160 years on, apology for a racist tax on Chinese in Australia

Government of Victoria state says a belated sorry to immigrants of the mid-19th century

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 May, 2017, 11:15pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 May, 2017, 11:15pm

The Chinese community in ­Australia has applauded an apology by the government of Victoria for a racist tax levied on immigrants more than a century ago, calling it a step towards eliminating the discrimination that continues to this day.

State Premier Daniel Andrews issued the apology on the steps of the Parliament of Victoria on Thursday after meeting Chinese community leaders.

“It is never too late to say sorry,” Andrews said, according to a video posted on the Weibo account of Australian television network SBS.

“To every Chinese Victorian, on behalf of the Victorian Parliament, on behalf of the Victorian government, I express our deepest sorrow and I say to you, we are profoundly sorry.”

The taxation policy dates to the middle of the 19th century when a steady stream of Chinese, many from Guangdong province, arrived to work in the goldfields of New South Wales and Victoria.

Their numbers became so great that in 1851 the Victorian government passed the Immigration Restriction Act, which levied a £10 tax on every arrival at the state’s ports. The act also capped the total number of arrivals by ship.

To avoid the tax, thousands of Chinese disembarked in South Australia and made a 500km trek to Victoria, in a journey that became known as the “walk from Robe”, a reference to the fishing port of the same name in South Australia. Many died of starvation or exhaustion along the way.

China was the second biggest source of immigrants to the state after Britain during the period. By 1861 there were more than 24,000 Chinese immigrants on the Victorian goldfields and 11,000 on the ones in New South Wales.

A group of Chinese Australians re-enacted the journey starting in Robe on May 6.

They arrived at the parliament building in the state capital of Melbourne shortly before Andrews issued the apology, according to SBS.

Huang Zhuang, president of the Australia Guangdong Overseas Friendship Association, said it was the first time a government official had apologised for the racist policy, an acknowledgment that was the result of a more powerful China and politically ­active Chinese community in Australia.

“We want our voice heard by the government. We want the unfair treatment endured by our ancestors to be addressed,” Huang said.

Qian Guiyuan, president of the Australia Guangdong Association NSW, said their Chinese ancestors had made significant contributions to local culture and economic development, yet their efforts had not been properly recognised and appreciated, which contributed to “biased opinions against Chinese today”.

“The later generations had to keep working hard to gain a respectable standing,” Qian said.

“We think, even though the discrimination happened 160 years ago, an official apology will help eliminate discrimination and racism today. It helps the Chinese community to boost their standing.”