm to the diggings died in Australia. Most went home, a pitiful few of whom with the fortunes of which they dreamed. Some stayed on in Australia, despite an era of prejudice and mistrust, to form the kernel of modern Australian-Chinese society.

Scattered over 3,000 kilometres of the eastern Australian seaboard from lonely bushland shrines in Arnhem Land south to proud museums in Melbourne, the hunters of gold have left their mark.

Zetlin and his joint-venture television team and researchers will be following in their footsteps. The first wave of Chinese prospectors swarmed into the goldfields of Ballarat and Bendigo in the 1850s. There were other finds in different states, but the most dramatic came in the remote tropical rainforests of the Palmer River, the legendary River of Gold, in the far north of Queensland. The final wave came in the Northern Territory in 1890; one result of that is the large Chinese and mixed Asian population in Darwin, a city that has had two ethnic Chinese mayors.

The tale of the gold rushes is a story of high adventure and tragedy. It mixes greed and passion, persecution and danger. At Cooktown at the height of the Palmer River madness, there were 64 licensed pubs, countless shanties that sold booze and numerous brothels catering to Chinese and Europeans. There were drug dens and gambling halls. Chinese faced many perils including gold robbers, killers, racial hatred and the eternal threat of being speared and eaten by the savage local tribes.

Zetlin is the ideal man to capture this adventurous age on film. He has a solid track record of working with Beijing and Shanghai television. His family, Russian-Jewish fur traders, fled the Soviet revolution and the vicious civil war in Siberia. He grew up in Tianjin and went to St John's, the famous institute in Shanghai which educated a generation of many races.

In 1951, when most foreigners left the mainland, his family arrived in Australia. Larry was aged seven and fluent in Putonghua. Today, he has lost the language, but when he first returned to China in 1987 (to film a wildlife documentary in Qinghai province) he felt he had returned home. He's been going back ever since.

His firm, Gulliver Media Australia, has made numerous wildlife documentaries and has produced joint-venture films about environmental matters with Chinese partners. He has close relations with organisations such as Beijing's Science and Educational Institute as well as China Central Television, with whom he has made short science-oriented programmes.

A major current project is a seven-part series of hour-long shows on bio-diversity, an educational thrust which will hopefully aid in protecting endangered species.

As a former Australian Broadcasting Corporation cameraman, the technicalities of working with Chinese TV stations come easy to him. He has helped numerous Chinese documentary-makers who have filmed in Australia, particularly doing programmes with an environmental thrust.

His ambitious documentary on the history of the Chinese in Australia, which will be directed by prominent Australian television director Blair Roots, is being done in conjunction with Shanghai Television.

Zetlin contends most research on Chinese in Australia has been done from a European point of view. He and his colleagues want to tell the story through Chinese eyes.

The technique will be to follow a well-known Chinese television personality as she visits the ghost-towns and deserted creekbeds where the gold prospectors sought their fortunes. The traces they left behind will illustrate their untold fate.

There are scraps of documents that vividly illustrate the feelings of the era. Newspaper clippings of the time tell of a notice pinned on a tree alongside a track leading to the fabulous diggings on the Palmer River.

It read: 'Any Chinaman found higher up this creek will be instantly seized and hanged until he is dead.' To protect themselves, they built wooden forts; Zetlin will reconstruct the fortifications.