By the 1850s, the opium wars had devastated China and brought the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) to the verge of collapse, while far to the south a gold rush had led to a period of unprecedented economic growth. Setting out towards a faraway fortune, nearly 40,000 Chinese men left home for “ Xin Jin Shan ”, or New Gold Mountain, also known as Australia. Highland towns such as Bendigo and Ballarat were full of new arrivals. Chinese immigrants proved highly adaptable in the booming state of Victoria , channelling moisture through drought-stricken soil to grow vegetables and hauling mining equipment over their shoulders in the absence of wheeled transport or load-bearing animals. But the Chinese miners were allowed on-site only after the British, Scottish and Germans had gouged the earth and sifted the creeks to their satisfaction. Things did not become easier or more equitable as the years passed, and racial tensions boiled over during the Lambing Flat riots of 1860, a series of mob attacks that saw Chinese men lose their braided hair, and sometimes their lives. This led not to the government passing laws to protect those under attack, but to the foundation of the White Australia policy: 1861’s Chinese Immigrants Regulation and Restriction Act. Just as Chinese have been unfairly associated with Covid-19 today , in the 19th century, they were regarded as spreaders of typhoid and smallpox, maligned through editorial cartoons in major news outlets, such as The Mongolian Octopus – His Grip On Australia , by Phil May, published in The Bulletin in 1886. Gold mining was understood to be men’s work, and in the 1857 Victoria census, only three Chinese women were recorded. And so, in the early years of the gold rush, there were an estimated 2,000 legal marriages between Chinese men and white Australian women. By 1878, likely owing to anti race-mixing rallies, the next two decades had registered only 181 new Chinese-Australian marriages. An 1899 article in The Age referred to mixed-race people as “Mongrelia”, “a low type of humanity” and in senate debates, future Australian prime minister George Reid argued that, “Australian blood shall not assume the darker hues”, and anti-immigration activist Senator Staniforth Smith warned against not only new, non-white arrivals, but called for interracial mixing to be banned for “scientific” reasons. “We do not disparage oil and water by saying they will not mix,” he said, “and we do not disparage the Chinese or other coloured races by saying that they cannot mix with us. We know from the teachings of science that they cannot.” In 1864, Wong Ah Sat , a Victoria gold miner from Zhongshan, in the Pearl River Delta , met Amelia Elizabeth Hackney, the daughter of a wealthy English family, in Bathurst. Hackney’s family were less than impressed and, on her wedding day, the bride’s brothers tried to track the couple down and halt proceedings. “Even if there was disapproval at the beginning, it seems that over the years there were good relations between the families,” says 69-year-old Dawn Wong, the couple’s great-granddaughter. “The couple had 10 children, nine of whom survived, and all were given English names with both parents’ surnames.” A lawyer dealing in wills and estates on Sydney’s northern beaches, Wong is fascinated by family history, and shares a letter Hackney wrote to her father that indicates “the stress and emotional turmoil she was experiencing at the time”, referring to her husband as “Sandy”. Wong is a member of the Chinese Australian Historical Society, and secretary for the Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee. Her grandmother, Ethel Wong, was the granddaughter of Ellen Connell, who was among the more than 4,000 orphan girls brought to Australia from Ireland between 1849 and 1951, at the end of the potato famine. For most of her family, Dawn Wong says, “Within the space of one generation [they were] absorbed into the Australian community” – her own father first tried Chinese food at the age of 70 – “and no one spoke or read Chinese, or discussed their Chinese heritage . Why are Chinese-Australians having their national loyalty questioned? They may have looked different but by the next generation, this difference had pretty much disappeared. We were simply Australians with a Chinese surname.” She recalls an occasion when “one fair-haired, blue-eyed Wong cousin came home from school asking her parents why the kids in the playground called her ‘Ching Chong Chinaman’. They rapidly changed the subject.” The first of what is now seven generations in Australia, Wong Ah Sat thrived in spite of white society’s challenges. He went on to own 1,200 hectares of land in Bolong, and established The Wong Sat store, which stocked silk from Switzerland, crayons from the United States and shotguns from Britain. The Wongs fulfilled mail orders for Sydney’s largest department stores and offered interest-free credit for customers awaiting the proceeds from wool sales. After Ah Sat’s death, in 1916, Amelia shut up shop. No one can say for sure why, but after a half-century of business, the doors were locked and did not reopen for nearly a century. “The combination of personal and commercial items and photographs gives a sense of the family’s success in running the general store and in being an ongoing part of Bolong society,” says Anni Turnbull, a curator at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS), in Sydney, which acquired the store’s contents in the early 2000s. A series of photos by two of Ah Sat and Amelia’s children, Henry Wong and Amelia Eve Wong, was also donated. The siblings were in-demand portrait photographers in the region between 1890 and 1920, developing hundreds of prints from glass-plate negatives capturing pastoral scenes of sheep stations and bullock-drawn wagons, as well as portraits of their neighbours and their brother Thomas Hackney Wong, Dawn Wong’s grandfather. “General stores were a vital part of regional communities that developed through Australia in the 19th century,” says Turnbull. “They were the link between the communities, the city and overseas markets.” And the Wongs were far from alone in their endeavours. Another entrepreneurial mixed-race family was headed by Quong Tart, a successful Sydney merchant raised in the goldfields by a local family. He was known for his sharp dress sense, elegant tea stores and anti-opium campaigning . Since he advocated for the rights of Chinese immigrants while also creating economic opportunities for white Australians, he was well regarded by all. In 1883, The Bulletin named him “the only popular Chinese man in New South Wales”. In 1886, Quong Tart married Margaret Scarlett and they had six children, who enjoyed a privileged life despite being of mixed-race heritage at the peak of “Australia for the White Man”. Unlike the Wongs, the family maintained a strong connection to their Chinese heritage through relations, professional contacts and even the Emperor Guangxu , with Quong Tart returning to China on three occasions. In January 1888, the emperor appointed him a mandarin of the fifth degree – a designated imperial official – for his work in advocating and translating for Chinese people in Australia. On an 1894 visit, Margaret and their three eldest children accompanied Quong Tart. Throughout their marriage, Margaret embraced the heritage of her husband and children by wearing traditional Chinese clothing . A robe she wore and an elaborate headdress are now on display in the MAAS. The socio-economic status of these two families made them a model minority – immigrants who gained social acceptance through hard work and exceptional achievement. But while the stereotype of Asian people as poised to excel might appear to be an upgrade from racist 19th century editorial cartoons, it masks the realities of their experiences. Recently, the internalisation of this expectation to be a model minority has been linked to depression and anxiety . Chinese-Australians in the early 20th century faced similar pressures. Military service was the mark of a patriot – another trait that upholds the model minority trope – a way to pour sacrifice into a country that had passed laws to ensure their exclusion. When Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, Australia was called to battle, but the enlistment requirements contained in The Defence Act 1909 dictated that people who were “not substantially of European origin or descent” were barred from service. And yet many Chinese-Australians were determined to fight. Military service was an opportunity to forge an identity and find a community that did not hinge solely on race. Having been rejected in 1915, Thomas William Ah Chow was accepted into the army two years later, when it desperately needed reinforcements because of casualties suffered. Many of the estimated 213 Chinese-Australians who served in the first world war had similar experiences. In 1917, the Defence Act 1909 was revised to allow for people of mixed racial ancestry – defined in legislation as “half-castes” – to enlist if one of their parents was of European heritage. In this sense, mixed-race Chinese-Australians had an advantage over individuals with two Chinese parents. This small privilege, of being born half white, meant they were subjected to a medical test to show they were “substantially European”. The four sons of Chin Lang Tip, a gardener from China, and Mary Ann, an Australian woman, all enlisted and served during the war. Twenty-seven-year-old Henry Lang Tip kept a diary of his service between 1916 and 1918, writing of homesickness – “east, west – home’s best” – being “burned brown as a berry” in Egypt, and his fears that mail from his future wife, Eileen, had been lost in the post. The most well known Chinese-Australian serviceman was “picturesque man-killer” William “Billy” Edward Sing . The subject of a biography, novel and a television miniseries – in which his character was whitewashed – he is considered to have been Australia’s deadliest military sniper. Raised by his Chinese father and English mother on a grazing property in Clermont, Queensland, “Billy received recognition in primary school for ‘general proficiency’ in Year 2 but there was at least one complaint from a white mother to the school board about this,” says Michael Kelly, a military historian at the Australian War Memorial. “No doubt Billy experienced racism growing up, but he was very adaptable. He used the fact his mother was white to his advantage.” And it was not just Sing’s European ancestry that bolstered his entry into the military. By the age of 10, he was a “budding bushman”, picking off kangaroos with his rifle. In 1916, Sing was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery at Gallipoli. In 1918, he received the Belgian Croix de Guerre. “There were any number of crack shots in the AIF [Australian Imperial Force], but Billy was one apart,” says Kelly. “He is said to have killed 201 Ottoman soldiers while at Gallipoli, which saw him receive great attention from the commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, General Sir Ian Hamilton.” Sing returned to Queensland in July 1918 and underwent a difficult transition into civilian life. While he was recognised as a war hero, he also ran a string of failed businesses and struggled with alcoholism. Eventually, he became as well-known for his drinking as for being a crack shot. He died in a Brisbane boarding house at the age of 57. History disproportionately favours stories of success, or in this case, first-rate snipers and the retail entrepreneurs. Sing is remembered as a military hero, despite his struggles; the Wongs and the Quong Tarts as examples of successful families. But many of Australia’s early mixed-race families did not experience upwards mobility. They lived on the margins of a racist society. Undocumented in history, it is difficult to know what challenges these families faced as they navigated everyday life. To assume a more tangible place in society, people were pressured to favour one heritage over the other. During the 19th century, some parents sent their children to live with distant relatives in China, to have a traditional Chinese upbringing. Many of these children eventually returned to Australia, bringing with them a strong Chinese cultural identity, and their own children reflected the interracial mixing that white Australia had so long feared. While attitudes towards Asians and those of mixed-race have shifted over the years, discrimination remains ever-present. Accordingly to a survey by independent think tank the Lowy Institute, nearly one-fifth of Chinese-Australians say they have been threatened or attacked during the pandemic because of their heritage , reminding us of the fragility of acceptance, the challenges Australia’s early Chinese immigrants faced, and how progress can just as quickly recede.